Interviews

A Life in Activism and Comics: An Interview with Joyce Brabner

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Joyce Brabner, drawn by artist Gerta Opakaru (image courtesy Joyce Brabner and Gerta Opakaru)

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS — There’s a good chance that if you think you know Joyce Brabner, you’re picturing actress Hope Davis: a chronically serious woman whose small face is hidden behind a heavy head of long brown hair and big, round glasses. In reality, Brabner’s hair hasn’t been that long for a while, and she is serious, but not that serious, she tells me. Soon into our conversation, I can see what she means: Brabner doesn’t smile much, but she has wry sense of humor. She speaks for stretches of time, in paragraphs and pages, but peppered throughout are one-liners that — as a journalist, at least — you know immediately you need to get down. Comments like “I had to wade through a lot of sticky testosterone to get to where I am,” which is not only vivid enough to call up something surreal, but also funny, because it’s true.

Brabner is best known as the wife and supporting force of comics legend Harvey Pekar, whose long-running series, American Splendor, rewrote the rules of what comics could be. That’s a role she took very seriously throughout their 26 years of married life, especially when Pekar became ill, three times, with cancer. But Brabner is also a creator in her own right: Before meeting Harvey, she ran cultural programs for prisoners and a theater; she’s made costumes and comics and been a writer her whole life. (And she maintains a glorious garden, I’m told.) Her work is less well-known and, in a way, less public than Pekar’s, but at the same time carries a sense of public engagement that his never did. Pekar’s work was landmark for being autobiographical; he stayed mostly close to home, looking inward and at his immediate surroundings for inspiration. Brabner, on the other hand, is an activist. She looks out, well beyond the confines of Cleveland Heights, to make work that’s capital-p Political. Her published comics include Real War Stories (1987), a book of counter-army propaganda that tells the stories of Vietnam vets; Brought to Light (1988), two volumes disclosing the CIA’s covert involvement in political affairs around the world; and Second Avenue Caper (2014), the story of how a group of artists and activists in New York City attempted to fight AIDS in the early years of the epidemic.

A cartoon by Morgan Pielli for the comixcast RNC (image via comixcast.com)
A cartoon by Morgan Pielli for Comixcast RNC 2016 (image via comixcast.com)

Brabner’s latest endeavor is not a book but a campaign: she’s bringing comics artists to Cleveland to report on and draw the activities surrounding the Republican National Convention, with a special focus on Trump. Pieces will be posted online in real time as a “comixcast,” as Brabner calls it, beginning this weekend with the alternative People’s Justice and Peace Convention and continuing next week as the Republicans take over downtown. Participating artists include Katie Fricas, Ted Rall, Vishavjit Singh, Seth Tobacman, and others, all of whom Brabner is housing, feeding, and attempting to guide as they navigate the conventions and the city. To do that, and in order to comixcast again the following week from the Democratic National Convention, she continues to raise money online. As she said, “Protective gear costs.”

Brabner and I met last month when the comixcast was still the germ of an idea, a mere two days after she had conceived it. I was in Cleveland as the art-writer-in-residence at SPACES and called her up to ask if we could talk. She instructed me to meet her at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, in front of a memorial statue and desk that she’d gotten installed in 2012 in honor of Pekar, who had loved the library and worked there often. I could tell that Brabner loved it too; when she arrived, the first thing she wanted to do was walk me around the place, showing me its many resources and charms. Only after that was done could we sit down to talk — about her career, Harvey, comics, feminism, and much, much more.

*   *   *

Jillian Steinhauer: Let me give you a little bit of background on where I’m coming from: I’ve been covering comics for about 10 years. It’s not my primary thing. I do a lot of art stuff, but I read a lot of comics.

Joyce Brabner: Comics aren’t my primary thing either. Or, as [comics artist] Dean Haspiel said, “You don’t have to make comics. You have a life.” I’d so much rather show you my garden.

JS: I would love to see your garden. But I think a lot about art and activism, and so I find your work really interesting. I’d love to talk to you about it.

