Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2012

An exchange with Harvey Pekar’s widow

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 2:58 pm

Joyce Brabner

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:

Dear Joyce,

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,

Louis Proyect

This was her reply:

Louis,

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.

Joyce

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.

30 Comments »

  1. Her personality reminds me of the sound heard when you drive an axe into a side of beef.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 12, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  2. No wonder book publishing is in such dire straits, given all the money going down the drain paying the salaries of people like Joyce Brabner. Look forward to the serialization.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 12, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  3. And you didn’t even get a Dear Louis or Thank You from her.

    Narcissism and a desperate search for the next paycheck is endemic in professional arts circles, and clearly she thinks your motivation is – perhaps like hers – about money. i.e. projection. Hence the attempt to dig at you about missed cut checks.

    Comment by purple — August 12, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  4. Why does she–seemingly–find you “disagreeable, obstructionist, melodramatic, rude or tiresome”?

    Comment by Pandora — August 12, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

  5. Why does she–seemingly–find you “disagreeable, obstructionist, melodramatic, rude or tiresome”?

    I am not sure. Maybe 2 years ago when I contacted Random House a total of 2 times this was her idea of “obstructionist” and “rude”. I should have waited for an announcement on the Internet that “The Unrepentant Marxist” had just been published by Random House–maybe like in 2018 or so. Or maybe no announcement ever. It was like waiting for the Messiah. Sorry, I don’t like feeling so powerless. So I guess that makes me “disagreeable”. Too fucking bad.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 12, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  6. I heard Assad’s wife fled to Russia. Buy her a plane ticket to Damascus.

    Comment by Binh — August 12, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

  7. I bet she drove Harvey to an early grave.

    Comment by David Altman — August 12, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  8. I imagine that she was devoted to Harvey in her own way but I think that she must have been a pain in the ass much of the time as well. There’s that scene in “American Splendor” where Paul Giamatti playing Harvey tells Joyce to go out and get a job. My impression is that she has no idea of what is like to earn her own way. Only an idle busybody could try to lord it over someone like me. My biggest regret was not dumping this project long ago. I guess I am a glutton for punishment, as is clearly the case for anybody who would have stayed in the SWP for 11 years as I did.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 12, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  9. If the memoirs were those of a communist would it have been published? It doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing a company would publish. I wonder if I’ll ever suffer headaches at the hands of a publishing house.

    Comment by Pandora — August 12, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

  10. No wonder book publishing is in such dire straits, given all the money going down the drain paying the salaries of people like Joyce Brabner.

    Richard, Joyce was Harvey’s wife, not a Random House employee. That being said, what they all have in common is mammon-worshipping. These are people who care more about money than anything. Joyce had the nerve to tell me on the phone that she was a big-time radical because the FBI investigated her 20 years ago. These Walter Mitty fantasies of hers are funnier than anything that ever appeared in a comic book.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 12, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  11. Here’s the sort of memoir that Random House is far more interested in:

    http://www.randomhouse.com/book/161201/when-skateboards-will-be-free-by-said-sayrafiezadeh

    Here’s my comment on that trash:

    https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/said-sayrafiezadeh-david-horowitz-wannabe/

    Comment by louisproyect — August 12, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

  12. When I wrote my last comment that post of yours was precisely the one I had in mind. This kind of shit worries me because it would be nice, someday, to write something political, something radical–if ever I have the education and talent for it–but even if I did the point would largely be moot. A capitalist enterprise wouldn’t be interested on my hypothetical book detailing life in an American colony. Though they might be interested in one celebrating all the jobs brought to the island when they decided to use our land for testing–I think–Agent Orange.

    Comment by Pandora — August 12, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

  13. “Mommie dearest,” indeed. Though I wouldn’t dignify her with either “Mommie” or “dearest.” And darn! Now I want to see the unpublished comic book version of your memoir.

    Here’s a little levity in the memoir area for you:

    Comment by Jenell — August 13, 2012 @ 6:20 am

  14. Oh well, it wouldn’t take the levity link. It’s Roz Chast’s cartoon on the “Memoir Spectrum.”

    Comment by Jenell — August 13, 2012 @ 6:21 am

  15. Jenell, this is it:

    Comment by louisproyect — August 13, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  16. I am not sure how unfortunate Harvey is; at least he is now out of reach of that harridan.

    Yrs,
    One of the Two Thousand.

    Comment by Colin Brace — August 13, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  17. Louis, if you’re not already too disillusioned with this project, you should consider crowd-sourcing the funding on Kickstarter or a similar site. That way us 2,000 can pre-order the book and you can use our $35,000 or so to hire an artist and designer and get an alternative version self-published.

    Comment by justin — August 13, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  18. We know more about Pekar & Brabner than we would any other ordinary couple, from his autobio work. What we know is that they were lonely souls, somewhat compatible, and devoted to each other through a bout with cancer. It’s wrong for anyone reading about how shabbily she treated Lou to conclude Pekar would have been better off without her. The whole point of Pekar’s work is that life is struggle, not a reality show where we get to vote on the characters.

