American Splendor: The Fun Tale of Harvey Pekar’s Comics

American Splendor the 2003 film

Here’s a cult classic from 2003 starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, it tells the tale of everyman comic book writer Harvey Pekar.

American Splendor

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010) became an unlikely underground comic book star. Although he wasn’t an artist, his sardonic autobiographical style appealed to fans and turned him into a minor celebrity figure.

He was very good at picking up on the absurd mundanities of life. For example, he’d overhear conversations between people and include that in his basic scripts.

A running observational narrative of life, of which he’d draw crude stickman stories.

Artists and friends Robert Crumb and Robert Armstrong would illustrate his ideas. These became American Splendor. As Harvey Pekar put it:

“Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It’s one thing after another. I’ve tried to control a chaotic universe. And it’s a losing battle. But I can’t let go. I’ve tried, but I can.”

And this is story American Splendor tells. The life of the rather unusual, socially awkward Pekar as he trundles through life.

Beginning in 1950 when Pekar was 11 where he refuses to dress up for trick-or-treating, it then cuts to 1975 where Pekar is struggling with voice problems and can’t convince his wife to stay with him.

The film’s sense of humour kicks off at this point, as it’s darkly absurd. The pair trying to argue about their collapsing marriage, but Pekar can barely speak.

Pekar was Jewish, but seemed to embrace a more brazen approach to life’s little frustrations. 

Interspersed with this humour is an unusual documentary style, where the real Pekar appears onscreen to discuss his life story.

He’s even joined at one point by Giamatti, who sits near him to listen in. This goes on throughout American Splendor and is a nice little touch.

In 1984, Joyce (Hope Davis) writes to Pekar after reading one of his comics. The two write back and forth and hit it off via letters, then decide to meet.

Joyce travels to Cleveland and the have a meal. After they travel back to Pekar’s flat, she has a bout of nausea and vomiting in his bathroom. Concerned, Pekar offers her a chamomile tea.

That gesture woos Joyce and the two decide to “skip the whole courtship thing” and get married.

What follows from there is Pekar’s rising minor celebrity status, which an LA theatre producer turning the comics into a play.

And an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Due to his sardonic behaviour, the audience loves him and he returns to the show on many occasions.

As scenes from this film are so rare, below is the real Pekar misbehaving back in the 1980s. 

However, Pekar’s fith and sixth appearances were pretty disastrous. In fact, his final showing in 1988 was pretty confrontational and that resulted in him not appearing on the show ever again.

However, a cancer diagnosis proves a traumatic experience for the couple. It leads him to wonder if he’s merely a character in one of his comic books.

But he overcomes the issue and turns the experience into a comic book—Our Cancer Year.

And the film ends as they adopt the young Danielle and the movie ends with a group hug from the real Harvey, Joyce, and the actors playing them.

So yes, we just remembered this film recently. We watched it around 2009 and enjoyed it a great deal. It’s a fun film with an interesting take on its subject matter.

For such a unique bloke, the film had to do something different. And its fourth-wall-breaking antics lend a lot of weight to Pekar’s comics.

The performances are very strong, with Giammati (just before his big break role in Sideways—2004) on fine form. As is Hope Davis, who plays the down to earth Joyce with a great deal of likeability.

But the star of the show here is Harvey Pekar, whose comic books scored an underground hit detailing the mundanities and disappointments of life. By ‘eck.

American Splendor’s Production

The whole film was shot in one month at the end of 2001. The directors said, after meeting Pekar, they were determined to add him into the film.

Along with other people from his life, which is why his wife Joyce has various scenes. 

Off its $2 million budget, it went on to make $8 million. A pretty good return for such a cult following with Pekar. And no big star names. 

The strength of reviews carried it along. Which is how we came to view it for the first time—it’s well-rated. 

And we wanted to honour it today. 10 years after Pekar’s death in July of 2010. Some things you just don’t want to forget. 

Dispense with some gibberish!

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