American Splendor


posted to on August 26, 2003


Last night I saw "American Splendor", the much heralded semi-documentary feature on Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who turned his life into a comic book. It is a fine movie that is true to the vision of the artist himself, who rejects all the blandishments of bourgeois society. Of course, as a file clerk it is a little difficult to take advantage of them. Pekar either walks to work or takes the bus. In one comic scene, drawn from his comic book tales, he is show gluing a hole in his coat. He says, "This should get me through another winter."


The screenwriters are a couple of young Columbia University alumni who are featured in an article on my employer's website: It stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar, who has the sullen, suspicious and downcast personality of the artist nailed down perfectly. Pekar's wife Joyce Brabner, every bit as neurotic as her husband, is played admirably by Hope Davis.


The directors, screenwriters and actors deserve credit for not attempting to soften the rough edges of Pekar's personality or the grimy working-class Cleveland neighborhood where he lives. Since Pekar's comic books, which have been illustrated over the years by the likes of Robert Crumb and other masters, are unstinting attempts to turn his sad and often lonely existence into art, the film succeeds best on these terms. Nobody can mistake this low-budget independent film for the sort of big-budget escapist trash that Hollywood foists on the world.


In contrast to the atrocious "Frida", this film is serious about depicting the artistic process if nothing else. After Pekar strikes up a friendship with artist Robert Crumb, who is also the subject of a fine documentary titled "The Confessions of Robert Crumb", he tells him that he'd love to write comic books that capture the drama of everyday life, particularly his own meager existence. Eventually Pekar puts together a story board with stick figures and dialog that Crumb finds irresistible and agrees to illustrate. The rest is history.


Despite glowing reviews in the mainstream media, Pekar never sells enough books to give up his job as a file clerk. Even after repeated appearances on the David Letterman show, he finds himself complaining to the insufferably smug and superficial host that he still hasn't made it. Even today, Pekar--whose retirement from the VA hospital where he worked for decades is captured in the film--holds out the hope that the film can open up writing opportunities for him. In addition to his comic book work, he is a free-lance jazz and literary critic.


I should say that Pekar has been an enormous influence on my own writing persona. Despite the fact that I am writing about rather arcane aspects of Marxist theory, I like to cast myself as the resentful underdog who views the Leo Panitches and Slavoj Zizeks of the world in the same fashion that Pekar regarded Letterman. The other major influence is Charles Bukowski, who like Pekar turned a sordid, alcoholic, working-class life into art.


As much as I enjoyed the film, I have to confess that it simply cannot compete with Pekar's "American Splendor" comic books or "Our Cancer Year", a novel in comic book form that is co-written with his wife Joyce Brabner and that details his successful struggle with lymphoma. You can order these from his website: You can also see an excerpt of the film at:


As I just told Harvey in an email, the one thing that this website lacks (or maybe it's there and I can't find it) is samples of his work. I did find one example of his work at: Illustrated by Robert Crumb, it depicts Pekar and an aging African-American musician on a Greyhound bus talking about music, racism and Cleveland. Great stuff.