Comic Book Movies 101: American Splendor


The film opens in 1950 as a housewife opens her door on Halloween to be faced by kids dressed as the popular comic book superheroes Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, Superman and a dowdy looking kid just dressed as himself… Harvey Pekar.

It’s a great opening, it’s a reminder that there is more comic books on the market than our fantastical superheroes. The underground comic book is a cult phenomenon that is most popular for the likes of Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural) and Daniel Clowes (whose own Ghost World was made into a 2001 film and is a perfect companion piece to this film).

Documentary filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring to life the story of Harvey Pekar (pronounced pea-car) and his trip into creating a comic book based on his own life. Pekar became a bit of an unlikely phenomenon thanks to a number of David Letterman appearances throughout the ‘90s. He’s a real joyful oddity and the filmmakers clearly see the appeal in the man because not only does he narrate the film himself, he also appears occasionally throughout. This certainly doesn’t take away from the performance of Paul Giamatti who is outstanding, perfectly getting the raspy vocal and hunched physicality of the man whilst developing a rich dark humour through the performance. Other characters in Harvey’s story also appear in the real-life documentary interviews as well as the spot-on characterisations of the actors who play them. In fact, if the real life characters didn’t appear in the film you would perhaps consider some of the actors overplaying their part. Truth is, these people really are that weird. A prime example is Harvey’s work colleague, Toby (Judah Friedlander), a self-confessed nerd who has a peculiar speech pattern and looks just downright bizarre. Oddly enough, Toby himself also had his 15 minutes of fame presenting spots for MTV.

The filmmakers throw in these actual real-life pieces of footage of Toby on MTV and Harvey on David Letterman and it blends into the film seamlessly. The film itself is actually a post-modern meta dream, at one point we have the real Harvey commenting on Paul Giammati playing Harvey who is watching another actor playing Harvey in a theatre production. It sounds on paper more confusing than the multiple dream levels of Christopher Nolan’s Inception but actually the whole film has a relaxed atmosphere that you don’t really notice how clever it actually is. Half an hour into the film while where we’re watching a scene between Harvey and Toby at the hospital they work in, the camera pulls back and we see the real life characters watching the filming of the scene and the four interact with each other whilst talking about jelly beans. It reminds me a little of Woody Allen’s more experimental moments in the 70s but less self-consciously showing off.

Whilst the film does have all these clever moments it never subtracts from telling the story of Pekar’s life, a lot of it is character setting at first – the opening animated credits are fantastic as they instantly put us into the life of Pekar and his 2D personas. When the story does start to kick in the filmmakers cleverly hold back on all the cinematic tricks and allow the work of the actors to take centre place. Hope Davis arrives as the love interest around 40 minutes into the film. As the equally neurotic, Joyce, Davis is great fun . She is a favourite of indie films and she has never been one to shy away from doing more unappealing roles that bigger Hollywood actresses would avoid like the plague – God forbid if a film made them look ugly!

Giamatti went on the following year to receive a lot of praise for Alexander Payne’s Sideways but this is really the performance that catapulted him from character actor to lead actor. He doesn’t really have the looks of Depp or Pitt to get the big roles but when he does he almost always gives a perfect performance and this is undoubtedly one of his best.

I’ve never actually read any of Pekar’s American Splendor comics (animated on occasion by Robert Crumb who also appears in the film) but I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that the film perfectly captures the mood of them. Pekar had a satirical commentary on his own life, e.g. Pekar looks in the mirror and says “well there’s a reliable disappointment.”. Late in the film when Pekar is diagnosed with cancer he creates a graphic novel following his year coping with the disease. Whilst most comic-book movies have a montage sequence of the hero coming to grips with his superpowers, this one has a montage of Pekar coping with cancer and his treatments.

Whilst the film is commendable for its brutal honesty the one area that bothers me about the film is the adoption of Harvey and Joy’s daughter which is skirted over very quickly and isn’t really well explained. The actor playing the real father (who was one of Harvey’s animators) doesn’t come across as being too bad a guy and it would have been more interesting to discover the ins and outs as to why he decided to give these two oddballs his daughter and what effect that had on her. I can only guess that as Harvey and his family have such a hands on dealing with the film that perhaps it was an area that they didn’t want to go into too much detail about for the benefit of their teenage daughter. It’s hardly a big flaw in the film but it jars slightly with all the detail that has gone into every other factor of Harvey’s life up to that point.

Although Pekar may not look such an appealing character this is definitely a case of don’t judge a book by its cover because this film is extremely funny and heart-warming. Whilst the filmmakers push the boundaries of what’s possible in the documentation of one man’s life, the performances and general appeal of Pekar himself make this film a very unique and enjoyable film.

Stewart McLaren

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