JB: All right. Well, I’m an activist, and I’ve been one since I was 15 and something made me so angry that I developed a voice and stood up and did something. While we made it look kind of funny in the movies, I was pretty effective in working on feminist issues and with people in prison.

So, when I married Harvey, I had this great job that the commissioner and the governor had created for me — I was doing cultural programming in support of treatment objectives. I started using theater and some other stuff. If a guard said to me, “We have a problem because these older guys are getting pushed off the basketball court by the young jitterbug,” that was time for the master’s chess championship with prizes. The women’s prison was unfit to live in, so I had a two-year grant to redesign the prison by creating collapsible furniture out of cardboard and things they had — a stray cubby, a desk, a chair. In the women’s prison we did stuff like introduce carpentry and pave the way for women getting ready for hard-hat occupations when they got out.

JS: Where was this?

JB: This was all in Delaware. I was asked to be an advisor to Joe Biden on corrections, and I held a commission from Pete du Pont. I have a talent for getting different groups of people working together, and I have a talent for seeing systems — whole systems — and putting things together quickly. That’s how I made all of that work.

When I married Harvey, the first thing I did was relax, because I wasn’t really in the public eye.

JS: You also moved to Cleveland.

Harvey Pekar’s memorial statue, designed by Justin Coulter, and desk at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Harvey Pekar’s memorial statue, designed by Justin Coulter, and desk at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

JB: Yeah, I moved to Cleveland. I offered to support him, but he was too entrenched and really wary. He didn’t expect a relationship with a woman to succeed. I’m the real goods. I’m loyal. We talked about the Alzheimer’s [that ran in Pekar’s family], and I said, “I’ll manage. I’ve managed worse before.”

JS: You seem good at managing.

JB: Yeah. That’s the one thing I found out … Mentors helped from time to time, for short periods, but a lot of time mentors didn’t have the class background or understanding. I’m from a family that started down here [gestures below waist] but accelerated really quickly by way of higher education. In fact, my dad became a PhD professor, but where we started from was him being a guy with a $500 scholarship to Yale that the city wanted to take away because it would be a waste on a boy from that kind of family. It was rocky.

JS: It sounds it.

JB: My mother’s situation is she’s a brilliant autodidact who did everything for the library — which is why we love libraries. She couldn’t figure out how she was going to feed her large family. I’m the oldest of a whole lot of kids. She sat there and said, “OK, I don’t have enough money to feed my kids, but there are people in other countries who are poorer than we are who do things like hard labor, and they eat and they work.”

She began to study other kinds of foods and nutrition. What today is called “peasant cuisine” — the quinoa and grains and stuff like that — well, there are the Brabner kids eating meals of kidney beans and cottage cheese together because she figured out what was protein and made it all creative and fun. That woman could give you potatoes every day of the week and be different. The trick was — and I’ll tell the world — get a tiny bit of money, go to those dark stores and, in the back, buy some kind of spice, something that you can just keep flavoring your ramen or rice with.

Going to libraries for help was a core part of my existence, going there for sanctuary. I had no problem with somebody like Harvey, who was self-educated without a formal education. In fact, I respected him more. I just have some degree, a BA with high honors or something, from a land-grant university. At different times people tried to arrange for me to go to law school or something else. I said no. I need to have a couple of things, and these were all articulated when I was 15. I kept a diary all the time.

JS: Always a writer.

JB: Yeah, that’s it. The first thing I ever wrote was “Baby in the Rosebush” — a story I narrated to my mother after cutting out some pictures of a little baby. I had just gotten a baby sister, and the baby [in the story] crawls into the rosebush and goes, “Ow ow.” Mother goes, “Oh oh.” At that time I was writing what I had been given, which was children’s picture books. I soon switched over to a more sophisticated narrative form. I was working with words and pictures.

JS: That’s a comic.

JB: Well, comics were fascinating to me. I had a cousin who had a collection of them, and we would hide from the grownups and read these things. We both swore we would grow up to be hermits and just read books. Comics were interesting and cool, but what I really liked was Mad magazine that showed adults doing strange things. There I am, eight years old, looking at JFK and Khrushchev dancing together to West Side Story.

