“Write what you know.” It’s familiar advice that’s dished out high school composition courses everywhere. It’s something that Harvey Pekar has embraced, turning his life as a file clerk in Cleveland into the basis of a series of autobiographical comics that broke new ground in graphic storytelling.
Drawn from various issues of his comic and more specifically his graphic novel Our Cancer Year, American Splendor is a character study of Pekar, a frustrated middle-aged man with a dead-end job, two failed marriages and not much to show for his life. In an attempt to purge some of his frustrations, he sketches in stick figures some of the average events of his life. His friend, noted underground comic R. Crumb, is intrigued by Harvey’s writings and offers to turn his thumbnail sketches into an actual comic. As Harvey begins to gain fame outside of the comics community he soon finds himself on the receiving end of fame that he’s not sure he wants any part of.
In much the same way Pekar subverted the comics industry’s notions of what kinds of stories the medium could tell, American Splendor subverts the conventions of both the biopic and comic book adaptation genres.
The real Pekar narrates the film and at times comments on the action. Interviews with Harvey, his wife Joyce Brabner and co-worker Toby serve to punctuate and sometimes counterpoint sequences in the narrative. In the past, some biopics have broken the fourth wall to speak directly to its audience. It’s a tricky thing to do and if not handled deftly can appear clumsy. The way it is used here grows naturally out of the material and never feels like a storytelling gimmick. The interview segments also convey the impression that they aren’t so much about the movie as they are another chapter in the real Harvey Pekar’s life, waiting chronicling in his comic.
There’s an irony in Pekar’s life that his chronicling of a mundane life would catapult him to a certain level of fame that was never quite high enough for Harvey to escape the confines of his existence. Even at the height of his notoriety when he was appearing on as a semi-regular on Late Night With David Letterman he was still working his day job as a file clerk for a VA hospital.
Paul Giamatti is the embodiment of Harvey Pekar if not a deadringer for the writer. Stoop-shouldered and hunched over, he shuffles through the streets of Cleveland with a scowl. Even when the real Pekar complains in voiceover that Giamatti doesn’t look like him, you still accept him in the role. Giamatti is a character who is often better than the material he gets. Oddly enough, the only two other film roles in which he truly got to shine were also biopics- the combative program director Howard Stern nicknamed Pig Vomit in Private Parts and Andy Kaufman’s cohort in comedy Bob Zmuda in Man On The Moon.
Much like this summer’s The Hulk, American Splendor openly acknowledges its comic book source material and openly embraces it. In The Hulk, director Ang Lee used comic book panels as way of imparting a visual energy to his narrative. In American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Bulcini use comic panels to help emulate and create a visual link to the original comics and to help illustrate Pekar’s creative process.
Much like people’s real lives, there’s no real strong narrative thread. Events unfold around Harvey with a certain degree of mundanity. It’s Harvey’s ability to take these events and use them as grist for his comics that makes the film fascinating. As Pekar says about life at the end of the film, “We all loose the war, but we try to win a few skirmishes along the way.”