Words and pictures: That’s how writer Harvey Pekar described comics; to him, at the beginning of his career in the early 70s, there seemed to be a lot of stories that superheroes didn’t — or couldn’t — explore. So Pekar decided to write his own, and in doing so became famous for his acerbic, autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. The series was later adapted into a film with the same name, starring Paul Giamatti. Today, on the fifteenth anniversary of the movie, and with a biopic of fellow comic artist John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot) now playing on the big screen, it seems as good a time as any to look back on this modern classic.
Harvey Pekar is a lowly file clerk working at the VA hospital in Cleveland. He’s a music freak and self-confessed nerd who rejoices in underground comics. Despite his gloom and pessimism, he is frank about his love for others and his need to be loved. His obsessions with music and comics bring him into contact with a crowd of artists working in Cleveland around the 1970s, among them the infamous illustrator Robert Crumb. Pekar can’t draw to save his life, but he can write, so well that the crude stick figures he draws still inspire Crumb. He asks if he can illustrate Pekar’s words, and thus, American Splendor was born.
Pekar, sometimes referred to as the Poet Laureate of Cleveland (which seems like both a noble distinction and a slander befitting someone of Pekar’s disposition), described his comics as “autobiography as it happens.” The movie, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, takes that philosophy and runs with it, blending Pekar’s comics with traditional film narrative, documentary-like interviews, and plenty of breaking the fourth wall. In one scene, the movie stops, the actors retreat to the craft services table, and the real-life Pekar interviews a friend, Toby Radloff (who was, just the scene before, played by 30 Rock alum Judah Friedlander), about jellybeans. In his writing, Pekar narrates as if aware of the audience beyond the frames of the comic, and directors Berman and Pulcini smartly adapt that narrative style by ignoring normal conventions of storytelling, blending reality and narrative into a remarkably fluid whole.
American Splendor, which co-stars the always-fantastic Hope Davis as Pekar’s third wife and fellow writer, Joyce Brabner, features Giamatti at the height of his powers. In a two-year span, Giamatti starred in American Splendor and Sideways—two roles that allowed him to lean into his self-reflective, creative-depressive sweet spot. Giamatti, though he looks almost nothing like the real-life Pekar, plays him to perfection. He manages to be totally crude, self-obsessed, and a little bit annoying, while always remaining completely sympathetic and philosophical in his observations of everyday life.
One of the interesting things about the American Splendor comics is that so many different artists draw them; this point is hit upon in the opening for the movie and serves as a point of reference throughout. Pekar is sometimes depicted as grotesque, like when Robert Crumb is illustrating, and sometimes he’s drawn as oddly handsome; these different art styles reflect the shifting tones of Pekar’s writing, his changing outlook, and inner self. In one poignant scene, Pekar recounts the experience of renting his first apartment and getting his first phone book. He always thought of his name as unique, but when he opens the book to his name he finds two entries, one for him, “Harvey L. Pekar,” and one for the “purer” “Harvey Pekar.” Over the years, each time he receives a new phone book, he finds that there are more and more Harvey Pekar’s added to the listings. And while he’s telling this story, the real Harvey Pekar walks across the scene, playing off both the book and the movie’s ideas of personal multitude-ness.
Berman and Pulcini capture not just Pekar himself, but also the style of his writing. It isn’t glorified, or overly crafted; instead, the movie remains down-to-earth, truthful, and quietly inventive, and playful. The performances imbue the characters with a sweetness that instantly endears them to their audience. And, even next to his breakout in Sideways the following year, American Splendor is absolutely Giamatti’s finest performance. Since its release fifteen years ago, we have sadly lost Harvey Pekar, but the movie has not faded one jot in that time. It remains a fitting tribute to one of the most outspoken and unique voices in modern literature.