Alright, now here are the things: I wanted to do something for social change. You know, something for good. To put forward rather than take away. I wanted — and this was just too early for the punks — a purple mustache tattoo like the hairy Ainu, which would guarantee I would never be able to be employed as a sales clerk selling things I didn’t want. It later occurred to me that I could just not take those jobs. I would never have debt, because when you come from a poverty background that really can scare the shit out of you. I would, if I ever got that door open — this was important — I would hold the door open for as long as I could for anybody to come in behind me.

Harvey was the same way, because our attitudes about celebrity, and particularly mine, is that celebrity is only good if it gets you your next job and lets you get your buddy hired. Otherwise it just means a bunch of assholes know your name. It doesn’t mean money. Money doesn’t mean power. It doesn’t really mean security.

I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know how I made it happen. I don’t know how I got to be somebody who owns a house. I don’t know how I got to be somebody who has a shelf full of books. I don’t know how I got to be somebody who people can look up and see a picture of me and my name. I can look backwards and say, well, I was a case worker. I felt myself burning out. When I burned out, I joined my friend who was into comics, Tom Watkins, and I made monster costumes and ran a cinematheque and did costumes for John Waters and all this other creative stuff to let that other side of my brain relax. When I’m not doing the writing stuff, I’m making arts or pictures or things.

JS: It’s great that you have both sides of your brain like that.

JB: Everybody does. Everybody can do these things; they just need to be encouraged. Fortunately, I came from a family where we made our own toys and fun. So, the thing is, I don’t know how I got here. But if I did get here, maybe I know what I’m doing. If I can get you through here, then yeah, maybe I really know what I’m doing. And the more I increase the chances that I know what I’m doing, the safer I’m probably going to be, because life is going to continue to throw me all kinds of curve balls and disasters.

Understanding feminism, well, I figured that out when I was about 14 or 15. There’s this lovely passage [in my diary] in which I’m writing — I think it’s 1966 or 1967 — “I have been chosen to be the assistant to the student producer of the high school play.” Now he was a pretentious little soot who — I am not kidding — showed up in jodhpurs and said things like, “People, people,” and kept referring back to his experience in summer stock. He would constantly throw tantrums. And I said, “My job is to keep the great man calm so that he can invent, he can create. My job is to bring him Cokes.” And I wrote down, “This sucks. I should have this job. What we really need are suffragists.” Of course, later, women’s liberation came on and helped me articulate that.

JS: That’s really impressive for a 15-year-old. I was not that aware when I was 15.

JB: When you’re a loner, when you’re moving from a different place every year and your parents are kind of … hiding, you can get pretty deep down inside yourself.

JS: We left off at you marrying Harvey. Was he the reason you started making comics?

The cover of 'Real War Stories'
The cover of ‘Real War Stories’

JB: Well, no, I read his comics. I was not really emotionally attached to comics. One day [after she and Harvey were married] a woman named Lou Ann Merkle, who was herself an artist, came to Harvey for advice about printing a collection of comics about US militarism that she wanted to hand out to kids at schools, on behalf of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. We had just begun the all-volunteer army, and there was a very sophisticated ad campaign.

Harvey was telling her where he got things printed and the process, which … God, the internet would have made it so much easier. In those days it was: get the film shot at one place, get the guts shot at a press that did newspapers, bring those to a magazine place, have them bound. Being careful, because interfiled in every 25 pages they put whatever else they were printing, which was usually stuff like North Coast Swinger. If you weren’t careful, American Splendor would go out with pictures of Clevelanders showing their boobs and asking for dates.

Anyway, he was explaining that and — look, I told you. I have a talent. I see whole systems. I said, “This is totally wrong.”

JS: I’m sure she appreciated that.

JB: Well, Harvey said, “Listen to her. She’s smart.” I said, “This is totally wrong and I’ll tell you why and I’ll help you.” Kids are being seduced because of economic insecurity. If you give them something in newsprint with scratchy, artsy, underground illustration, and courier typeface pasted in, and put it up against the flashy recruitment flyers, they’re going to think, “Well, you’re not an economic success. You can’t even afford to print good media.”

