American Splendor

American Splendor


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Harvey Pekar had always been different from the norm. At Halloween, the other kids would dress up in superhero costumes to go trick or treating. They wanted to be Batman, Superman et al. Harvey didn't. He was quite content to be himself.

During the early Sixties, Harvey met Robert Crumb through a shared interest in comic books and old jazz-and-blues records. Crumb showed Pekar his new comics. He liked them, but was also somewhat discouraged by his own inability to draw.

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Fast forward to the mid-Seventies. Crumb has pioneered the underground comix movement, while Pekar is stuck in a dead-end job as a file clerk in the Cleveland Veterans Hospital. While he's a smart guy, his second wife - complete with new PhD - has decided he's a loser and left him.

Harvey meets up with Crumb on one of the latter's occasional Cleveland stopovers. He tells him that he has an idea for a comic, based on his everyday life, and shows the artist some stories, filled with stick man drawings. Crumb likes them and volunteers to illustrate them.

American Splendor is born.

Self-published on a semi-annual basis, its blue-collar tales strike a chord with readers like Joyce Brebner, a comic book store proprietor from Delaware. After her colleague accidentally sells the copy of American Splendor she was keeping for herself, she contacts Pekar to see if he has a spare.

Joyce visits Harvey, an unlikely romance blossoms and they marry within the month.

Some years later, Harvey's comics have brought him a measure of celebrity, though he continues to work at the hospital. His marriage to Joyce is going through a rough spell, however. She wants to have children, but he cannot see the point.

One day, Harvey is invited to appear on The David Letterman Show. Wary of exploitation and co-optation by the mainstream media, he hesitantly agrees. Soon his suspicions prove well-founded, as the majority of the Letterman audience laugh at, rather than with, him. Then, when Joyce is abroad, Harvey notices a lump. It's cancer. On Letterman, he finally cracks, launching into a tirade against the corporate media and their trivialisation of important issues.

Joyce returns and resolves to help her husband through his cancer treatment. They collaborate on a new comic, "Our Cancer Year", with illustrator Fred Stack, who has a young daughter, Danielle.

After a course of painful chemotherapy, Harvey is given the all-clear and returns to work. Seeing how well Danielle gets on with the Pekars and feeling they can give her a better life, Fred lets them take responsibility for her upbringing.

Finally, surrounded by friends and colleagues, Harvey Peker, All American Blue Collar Hero, retires.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of Pekar's autobiographical comic books is quite simply an excellent film. As writers, they have managed to create a story arc out of Pekar's rather more episodic and stream-of-consciousness originals, while, as directors, they skilfully break up a predominantly naturalistic mode with self-conscious devices, like comic book inserts and asides from the real Pekar, commenting on his filmic portrayal ("He doesn't look like me"), without ever letting style dominate over substance. The performances are finely nuanced, capturing the complexities of real life individuals and avoiding caricature.

The problem American Splendor is likely to face, in spite of all these positive qualities, is one of finding its audience. Some will simply be turned off by the fact it is a comic book adaptatation, visions of the X-Men and Hulk instantly flooding their minds. Others will hear about the blue collar subject matter and decide they get enough of that in their own lives. Yet these are precisely the audiences who need to see the film.

It shows the former that comics and the films derived from them can be serious, legitimate works of art and do not need to be about costumed superheroes. It shows the latter that the lives of ordinary working people can, and should, be a subject for serious drama, without condescension or pity. Neither point is truly a new one - Harvey and Joyce talk about one of Theodor Dreiser's novels in the film - but the messages need reiterating until they get through.

American Splendor - comic and now film - is a life affirming experience, perhaps even a life changing one.

Reviewed on: 22 Aug 2003
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True story about misfit who creates a popular comic series based on his own life.
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Read more American Splendor reviews:

David Stanners ***1/2

Director: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Writer: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radlof

Year: 2002

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2003

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