Harvey Pekar has a problem.
Of course, the obsessive depressive retired V.A. hospital file clerk, populist rust belt intellectual, acute cultural observer and splenetic comic book pioneer has more than one problem, as he’d be the first to tell you.
But Pekar’s CENTRAL problem is that relatively few of his fellow residents on the planet share his enthusiasm for the graphic novel — book-length, illustrated literary works in panel format aimed at adults — and this lack of mass affirmation and commercial reward has carried over, until quite recently, to American Splendor, his own series of autobiographical graphic novels published more or less annually since 1976, gnawing at the lifelong Clevelander’s psyche, inflaming his neuroses and suppressing his bank account.
I say “until quite recently” because things changed dramatically for Pekar, his wife Joyce and teenaged daughter Danielle when American Splendor, the movie, was released in 2003. A composite of Pekar’s quarter-century comic series, the highly successful and gaudily-awarded film (Sundance, Cannes, Edinburgh, New York, Montreal), directed by Bob Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman and starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, is one of the most innovatively creative biopics of all time, blending fact, fiction, media, and multiple perspectives into a daring, moving whole.
The film and Pekar’s life in response to it are the subjects of his engrossing new American Splendor graphic novel, Our Movie Year, an episodic account of his ongoing quotidian life in Cleveland, his family’s peripatetic journeys in conjunction with the film, and a continuation of the starkly honest travelogue of his own emotional and psychological interior that has always been the backbone of his work.
The two central — and opposing if not contradictory — emotional themes of the book are Pekar’s stunned rhapsodic joy with both the quality of the film and the public and critical response to it, and the anxiety this success spurs within him: Has anything really changed? Will he be able to support his wife, daughter and himself on a government pension and his writing? Will he ever figure out how to change a tire?
Here Pekar continues his tradition of working with a variety of top illustrators, including underground comix legend R. Crumb, Ed Piskor, Josh Neufeld, Zingarelli, and the Dumms, among several others. Although the chapter-by-chapter visual stylistic changes may be a bit jarring at first, this approach parallels beautifully the disparate perspectives from which we view characters in the film, and also artfully raises the notion that reality truly is in the eye of the beholder, as the illustrators — from Joe Zabel’s photo realism to Frank Stack’s loose impressionism — impart their own personalities to Pekar’s tales.
In the book’s centerpiece chapter, “My Movie Year,” powerfully and evocatively illustrated by Gary and Laura Dumm, Pekar, after battling both cancer and crippling depression for the previous year and a half, sits in a theater at Sundance in January of ’03 with Joyce and Danielle, having watched “his” completed movie for the first time.
“WOW! That was really innovative the way they mixed acted portions and documentary footage and animation and cartoons, and double casting some roles. Great,” he exclaims with delight. “When I did my comics I always wanted people to look at me as some kind of an everyman, but my stuff didn’t sell good. Here it seems like they do get it. They see themselves in me, and me in themselves.”
The inner demons aren’t dispersed so easily, however. In the opening chapter, “The American Splendor Movie,” a variation on the same material illustrated with astonishingly vivid characterizations by Mark Zingarelli, Pekar frets, “I’ve picked up some extra gigs because of the movie’s success. But … I’m not a movie maker, I’m a comics maker … My publisher is offering me a lot more bread to do comics for him. I’m also getting gigs writing prose articles … But I’m so tense – how long will this last? Will I finally be able to make some decent money on comics?”
That’s why in the opening I didn’t say Pekar “had” a problem, I said he “has” a problem: Harvey is still Harvey, and the world hasn’t started snapping up graphic novels as if they were The Da Vinci Code.
But American Splendor is now a fixture in the culture and I think the Curmudgeon of the Cuyahoga really has been transformed: his love and regard for his family is as endearing as it is evident throughout the book (note the “Our” in the book’s title), his basic premise — that his life as a file clerk in Cleveland, that anyone’s day-to-day life, is interesting, dramatic and funny — is egalitarian, humane and has been validated, and that cannot be taken away from him.
In a way Pekar, now 65, is just beginning and he clearly has a lot of great everyman adventures left in him.
A slightly different (ie, better edited) version of this appears in the Cleveland Plain Dealer