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American Splendor (2003)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

This is Harvey Pekar’s story. You may have never heard of Harvey Pekar. I enjoyed his appearances on the David Letterman show back when I still watched broadcast network television in the 80’s. Harvey was always interesting and a straight talking guy. Harvey was on Letterman then to promote his "American Splendor" “underground” comics. They were Harvey’s first well-known creative efforts, before the anthologies, graphic novels and movie. I always enjoyed Harvey’s appearances on Letterman.

After Harvey stopped appearing on TV I didn’t hear about him for a long time. When I was in my teens and twenties I read many comic books, including “underground” comics (many by Robert Crumb), but by the 80’s I had stopped reading them. I know now that was my loss.

About a year ago, almost exactly, I came upon an excellent review of a new movie, which I featured in Ender’s Review. That movie was American Splendor. I also then discovered that I was lucky enough to live in a city where I could see the movie. Like Equilibrium, an excellent film from 2002, American Splendor probably did not gain access to as many large screens as Gigli or other less extreme "turkeys." However, both Equilibrium and American Splendor now have been enjoying brisk sales in the DVD market. American Splendor’s production studio was HBO films which should insure a fair number of viewing opportunities on cable/DBS as well.

Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a file clerk at a VA Hospital in Cleveland. Shortly after the movie opens Harvey’s wife dumps him. She has recently gotten her PhD and can no longer tolerate the “plebian” (her words) style in which Harvey lives. At this point Harvey’s life seems quite bleak. He recalls earlier meeting Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) at a garage sale where they discover they share an interest in jazz records. At that time Crumb is working at a Greeting Card company, but is already doing some work in comics on his own. Harvey and Crumb (who has a well-known documentary on his life: Crumb) talk about Crumb’s comics, but Crumb leaves for San Francisco and makes his name in the “underground” comics industry.

Later, back in the normal flow of time, Crumb returns to Cleveland for a visit. Harvey shows him some story boards of stick figures but with dialog and characters drawn from Harvey’s experience. Crumb likes them and asks to illustrate them. In this way "American Splendor" comics find their beginning. Later, after eight issues, Harvey’s life seems better to him but still not exactly glorious. He is very lonely, but through the circumstances of marketing his comics he meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). After an extremely short, comical and very unusual “courtship” they marry and Harvey’s problems with loneliness are solved. However, Harvey is not the type to ever imagine his life a paradise.

In the short introductory “blurb” from Ender’s Review of Sept. 14-20, 2003, I say: “I really enjoyed this movie. Harvey Pekar is not a Randian hero, but then you probably aren't either. Harvey is definitely his own person….” However, there is really more to Harvey’s form of “heroic individualism” than merely being his own person. It definitely is not Randian in style, but Harvey Pekar and Howard Roark have some very important things in common. Harvey probably wouldn’t agree with every detail of Roark’s (Rand’s) politics; but, like Roark, Harvey also has struggled to implement his own vision. Instead of striving in architecture, Harvey works in comics, but both Harvey and Howard have built their own success in life against great odds. Harvey has done this in the real world. I could tell more about the movie, but there is some more in P.J. Gladnick’s excellent review and other places accessible from this page. Watch an HBO showing, rent or buy the DVD or Tape. I recommend the American Splendor DVD as it has some extra features. I think you will find much to enjoy in this excellent film.

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