curiouser and curiouser

1) American Splendor is dirty and real, and at times real dirty in its depiction of working-class Cleveland through the 1970’s and 1980’s – Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar confesses at one point that he has a “problem with cleanliness,” and never is there much of an attempt to clean himself up, to clean up the setting or to present a prettier version of reality for the viewer’s sake.  This is what makes the film so interesting despite the fact that Harvey Pekar himself is not, perhaps, the most interesting man who’s ever had his story told on the big screen.  Pekar is forever unapologetic about his life and how he has lived it, and with his voiceover and scenes of his interview woven throughout the film version of his life, there emerges a theme of being comfortable with yourself and secure in the knowledge of who you are – there are other Harvey Pekars in Cleveland and millions of hard-working, kvetching curmudgeons throughout the country, but our Harvey Pekar decided to share his scratchy voice and his life rather than keep his head down and his opinions to himself.  There is a scene in the movie where the real Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff are talking to each other on the interview set while Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander are sitting behind them – Giamatti cannot help laughing at Toby’s distinctive speech pattern, and we can laugh as well because Toby is well aware of how he sounds and how he comes across to other people.  There are no illusions in this film, and it is the undeniable realness that draws us in even while nothing of spectacular import might be happening.

2) Robert Crumb’s introduction to the American Splendor anthology as well as the three brief comics are a presentation of Harvey Pekar that make the man seem like someone important even when Crumb’s reminiscing and Pekar’s own stories insist that he is not a particularly rare breed – in Crumb’s words, these stories are “staggeringly mundane” to the point of exoticism.  The subject matter is neither groundbreaking nor even terribly exciting, but in this medium of graphic novels it is original and unexpected, one ordinary man’s thoughts and experiences over several decades minus any element of fantasy, superpowers, or even simple fiction.  Pekar is capeless, saggy where he should be bulging with muscles, laid bare where he should be masked and acerbic where he should be goofy.  Harvey Pekar is not a comic book hero, not even a comic book character in the tradition of Tintin or Asterix, not a nerd’s fantasy in the modern market alongside Scott Pilgrim or an autobiography with the significance of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Will Eisner’s A Contract With God.  Harvey Pekar is somebody because he is nobody in particular, an “ego-maniac” according to Crumb and a man so driven to make his voice heard that the end result is one man illustrated in multiple portrayals and brief non sequiturs that are somehow satisfying in the reader’s ability to identify either in sympathy or pity, to laugh at the simple absurdity that these comics even exist.  Harvey Pekar wonders about the other men in the phone book who share his name, and as we read we begin to wonder why we should care – then we begin thinking about people in the phone book who share our names and how many of us exist within such a small vicinity, and before we realize it, Pekar has made us examine ourselves even for such a trivial matter, even for such a limited amount of panels and the sixty seconds it took to read this comic.  How arrogant it is, for one nobody to believe that his opinions are worth the time, effort, and expense of a comic book!  And yet how intrigued we are by the fact that Pekar has actually done it.

3)  Video interview with the directors, Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar Site with reviews of both the anthology and the film by various commenters Harvey Pekar facebook page with posts by fans and comic book industry officials with news about posthumously-published Pekar comics

The first link is the most directly related to the film, and I liked having Giamatti and Pekar share the screen again.  Rarely do we (or maybe just I) get to see actors and the real-life people they are playing together, and some of my favorite moments in American Splendor were when Pekar was on screen talking about himself before it cut to Giamatti and his dead-on portrayal.  The scene that I mentioned before, with Pekar and Toby talking while Giamatti and Friedlander sit behind them made me laugh, properly laugh out loud while our dogs gave me a strange look. 

4) Consider the paradox of an ordinary man creating an extraordinary work of art based on his ordinariness. Based on American Splendor, would you say Pekar is an ordinary or extraordinary man, or somehow both?

Pekar is an ordinary man who made himself extraordinary by thrusting his ordinariness upon the American public, creating a comic that defied the very definitions of the medium and presenting reality in such a way that it seems like super-reality, a world that we know but have never examined so closely before.  Ordinary people living ordinary lives may not be stepping back to look at who they are and where they are going, if they are going anywhere at all or simply treading the same path day after day with no spectacular change in sight.  Harvey Pekar started looking, at old Jewish ladies in the grocery line, at names in the phone book, at the implausability of ordinary nerds taking their sweet revenge.  Harvey looked, and then he decided to show everyone else what he saw and what he thought, the jaded observations and the surly wit that gave voice to Thoreau’s masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation.  Harvey Pekar wasn’t quiet about it, though, a pioneer in the comics medium who showed ordinary people that they had something to say and that there was nothing wrong with just saying it, already.  There was nothing extraordinary about Pekar until he took his ordinary existence and used it (whether intentionally or not) to make people laugh, to make people appreciate their own ordinariness and to appreciate Pekar’s eagerness to open his life for everyone to see.  There is a certain audacity in what Pekar did, but this audacity is the extra and the super that transformed the ordinary and the real.


Comments on: "American Splendor (complete)" (1)

  1. Good analysis here. In fact it’s all good, including online research links and argument paragraph. Good job. 10/10.

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