On the morning of July 12, 2010, having just poured myself a cup of coffee, I began to scan a page from the Harvey Pekar/Robert Crumb story “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines” for an essay on American Splendor (2003) that I had been working on. While holding the comic up to the glass of the scanner, my TweetDeck account began to chirp: Pekar had passed away at the age of 70. I was deeply affected by the sad news, given that I had spent so much time with Harvey’s work lately and had in fact contemplated just a week or two ago reviewing the film for Pajiba. Yet, while Harvey may be gone, his work lives on, be it through his groundbreaking comics or one of the best comic book adaptations to make it out of Hollywood, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor.
The film begins with a dazzling sequence in which young children, dressed as superheroes, go trick-or-treating around Cleveland. One boy in the group, young Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), wears no costume. When asked who he is supposed to be by a confused housewife, the boy simply responds, “I’m Harvey Pekar,” to which the woman responds, “Harvey Pekar? That doesn’t sound like a superhero to me.” Fittingly, Harvey tells the woman that he “ain’t no superhero.” The film cuts to a credit sequence, told via the mechanism of the comic book page complete with panels, captions, and narrative information, that intersperse drawings, actual photographs of the people on which the film is based, and stilled film footage that comes to life. The message of the opening is clear: Just because American Splendor takes the shape of a comic book or a film, that does not mean it is going to be the typical fodder offered up by the genre.
That said, Splendor is obviously a bit of a cinematic oddity, as it’s not a dramatic bio-pic and it’s not a documentary. Like the books that inspired it, Splendor is a hybrid of storytelling modes, as we’re presented with multiple representations of Pekar from Paul Giamatti’s portrayal, actual interview footage with Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, and an animated version amongst others. Berman and Pulcini’s decision to provide this spectrum of Pekars matches not only the inconsistent art of the books (Pekar wrote the books and would enlist different artists, including Robert Crumb, to draw them) but the fluidity between Pekar the person and Pekar the character. As the film takes off, we watch as Giamatti’s Pekar, a rather eccentric but endearing hoarder, suffers a lonely existence, doomed to a thankless job as a file clerk at a Veterans Affairs Hospital.
One day, after suffering in a supermarket line behind an old Jewish woman, Pekar decides to document his frustrations with every day, lower-middle class life by producing a comic book. Yet, while Pekar has a knack for storytelling and for depicting the trials and tribulations of the mundane, he lacks any graphic arts talent, drawing stick figures as place holders until he can find someone up to the task of bringing his tales to life. That day comes when he encounters artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), whom he talks into sketching his scripts. Soon, Pekar’s underground comic (this isn’t Batman or Spider-Man after all) gains notoriety and he receives a letter from a fan, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). The two souls, a perfect match if there ever was one, quickly wed. The film shifts focus to their relationship, hitting the highs of Pekar’s appearances on David Letterman, the lows of his diagnosis with lymphoma, and their means of coping with the graphic novel collaboration Our Cancer Year (1994).
There are many reasons why American Splendor is an outstanding film. The performances by Giamatti and Davis go beyond impersonation to actually feeling lived. The two performers become lost in the quirks of their real life counterparts. Giamatti’s voice becomes gravelly and angry, his paunchy figure lost in a tan polo shirt and sweater. Davis, on the other hand, hides her beautifully unique features behind a large pair of glasses and straight-ironed bangs, bearing but a pale resemblance to her actual self. In an age of Hollywood where physical transformations (Charlize Theron in Monster, George Clooney in Syriana) coupled with bio-pic subjects (Ray Charles, June Carter) seemed to bring instant Oscar gold, both Giamatti and Davis were not only robbed of deserved trophies (Sean Penn for Mystic River and Renée Zellweger for Cold Mountain….really?!) but, more grievously, not even nominated by the Academy.
Yet, as great as the performances are, the aspect of Splendor that keeps inviting me to return is Berman and Pulcini’s ability to transpose the style of Pekar’s books on the screen. Not only are we given the aforementioned credit sequence and the shifting representations of Pekar, but they also attempt to bring to life the unique relationship between text and image in the comic. The most obvious example of this, and perhaps I’ve already tipped my hand when I discussed the scanning of the comic, is when Harvey suffers in line at the grocery store behind the old Jewish woman. Berman and Pulcini begin the sequence with a pair of freeze frames, placing an animated thought balloon next to Giamatti’s head as he considers which line to get into. The image is filtered, taking on the grainy, impressionistic qualities of newspaper printing. As Pekar realizes he has chosen the wrong line, he suffers and his thought balloons go from text to an animated Pekar, rattling off about how ridiculous the situation is. Pekar’s anger is perfectly captured by Berman and Pulcini’s progression here, as it goes from silent suffering to raging torrents as the animated Pekar breaks out of the balloon, then the comic book frame, into the same space as Giamatti.
Much like Dick Tracy (1990), American Splendor stands as an attempt to translate both the content of the comic book form but the style as well. Moreover, what is so impressive about the project is that the filmmakers actually went for the image/text relationship, which seems to have been widely shunned since being associated with the campy Adam West Batman television show. Granted, Berman and Pulcini do not give us a film that completely mimics the style, favoring more of a hybridized approach that walks the tight-rope between film and the static, graphic art form of the comic. However, their process acknowledges that fans of comics do not simply desire that their favorite stories and characters make the translation to film, but the stylistic characteristics of the art form do as well. After all, the comic medium is both visual and text-based and, in order to do a work like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor justice, you need to capture the essence of both. As one Twitterer noted, it’s consoling to think that Harvey is probably having his latest opus inked by a roster of great artists somewhere up in the clouds. Yet, we must not forget the stunning works he left us with during his brief time on Earth, be they comics or a film, and the overall sentiment that comics and comic book films need not contain superheroes to be great.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.