I said, what we can do instead is make comics, and the writing will be to journalistic standards. We’ll take these storytellers, people Lou Ann knew like combat vets, and I said, “I can get the guys that do Batman and Superman to draw this stuff. I can get this different group to work.” Now here’s the problem: Batman and Superman people had been trying to do significant comics, and they had failed miserably, because they had no clue about the material. One case was Superman against the famine in Biafra, where no Biafrans have any voices; they’re just these big-eyed baby dolls. Famine is like a ghost. You don’t talk about anything like warlords or grain shortage; it just sort of happens. In the end, Superman is overwhelmed and says, “It will only be cured if we all work together.”

What I did was, because of my teaching abilities, I made them all [the comics artists] understand it. I said, “You have the ability to sell the same story every month. Flying guy saves world. I’m going to give you all the details, but I want you to do it in a creative way and use your storytelling thing.”

That comic book looked good. 65,000 copies went out, and I still, to this day, hear from people who say, “I read it and I changed my mind about how I was going to get my college money.”

JS: That’s amazing. So what was next?

JB: Brought to Light, the Iran-Contra book.

JS: Who initiated that? Was it your idea?

JB: Yeah, what happened was, Danny Sheehan was speaking around the country. I watched the way he was dealing with audiences, and I saw that there are two ways to appeal to people. One was this whole conspiracy, all these evil people, which is the side that Alan took. [Brought to Light is comprised of two books, one by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, the other by Brabner and Tom Yeates]. The other was the down-to-earth story of these two journalists who were trying to find out how they got hurt. I took that.

JS: After Brought to Light there was a bit of a break, right?

JB: Well, Harvey had cancer. It was really horrible and much worse than anybody knew. Then we did Our Cancer Year.

JS: What was it like collaborating? I know you were so well-matched, but also, you seem to look out and he looked in.

JB: Well, first of all, when you read the book without knowing who Harvey or Joyce are, you can see that it really is by Joyce Brabner with Harvey. But the joke we had was: it’s Harvey’s cancer. Harvey had to shake and bake, and I helped. The truth is he didn’t really remember a whole lot of stuff in order to write about it. He was terribly ill. We were trying to escape from a nightmare, but we’re there mining our misery for dramatic purpose.

The thing is, it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to anybody. We knew. Our friends had been dying of AIDS. I had been dealing with kids from the Khmer Rouge. We knew he had a pretty good chance of making it if we could just keep him in treatment. He freaked out in the middle. That’s kind of when the Alzheimer’s was starting to tip in. He was hallucinating and everything else. I thought, you know, I may not get him back. There was nobody to help me or anything.

A plaque dedicated to Harvey at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library
A photo and plaque dedicated to Harvey at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library (click to enlarge)

I didn’t handle the next cancer like that. The next one I made sure I had help. What would have been the third one — he died when he would have started treatment, and I don’t believe he would have survived the cancer. It would have been long, and he was deteriorating. It was kind of a thing he did by dying suddenly, but it was absolutely awful. No, no, no, no, he did not kill himself. No, dear internet, it was not assisted suicide. No, it wasn’t the psych drugs, because he got, like, a celebrity pass on the autopsy. What killed him was an overdose of these generic Excedrins that he was taking like mints, maybe five or six at a time, even though I hid them. I still found them, behind the pudding and in the basement.

JS: Oy.

JB: Well, he was nuts.

JS: Do you feel like you put your career on hold for a while?

JB: Did I put my writing career on hold? No. I say that I didn’t write during this time because any work that a woman does has value. I had this kid [their foster daughter, Danielle] who came to me with a lot of big needs, and I just stopped everything to help her out of some horrible stuff. And we toured and made a movie.

But any work a woman does has value. How many times does Patti Smith have to tell you guys that she was a musician even though she washed toilets? It’s just what I chose to do. What’s feminist is choice.

There’s other stuff that goes on, where people were harder on me about my work than on Harvey because I’m female. I don’t care. I’ll just keep working. Second Avenue Caper I had begun doing because Danielle was out of the house. It was also a story that I felt was imperative that be told. Ray [the protagonist of the book] was critically ill. I needed to get this out, and I needed to get money for him. It was important to get that book out, not just because of AIDS.

