If you think reading comics about your life seems strange, try watching a play about it. God only knows how I’ll feel when I see this movie.
“I’m Harvey Pekar,” a young boy answers when a nice lady asks who he is for Halloween. “That doesn’t sound like a superhero to me,” she half-smiles, leaning toward him with a tray of candy apples. Young Harvey (Daniel Tay) hears his friends murmuring, making fun of him and turns to his interlocutor, visibly exasperated. “I ain’t no superhero, lady. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood!” As he makes his along the sidewalk, kicking dry leaves and leaving behind his pillowcase of candy, Harvey glowers. “Why does everybody have to be so stupid?!”
A jump cut later, the kid has grown up to be Paul Giamatti. He shuffles much as he has before, the handheld camera still angling and joggling to keep up. Comic book panels equal parts narration and credits: “My name is Harvey Pekar,” the drawn Harvey says, “I’m a character in a celebrated underground comic books.” And then American Splendor takes one more turn during these first three minutes, as Harvey Pekar describes Giamatti playing him:
This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he’s a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he’s now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day… guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie.
As you might have guessed by now, you’ve got the right movie. When American Splendor was released in 2003, it simultaneously expanded the possibilities of documentary and fiction. Screening on 5 October at Stranger Than Fiction in honor of the late Harvey Pekar—and including a Q&A with directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, producer Ted Hope, as well as Giamatti and Judah Friedlander—the film is as wondrous to see again as it was the first time. As the several versions of Harvey sort their way through his complicated, alternately grumpy and brilliant life, the film invites you to consider your own many layers, the selves you know and don’t know, perform and perceive.
In this version of his life, Harvey meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) in a comic book store. Of course. Anyone remotely with Pekar’s work as a comic book writer, or his relationship with Joyce, which showed up in that work repeatedly, can appreciate the elegance of this life-plot point. She’s working in the shop, and teaching prisoners to write (or, as she puts it, she’s “trying to help them build an interior life”). From her first moments on screen, Joyce walks a weird, thin line, between practical-minded and loopy, fanatically insecure and completely generous, shrewd and naïve. In the flesh—in Davis’ flesh, and even in her own, as she appears briefly in the film—the bespectacled Joyce at first resembles a comic character, as if she’s been conjured by her husband, cranky cult comic-book writer Harvey.
She becomes increasingly complex, less a function of his perspective (and the film that takes that perspective) and more her own creature, pushing beyond his needs and desires, into her own. This even as she is, as she says, “a notorious reformer.” She has her work cut out for her, as the first part of the film establishes Harvey’s general situation, from the 1950s through 1976, when the first edition of the autobiographical American Splendor comics was published.
Written by Harvey and illustrated by his artist friends, American Splendor the comic book details the difficulties of everyday life, including his filing job at the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration hospital, his coworkers—nerdy, jelly-bean-loving devout Catholic Toby (Judah Friedlander) and grumpy boss Boats (Earl Billings)—his love of jazz 78s and his friendship with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), who worked briefly as a commercial artist at a Cleveland greeting card company during the 1960s. He’s also unspeakably lonely: “Sometimes,” he observes, “I’d feel a body next to me like an amputee feels a phantom limb.”
By the time Joyce comes to Cleveland for their first date, you’ve seen enough of Harvey’s “grumpy guy” demeanor to not be surprised by his greeting at the train station: he announces “right off the bat” that he’s had a vasectomy. From here, he takes her to a chain restaurant, then to his apartment. He apologizes for his sloppiness, they chat, and she shuffles to the bathroom to throw up. He stands on the other side of the door, sorry that he doesn’t have tea to offer her. Whereupon they agree, they “should just dump the whole courtship thing and just get married.”
Appropriately, given its irascible subject, the movie is shrewdly unwieldy, dipping in and out of Harvey’s narration and scenes where he’s played flawlessly by Giamatti, comic panels that come to animated life, as delightfully annoyed in motion as you’d imagine. The-real-Pekar appears talking head-style to discuss the strangeness of participating in a film about his life and art, or when the camera shows that the scene previous has been shot on a set (itself artificial, too white and clean), where Friedlander and Giamatti step out of character, as the real Radloff and Pekar discuss jellybean flavors.
Perhaps most striking among these multi-layered moments are those featuring Pekar’s fabled 1980s’ spots on Letterman. For these, the film incorporates old NBC footage (with the real Pekar and the real Letterman), which Joyce watches from the green room (she’s progressively more unhappy with what she sees as Harvey’s mistreatment, and moves on to her own interests), hawking the Harvey ragdolls she’s made. Then Giamatti as Pekar comes backstage to ask Joyce what she thinks. After a few runs at this structure, the movie reaches Pekar’s final appearance on the show in 1994—when he famously disparaged NBC, GE, and Letterman for being a corporate shill. The episode never aired, and the movie runs it as a reenactment, a curiously jarring effect, as the other interviews have not been.
This convulsion makes its own point, namely that Pekar’s self-performance, however discordant, is perpetual. Indeed, the film suggests, everyone performs a self (or selves), whether on TV talk shows, on the job or at home, in comic book panels or movies. “Different artists draw me all kinds of ways,” says Pekar during one of his direct addresses to the camera. “But I’m also a real guy.” The question here is how that “real” guy might possibly be interpreted (perceived or drawn) by anyone, including himself.
And if such interpretation is part and parcel of art—popular and underground, if there’s a difference once a film about that underground wins prizes at Sundance and Cannes—then the question might shift, to how that real guy might be sold and bought. While American Splendor’s Harvey complains vigorously about the commercialization of art (this supposedly initiates his last Letterman rant), he is, of course, taking advantage of his own celebrity in order to have a forum for complaining. He rails against popular culture generally, and associates like Toby specifically—when Toby, made famous in Pekar’s comics, appears in a self-spoof for MTV, then reenacted for the movie, the representational circle seems painfully complete, or at least worn out.
As clever and slippery as these moments are, illustrating that the “real” Pekar is as elusive as any performance of Pekar, they don’t offer any more insight into that elusiveness than those featuring Pekar and Joyce. As they spar and care for one another, it becomes clear that “truth” is a malleable, exploitable, and utterly necessary fiction.
That this idea—the sometimes surprising ways that truth changes even as you think you’re looking at it—emerges most forcefully in a poignant turn of events is at once trite and fitting. So furiously determined to avoid dramatic clichés, to stay focused on mundane minutiae, poor Pekar has his life changed in a totally dramatic way. On learning that he has testicular cancer, he’s stricken: “Life,” he sighs, “seemed so sad and so sweet and so hard to let go of in the end.” As much as he’s disposed to give up, Joyce flies into action, arguing, researching, fighting back. He’s swept along, so that his routine flies into “total chaos.”
To make their turmoil even vaguely coherent, he and Joyce narrate it, in a ravishingly private-made-public graphic novel, Our Cancer Year. The illustrator who works with them happens to have a daughter, Danielle (Madylin Sweeten), with whom Joyce forms a singular bond. This may be the most improbable shift of all, that Pekar finds himself—or better, his several selves—in those who love him. For a dour, cynical guy, he does okay: even this corniness works out, because his primary mirror is the undefeatable Joyce.