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American Splendor is a biography of a nobody. It’s based on a comic book that is a serialized, soap opera about a nobody. And the fact that a nobody would have a comic book, a play, and now a movie written about his life, makes him a somebody and makes his life interesting.

If you don’t buy any of that, you’re probably right to be a little skeptical. Harvey Pekar was a file clerk at a Veterans Affairs hospital, and his life really is mundane. But maybe the point is that any of our lives might be interesting if they were written as comic books or a movie.

A soup can is just a soup can until you hang it on a wall in an art gallery.

Illustrated Man

Will the real Harvey Pekar please stand up?
Will the real Harvey Pekar please stand up?

American Splendor tells the story of Harvey Pekar’s life, from his rise to “fame” in the underground comix world, to the production of this movie. Harvey himself narrates the story.

Harvey (Paul Giamatti) starts out as so many of us nerds do, as a collector. Harvey is into comic books and jazz records. He writes the occasional freelance record review, but he’s never paid enough to make a living at it.

At a garage sale, he happens to meet another collector of records and comic books, one Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), who later rises to fame as the king of underground comix. Harvey and Robert become friends.

One day Harvey, frustrated at a grocery checkout behind an old Jewish woman, is inspired to draw his own comic book about himself, an admittedly regular guy, and the frustrations he faces every day. All he can manage is stick figures, but he shows his comics to Crumb who agrees to illustrate Harvey’s stories. And so, American Splendor is born.

In This Issue...

The film becomes episodic after this illustrious, illustrated beginning.

We start with a glimpse of Harvey’s life at work, filing at the V.A., and at Harvey’s friend and coworker Toby (Judah Friedlander), who is such a nerd that he makes Harvey look like a dashing and debonair James Bond.

Joyce (Hope Davis) runs a comic book store. When she misses the latest issue of American Splendor, she buses to Cleveland to meet Harvey. A strange sort of sexual tension hangs in the air between them. Since different illustrators take turns on American Splendor, Joyce wonders if he’ll look like a young Brando, as Harvey is sometimes drawn, or the like a short, grumpy pig with stink lines. Harvey’s first words to Joyce are about his vasectomy. Their awkward courtship ends abruptly when Joyce suggests they just skip the whole dating thing and get married.

Pekar gains notoriety through his various appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. But after a year of being the butt of Dave’s jokes, Harvey shows up in an anti-G.E. t-shirt and rants about the corporate ownership of NBC. He effectively blacklists himself from future appearances on the show.

And when the movie needs a conflict to give the movie some direction, it tells us about Harvey’s fight against testicular cancer.

Real People

These stories aren’t interesting in and of themselves. What makes them interesting is that they are real. There is a real Harvey Pekar, whose triumphs and foibles are being acted on a 20-foot high screen. Is he really like that? What does he think of this movie? What about his wife, or his friend Toby?

Luckily, the film answers each of these questions, exactly when they spring to mind.

Intercut with the fictional retelling of Harvey’s life are on-camera interviews with Pekar, his wife Joyce, Toby, and other friends and family.

We learn enough about the real man that we can tell Giamatti’s performance isn’t exact, but that it’s an inspired impression. We see that the outrageous performance by Friedlander is actually a lot like the real Toby. We see that Hope Davis, often cast as a blonde beauty, is surprisingly well cast as the nerdy black-haired Joyce.

The Soup Can And the Artist

The juxtaposition of the real and the cinematic really makes American Splendor into something great. For one thing, it gives us a better look at this Harvey Pekar fellow. Harvey is a notorious crank, although he doesn’t seem that way on camera. Still, Giamatti gives his character a just-woken-up peevish scowl: half annoyed and half confused.

Seeing both Harveys together gives us a more insightful portrait of the man than seeing just one or the other. One is a photograph, the other is a caricature. The photograph is realistic, but the caricature captures the essence. Which is more “real”? Which is more “true”? That’s a philosophical question the movie asks but doesn’t answer.

Some of the issues raised by these double lives are troubling: are we laughing at these people, or are we merely laughing at the characters they have created? Are we expected to laugh? Is it okay to laugh? Is that merely the price of fame?