A panel from 'Second Avenue Caper,' written by Joyce Brabner and drawn by Mark Zingarelli
A panel from ‘Second Avenue Caper,’ written by Joyce Brabner and drawn by Mark Zingarelli (via adastracomix.com)

JS: Is there something that you think makes comics especially well-suited to this kind of work, to activism?

JB: Well, I tell people that they’re back-pocket documentaries, and I’m done before somebody has to rent a crane for a bird’s-eye shot. I tell them it’s what I have learned how to do. It’s something I value. I based my marriage on a comic book. I didn’t realize at the time I was looking at it that Harvey was single, but this thing that goes off in my head at different times said, this guy is going to be somehow important to you. I was open to writing to Harvey, and when I found myself sending him an order, I just threw out a question. He answered, and we did this correspondence.

Yeah, I value comics. Maybe it’s a family tradition. You can do anything with words and pictures. That’s the motto in our house — that and what I put on Harvey’s tombstone: “Life is about women, work, and being creative.” Life is about love, work, and making art.

JS: So, I saw a mysterious post on your Facebook page about a project for the Republication National Convention. Can you tell me what you’re working on?

A cartoon by Sikhtoons for the comixcast RNC (image via comixcast.com)
A cartoon by Vishavjit Singh for Comixcast RNC 2016 (image via comixcast.com)

JB: An elite multicultural crew of artists are coming here to make comics on a daily basis about the RNC. We will be comixcasting on a daily basis — making comics and posting them online. We’ll also be doing little flash YouTube videos of what we see and hear. Once we get the thing rolling, we are opening it up to worldwide comics artists and writers to send things through.

I’m lining up transportation, because I’m not saying we only want the big-ticket people — I want people chosen because of who they represent and who they understand. And there will be people that I will introduce them to, so if they want to go and talk to folks about the Tamir Rice shooting and what they expect from their candidates about Black Lives Matter … My job is to make sure that when these artists land here, they have a companion suitable for watching their back.

JS: You also mentioned another book you’re working on, with your collaborator in Albania, Gerta Opakaru.

JB: It’s called The Courage Party. I’ve had to walk away from a couple of publishers because, although they start off being warm and enthusiastic, they chicken out. Because this is a book for young people and their parents about sexual assault. It’s not a cute book with, “Don’t touch my bathing suit parts.” It’s got words like “stirrups,” “gynecologist,” “penis,” “vagina.” It explains, at a kid-appropriate level, the difference between sexual intercourse and sexual assault.

It’s a true story. After I rescued Danielle and brought her to Cleveland Heights, she went to play basketball one day. A big boy took over the game. He threw the basketball out in the woods and said, “Come on, let’s go get it.”

Now, I think he was expecting a marshmallow suburban kid, and she was tough as nails. So she fought back and ran directly home to me, screaming. She did everything right. I heard that note in her voice, and I knew immediately what had happened. You just know, woman to woman.

I also knew that however I presented myself was going to affect how she thought about the whole thing for the rest of her life. So I was completely calm. I told her she’s never a victim; she’s a survivor. I gave her a courage metal to wear around her neck. I also gave her a courage party. We invited our best women friends to come to it, to tell stories, and to listen.

It’s not just a comic book; it’s a hybrid, because it’s got text, illustration, sequential art. Everybody talks about trying to break the comics form. I would like to see illustrated children’s books that are not just these stupid little cartoony scribbles.

JS: What happened with Danielle’s case?

JB: The guy was identified. In the very end, the judge asked Danielle, “What do you want to do to this guy who hurt you so much?” She wasn’t prepared for that. “Could you maybe take away his radio-listening privileges for two weeks?” By that time, it had become bad behavior on a level that she understood. That’s when I knew I did it right.

She didn’t want to lock him up; she just wanted him to get the same kind of punishment she did if she did something wrong. That was OK. We put it where it was supposed to be. I used all the things that had hurt me to help her. That’s the kind of stuff I want to be doing.

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