Losing His Voice

Harvey Pekar's American Splendor Is Coming to a Movie Theater Near You. Why Can't the Pioneer of Autobiographical Comics Talk About It?

"Who is Harvey Pekar?" asks comic-book icon Harvey Pekar in "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," a 48-panel monologue devoted to the enduring mysteries of his unusual handle. Born in Cleveland in 1939, he is, or has been: a file clerk at the VA hospital there, a job he held for 37 years until retirement; a juvenile delinquent, college dropout, and failed army recruit; a jazz aficionado, critic, and record hustler; a Rust Belt anthropologist and antisocial shut-in; a "driven, compulsive mad Jew" (as friend and frequent collaborator R. Crumb calls him); an expansive talker, with a voice both sandpapered and musical; the son of immigrants from Bialystock; a cantankerous guest on Letterman; a book reviewer of zero pretense and maximum stamina who has braved seas of prose unleashed by the most daunting authors this side of Thomas Bernhard; a cancer survivor; a husband three times over; a guardian of a teenage girl; a loser; a mensch.

If you know any of this already, chances are it's because Pekar is, most famously, a legend of underground comics, thanks to his autobiographical series American Splendor. Carved from the pile of lived days, his stories range from the weighty to the evanescent, told with klieg-light honesty or just an ace reporter's ear for talk. Unhampered by his inability to draw, he scripts skeletal storyboards and enlists different illustrators to bring them to life, a self-portrait for four or 40 hands. It's a song of himself he's performed over the past 27 years, and it's a self laden with the techniques and inner-directed impulses of the most exacting of modern authors: self-pity and self-loathing, self-criticism and self-reference, self-consciousness above all. ("My main writing influences were prose fiction writers," he has said.)

Pekar's work "goes beyond documenting a life, into reflecting the art, reflecting the life, reflecting the art," says Four Walls Eight Windows publisher John Oakes, who has put out two American Splendor collections as well as the graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1994). A nearby object lesson in blurring the art-life border: Pekar has been the recipient of lavish praise in the Voice; he has contributed articles and comics here; and, in one angst-addled American Splendor story from 1983 (illustrated by Crumb), he portrays himself as so frustrated by the silence of an unnamed "assistant book editor" (to whom he has sent his comic book) that he punches the wall, face contorted in a rictus of pure Grub Street agony, as trapezoids of texts hem him in.

More than the sum of his serial selves, Pekar is now poised to become something altogether unexpected yet apropos: a movie star. In his comics, friends and co-workers regale him with jokes and stories, hoping he'll include them in his next book—a delightful jockeying for low-watt fame that Pekar turns into casual metafiction. But the Sundance-feted film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (opening August 15), may make him think twice before giving the poor mouth—or at least representing himself doing so. The movie stars the superbly hangdog Paul Giamatti as "our man" Harvey and the chameleonic Hope Davis as his wife (and Cancer co-writer) Joyce Brabner. It freely mingles model with mimic by bringing the real-life Harvey on screen. Though talk of an American Splendor movie had percolated for years—everyone from Jonathan Demme to Leonardo DiCaprio has shown an interest—and a stage adaptation played L.A. in 1990, Berman and Pulcini's playfully vertiginous take on Pekar's life and art is as faithful and entertaining as one could hope for.

Publisher Oakes sees in Pekar's stories a Beckettian sympathy for "the plight of the guy in the street, the person who's really down on his luck, the sense of 'Jesus, what else is going to fall on my head today?' " It's Pekar's stock-in-trade. Oakes muses wryly about the challenge in his friend's artistic future: "What's he going to do now that he's going to be a big success?"

The first issue of American Splendor cost $1 in 1976. Among the artists Pekar invited to illustrate it was fellow Clevelander Gary Dumm, who recalls being paid $50 per page. A co-worker of Pekar's had bought a silkscreen of Dumm's, featuring comic-strip pioneer E.C. Segar's Popeye underneath the immortal tautology "I Yam What I Yam." Pekar spotted it in her office and got in touch with Dumm; the two have worked together ever since. Dumm cites American Splendor's focus on the seemingly mundane as a precursor to reality TV, in its unflinching recording of Pekar's less than civilized moments. "That's what attracted me about Harvey's stuff—here he is in a story, acting like a shit, and it's in here." Indeed, a goofier Pekar might well have taken Popeye's credo as his own.

Frank Stack already had a reputation in underground comics before reading an early issue of American Splendor. Astonished by what he saw, he wrote a fan letter and soon joined the stable of Pekar depicters; he also executed the approximately 3,000 illustrations in Our Cancer Year, about Pekar's battle with lymphoma. He's in awe of not only Pekar's storytelling skill, but his determination: "Think of this guy who has the ego to write things about himself that most people would not write about—this strange confidence to see things clearly. Why in the world did he have that confidence? It had been failure after failure for him."

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