A Sundance prizewinner and the movie of the summer per a conclave of critics convened by Charlie Rose, American Splendor is a jazzy and humane synthesis of the comic books that Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar has for 25 years fashioned from the dross of his daily life. The movie, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is clever, engaging, and cannily faux populist. Might Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich drop his long-shot Seabiscuit strategy and hitch his campaign bandwagon to this more grittily inspirational tale of a local boy made good?
Originally produced for HBO, American Splendor—like Crumb, Ghost World, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys—represents the alt component of the current comic-book-to-movie craze. Pekar, in his work, has successfully transformed himself into a comic book character—hence the movie’s opening gag of having the child Harvey trick-or-treating, alongside two pint-size Batmen, as himself. The “Harvey Pekar” character’s irascible personality suggests a kinship to the troubled superheroes of the Marvel family. Indeed, like Stan Lee, Pekar writes but doesn’t draw; thanks to the various artists he employs, he’s open to interpretations ranging from wild-eyed Stanley Kowalski to R. Crumb’s unflatteringly generic raving crank.
The movie American Splendor is similarly predicated on multiple Harveys. Pekar narrates and explicates the action but is played, in a round-shouldered, glaring sulk spiced by an irresistible air of splenetic distraction, by Paul Giamatti. A record collector and aspiring jazz critic, this crabby kvetch works as a file clerk in a VA hospital—perfect setting for a hypochondriac like himself—and lives, on canned beans, in a grim working-class nabe. Pekar loses his wife and his voice, but never his scowl. In a world-historic meeting, he encounters fellow 78 nut R. Crumb (played as an eccentric dandy by James Urbaniak) at a garage sale. Consequently inspired to elevate comics into an art form, he struggles hopelessly to illustrate his life with pitiful stick figures. When Crumb agrees to illustrate the first American Splendor, Pekar’s voice returns—with a vengeance.
However steeped in alienation, Pekar’s comix manage to attract the attention of Joyce Brabner, a choleric fangirl from faraway Delaware (Hope Davis, unavoidably winsome despite her black wig, outsize horn-rimmed glasses, and fixed sour expression). Their blithely angst-ridden courtship provides the movie’s romantic high point. Having lured Joyce to Cleveland, Pekar benightedly attempts to impress her with dinner at a mall-chain restaurant (where he immediately blurts out that he’s had a vasectomy), before bringing her back to his squalid pad: “Why should I give you the wrong impression?” For her part, Joyce gets sick from the “yuppie food,” but even blunter than Harvey, she simply proposes.
Twenty years ago in these pages, Marshall Berman celebrated the samizdat-ist Pekar as a contemporary cousin to the neurotic antiheroes of 19th-century Russian literature. Like theirs, Pekar’s world consists of three zones—the solitary rented room, the city street, and the government office. Pekar, as Berman observed, oscillated between Turgenev’s Superfluous Man (observing life without managing to participate) and Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man (overflowing with rancor toward everything and everyone). Pekar, however, has a more typically American relationship to celebrity and the media. (Berman cites Carola Dibbell’s earlier Voice article, which first “put [Pekar] on the map in front of a national and influential audience,” and notes Pekar’s subsequent, Crumb-illustrated rant that this exposure has only led to further humiliation.)
The American Splendor movie is the apotheosis of Pekar’s celebritude, but his key adventure—both in life and literature—was the manic, fearlessly confrontational series of appearances he made on Late Night With David Letterman in the late 1980s. Hilarious then, particularly as replayed in Pekar’s comics, this pugnaciously paranoid foray into 15 minutes of public personhood provides the movie with its conceptual center. (The Letterman episodes are brilliantly cobbled together out of original tapes and clever facsimiles gumping Giamatti and Davis into the mix.)
“I’m no showbiz phony—I’m telling the truth,” bellicose Harvey informs smirking Dave (not forgetting to flack the first American Splendor anthology and the Harvey action figure designed by Joyce). Pekar’s Underground Man doubles as his own press agent. His fame is contagious. Even his co-worker Toby (a VA hospital messenger who proudly identifies with the movie Revenge of the Nerds) gets on MTV. Inevitably, Pekar’s work grew increasingly self-reflexive and therapeutic. Several years ago, he and Joyce produced Our Cancer Year, a comic book describing his victory over lymphoma—used to provide the movie’s tidily upbeat closer.
American Splendor is the icing on the anti-careerist cake that Pekar wants to eat and have as well. Yet there’s an odd moment of truth when the real Joyce accuses the real Harvey of indulging in miserablism. Unexpectedly, he breaks into a rare smile: “Yeah, gloom and doom.” You get the feeling that if he could trademark the phrase, he would.
“Comic Book Legeng Harvey Pekar: Tongue-Tied About American Splendor Movie” by Ed Park
“Urban Renewal: Harvey Pekar’s City of Industry ” by Laura Sinagra