Like many I had never heard of Harvey Pekar before watching the film American Splendor. I went to see it on a cold and grey January afternoon in 2004 after scouring the cinema listings in the hope there would be something I could immerse myself in for a couple of hours. Having read an outline of a film concerning a comic book writer who shuns super heroes in order to document everyday life I was suitably intrigued. I was also taken by the movies tag line “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff” as I have often felt that the minutiae of day to day living can make for a rich source of material to incorporate in artistic endeavors. Obvious proof of this can be found in many of Larry David‘s exploits in Curb Your Enthusiasm and in the work of Ricky Gervais. However, Pekar shuns the big comic pay offs for more subtle and reflective stories.
The film is perfectly cast with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey and Hope Davis his second wife Joyce. When it was released Giamatti had yet to achieve the level of fame afforded to him by his commercial breakthrough role in Sideways. At the time he was a highly talented character actor and one whom I had long admired for performances in movies such as Storytelling, Safe Men and Man on the Moon.
As I sat in the cinema that day I became more immersed in the story of a man I knew nothing about after every passing minute. It was strangely exhilarating to see how a file clerk produced his own comic book series which the ordinary man could empathise with. Moreover, the author still couldn’t afford to give up his ordinary job as the kudos gained from his publication didn’t translate into megabucks. I also loved the way it was shot using comic book graphics and the way the real Harvey and Joyce (along with genuine nerd Toby Radloff) appeared as themselves discussing how it felt being portrayed by actors. I could go on and examine all the elements I feel make this film my favourite of the last ten years but this is not a film review and besides, there are many crits of the movie to be found online. There is a particularly interesting one written by American cultural commentator Jaime Wolf back in 2003 comparing and contrasting Splendor with the mighty Annie Hall. It’s an interesting comparison written originally for Slate Magazine.
After seeing the movie I made it my mission to read as much of Pekar’s writing I could possibly get my hands on. This wasn’t easy though as when the film was released there was only one Pekar anthology easily available in the UK. Thankfully in subsequent years more material has been published. I immediately became engrossed with my first Splendor anthology but must admit to being slightly taken aback at the sheer mundanity of some of the topics for stories. There were stories about losing and finding one’s reading glasses, getting up early to avoid traffic jams and tales of someone jamming their hand in a filing cabinet at work. The thing is, I loved these stories as there was a charm and warmth which left the reader rooting for the protagonist as he tries to finish another day on the winning side. It would be unfair to suggest Pekar just concentrates on the more banal aspects of life. There were other stories not even concerning him and this adds to his strength as a cultural commentator. He is adept in reviewing the work of writers and jazz musicians not just in American Splendor but in other publications which unfortunately are almost impossible to find in the UK.
Aside from a growing number of anthologies there is Our Movie Year which documents how the film came to be made and the acclaim heaped upon it on release. At one stage in this book Pekar documents his trip to the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the films British premiere. It felt bizarre to see Scotland featuring in a comic book story normally set in Cleveland, Ohio but strangely apt that I was reading about the man being in the city where I first discovered his existence. More solemnly, Our Cancer Year first published in 1994 documents Pekar’s diagnosis and eventual conquering of cancer. This, as the subject matter suggests, is not the lightest of reads but an important and inspiring volume. Having fought and won the most important battle of his life Pekar returned to more familiar territory in the companion pieces Another Day and Another Dollar. He also found time to write about his childhood in The Quitter, an offering the New York Post deemed “an achingly poignant tale”.
As much as I relish reading such personal reminisces I equally enjoy Pekar’s appraisals on literature and music . One recent example is the 2009 publication of The Beats: A Graphic History. Along with Ed Piskor and several others Pekar examines the lives and works of not just the most famous of the Beat generation writers (Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg) but also some of the lesser known players in the movement such as Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Patchen. As ever the writing is complimented by excellent illustrations helping to create a great literary companion piece for fans of the writers contained but also a great introduction to the them for the uninitiated.
Now in his seventies Pekar is still documenting the ordinary yet complex aspects of everyday life as he sees them. I would imagine the film also continues to sell enough copies on dvd to introduce a sufficient number of new fans to the man and his work. For me, one of the key strengths of Pekar’s story is its highlighting of the fact that there are many out there who have creative urges but are unsure how such leanings could manifest themselves. This is illustrated in the film with Harvey’s frustrations at his own writing ambitions which eventually lead to something of a creative epiphany as he spends a whole night writing about the mundanities he has to face on a daily basis which then gain approval from his friend and comic artist Robert Crumb, who offers to illustrate the stories for him. This eventual artistic emancipation is inspiring to people in the way that punk music was to those in the seventies who looked at progressive rock musicians and thought “I’ll never be good enough to play a twenty minute keyboard solo but I could just about learn three chords and write a song which in some way documents how I’m feeling”. I’m not sure if this is the first time Pekar’s work has been compared with the original punk/diy ethos but as the film has already been somewhat surprisingly compared with Annie Hall it seems some way justifiable. I’m sure Harvey wouldn’t mind especially as I’ll leave a closing comment of final admiration. Credit should go to Pekar for identifying a gap in the comic book market as a champion of life’s daily struggles. He is a true original in that respect.
Image 1 – Ty Templeton’s Art Land
Image 2 – Jazzwax.com