    Comment by Ethan Young — August 13, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  19. She reminds me of the branch organizer in the Sectarian Workers Party we had way back when.

    Comment by Tom Cod — August 14, 2012 @ 12:47 am

  20. It’s wrong for anyone reading about how shabbily she treated Lou to conclude Pekar would have been better off without her.

    Well, clearly she thinks that her role is to play Cerberus. It is too bad that the consequences of her action will be to deny the world the magnificent artwork of Summer McClinton who was Harvey’s greatest collaborator, as far as I am concerned–better even than R. Crumb. That’s what her pettiness and spite amounts to. Just because I am “melodramatic” and “rude” and had the gumption to write emails to Random House editors, she robs the world of some outstanding artwork as well as some income that I am sure she needs. Just to teach me a lesson. Sick, sick, sick.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 14, 2012 @ 1:19 am

  21. I see a plump Lady Macbeth cackling with evil in her own horror flick. Her venom-tipped pen–king sized–turns out sadistic lawyer’s letters one after the other. She can’t stop. Or sleep. In the small hours her pale, blood-drained hubby returns from the dead to haunt her. He wants a divorce.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 14, 2012 @ 2:23 am

  22. “…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.”

    Do you mean Palgrave Macmillan, Louis? St. Martin’s and Palgrave are both owned by Holtzbrinck/Macmillan and operate out of the Flatiron, but they do not have a common editorial/acquistions staff.

    I always felt that Joyce and Toby would make a better couple. 😉

    Comment by kjs — August 14, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

  23. Aside from being unbelievably rude, the woman is delusional. She cannot offer a work partly authored by you for sale and “cash the check” unless you have signed away your rights: if the work were ever released, you could live a life of ease by sueing the publisher. Even if you have signed away your intellectual rights, there is the possibility of being sued for libel. No sane publisher will risk that. This does not seem to be the case, as the woman obviously thinks that your IR will expire at your death; obviously, they don’t, they are inherited like the rest of your estate, and her plan would only work if you haveleft it to her in your last wills. Somebody whose sole source of income is her late husband’s IR should know that, but let’s move on.

    The “permissions customarily allowed to reviewers or scholars” is not hers to give, either, since this permission, fair use, is given by by law, not custom.

    I suggest you have these concepts written in an appropriately menacing way by a lawyer, and communicated to her officially. It will cost you some 500 $, and achieve nothing but freaking her out; however, there is a moral duty of freaking people like her out.

    Comment by communistscientist — April 25, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  24. there’s hope and ways to solve this problem! contact me!

    Comment by tara — August 31, 2013 @ 4:14 am

  25. […] And most importantly, Brabner told me in the phone call not to bother Random House or the book would never be published. She led stupid me to believe that she would be handling everything and that I jeopardized the book’s future by annoying Harvey’s editor there. So I took her at her word and stopped sending email to his editors asking for a status report, and left everything in good conscience to her. After a year elapsed, I discovered through the grapevine that they had abandoned plans to publish—probably on directions from her. When I emailed her for permission to serialize the book on my blog if and only if she had no plans to present to other publishers, she wrote back a nasty email basically telling me it was up to her what happened next and that I had to live with that. She warned me that if I divulged her email, that would be the end of the project. After four years of getting played for a sucker, that was it for me and I told her so. […]

    Pingback by A postscript on my work with Harvey Pekar | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 7, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  26. I must have missed something, If this book is your work with the collaboration of the artist, why does Joyce Brabner have anything to do with it? What would happen if you just had it published with someone else (granted, given the nature of the economy these days, that’s problematica.) Sorry, I just don’t understand.

    Comment by catherine podojil — October 7, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

  27. Catherine, the art work is part of Pekar’s estate since he had a written agreement with her. I have copyrighted the text but that doesn’t do me much good without new art work.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 7, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

  28. Was “the unrepentant marxist” ever published or posted anywhere? I found a drawing that I thought came from that comic, and I would love to read more. (It was a man sitting on a chair saying that: “in Capitalis America, there is an insane obsession with”…) It is unfortunate that Ms. Brabner had such a negative attitude.

    Comment by Geraldine — March 20, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

  29. I stumbled on this looking for info about Joyce Brabner who also treated me with such rudeness and contempt she drove me to tears. I committed the crime of getting a comics industry honor she wanted for herself. Being a true feminist, she then denounced me as a fucktoy for men. Because that was very feminist of her. On the one hand, I am happy to see her problems weren’t just with other women. On the other…sorry you had to put up with this awful, awful woman.

    Comment by Anonymous comics female — September 21, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

  30. Louis and Anonymous comics female (I’d love to know who you are!): I was also treated shabbily by Joyce Brabner and I’m currently writing about the incident in my memoir, due out in 2016. Tara Seibel sent me this link. You go, Tara!

    Comment by mswuff — January 30, 2015 @ 7:53 pm


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