Back in 2008 the late Harvey Pekar stayed at my apartment for an evening. My old friend Paul Buhle, who had been collaborating on comic books with Harvey, had asked me to put him up while the two were in town to meet with publishers.
In the course of the evening I told him about growing up in the Catskills and joining the SWP in 1967, trying to get a job in industry, etc. People familiar with my writings know that I like to make jokes about my political experiences, sort of keeping in line with the title of an old Lester Young record, “Laughin’ to keep from cryin’”.
About 3 weeks later Harvey called me and asked if I would be willing to write all this up as a comic book memoir. He would use the artist Summer McClinton who he had been working with lately and spoke highly of.
I agreed to work on the project but told him from the outset that I had misgivings about print publishing after my experiences with blue-chip journals published by James O’Connor and Immanuel Wallerstein, as well as a humiliating experience with St. Martin’s Press involving their failure to respond to a submission for a book on Marxism and the American Indian that my friend Michael Perelman had recommended to his editor there.
I told Harvey repeatedly that I would have never approached an outfit like Random House if he weren’t involved. Don’t worry, he said, I have a contract for two books that will be coming out in 2009 or 2010 at the latest. One is Huntington, West Virginia “On the Fly”, the other will be yours. I figured that with his track record and the clout of a written contract, I would have no problem. I then spent 4 months writing a memoir geared to the comic book format, with a lot more dialog than I would have used ordinarily as well as a lot more jokes.
Unfortunately for me, and a lot more unfortunately for him, Harvey died on July 12, 2010. A NY Times article written in September about the The Unfinished Tale of an Unlikely Hero described two upcoming posthumous works coming out of Random House. One was “On the Fly” and the other was a guide to achieving a happy marriage, based on the Harvey Pekar-Joyce Brabner relationship. This made me feel anxious. What was the status of my memoir that should have come out already based on Harvey’s promise to me in 2008?
I contacted the artist I had worked with who said that she could put me in touch with Harvey’s editor at Random House. But first she had to get his clearance that it was okay for me to email him. When I heard that, a shiver went down my spine.
It probably would have made more sense for me to contact Joyce Brabner who had inherited Harvey’s work. I didn’t even raise that subject with the artist because the NY Times article described her as a willful and vindictive person:
Mr. Parker said he was contacted by Ms. Brabner, who wanted to “cut Tara out of the equation” of the Pekar Project’s work. Other people with direct knowledge of the project’s operations, but who did not want to speak for attribution for fear of offending Ms. Brabner, said she would not allow a book to be published if it included Ms. Seibel’s contributions.
(Seibel was an artist in Cleveland who Ms. Brabner regarded as a rival for Harvey’s affections.)
For approximately a year I tried in vain to get a status report from Random House. Were they going to publish the book or not? If not, I wanted to serialize it on my blog. After all, the title was “The Unrepentant Marxist”.
After one particularly frustrating experience with Harvey’s editor, I blogged about Random House and what a bunch of dirt-bags they were, informing my readers that it was owned by the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that had used Jewish slave labor under the Nazi regime.
About a week after this post appeared, I received a phone call from Joyce Brabner that demanded that I stop “bothering” Random House. If I didn’t behave myself, the work would never be published. It was like being told by your mom that if you didn’t clean your room, you would not be able to watch “Leave it to Beaver”—and the mom was Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest”.
Robert Crumb drawing of Harvey Pekar, as well as how I felt after getting a phone call from Joyce Brabner.
So I stopped “bothering” Random House for a year in the vain hope that somewhere along the line I would be given word about the progress or lack of progress on the memoir.
After finally learning that Random House had abandoned the project, I wrote Joyce Brabner:
I learned from Summer McClinton that Random House has abandoned plans to publish the memoir.
I have no idea what your plans are at this point but would simply request your permission to serialize it on my blog if you have no plans to shop to other publishers.
I know that you don’t like me and that nothing will change that but it would be a shame for the work to never see the light of day. I am sure that you can agree that Summer’s artwork is a delight and deserves to be seen. Also, even though the work is not about Harvey’s life, it will be of great interest to his fans, many of whom are readers of my blog. I see it as a contribution using the Internet along the same lines as what Jeff Newelt and others have worked on.
Thank you for your consideration,
This was her reply:
You may not publish, serialize or otherwise excerpt this work on the Internet or elsewhere.
I do not give you the permissions customarily allowed to reviewers or scholars.
That means you may not copy or post even one panel of this work, as you did in April. What you did there was illegal.
You may not print or circulate paper or electronic copies of the work in part or in whole.
I am willing to have one more conversation with you about the future of this project. If so, you will have to check your ego, listen to me with respect, accept responsibility for a good deal of the mess you created at Random House and in other ways co-operate and move forward, conducting yourself within guidelines I am willing to spell out to you: acceptable, professional and constructive behaviors that would be in the best interest of this project and would not compromise either of us– the only way you would get to see this work published in your lifetime.
If I find you disagreeable, obstructionist, melodramatic, rude or tiresome, I hold the book back until you are dead. Then I re-sell the book, cash the check and release it for publication or, if you outlast me, it gets published by the young woman we raised as our daughter, who will inherit our combined literary, etc. estates.
If you disclose the contents of this letter, especially in your blog, there will be no book. It’s no problem for me to resell the work. I’ve already had enough offers to be able to conduct an auction. However, you have been a real pain in the ass and I will not let you become my pain in the ass.
Bitch about me to your wife or girlfriend or best friend and get it out of your system. Then swallow a humble pill and if you think you can handle a phone call, as described, send me your phone number. You’re half way there, because you e-mailed me.
I should explain that the panel referred to in her email appears here. Apparently as is probably the case with the other readers who have registered three and a half million visits to my blog, Ms. Brabner finds me both reprehensible and irresistible.
Well, this is probably the right time to dump the project since Ms. Brabner’s “guidelines” make me feel like a disobedient chihuahua on Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” show who needs to be taught to be calm and submissive. Shhh, Louis, shhh. Arf-arf. In fact I had come within a hair’s breadth of telling Random House that I refused to give them permission to publish anything about my life several weeks after Brabner’s phone call. My old friend Richard Greener, author of the superb Locator series of novels that has been adapted for the Fox television network, told me that I should have done so much sooner to save myself the tsuris.
In a way it is too bad that she has chosen to provoke me into throwing the kill switch. Out of the tens of thousands of different people who have read my blog, I am willing to bet that maybe 2000 or so would have bought the memoir. Add to that Harvey’s fans who would have paid money to read a comic book in his name, you are talking about a pretty piece of change.
I imagine that Ms. Brabner thinks that being in print is supposed to provide some kind of validation, as clearly was the case with her late husband. However, I made a decision about 10 years ago to only write for my blog and grass roots online publications so I could care less about a comic book about my life being shit-canned. My validation comes from the praise I get from readers on my blog as well as the curses. Furthermore, I will be remembered mostly by my deeds after I am gone: the antiwar demonstrations I helped to build in the sixties and the brigades I helped send to Nicaragua and southern Africa. That is what I hope to be remembered for, not some comic book.
At any rate, I plan to serialize my own memoir dispensing with Summer McClinton’s artwork and including material that would have been unsuitable for a comic book, such as how to understand the Brenner thesis, my mother’s ultra-Zionism, and most importantly my secret for a happy marriage now in its 10th year with a Turkish Delight.