The Thrilling Adventures of Harvey Pekar

In which he mopes, sulks, and complains a lot.

Splendor is a gas
Splendor is a gas

Before bloggers made it ho-hum to share their daily grievances with all mankind, Harvey Pekar was chronicling his annoyance with co-workers, old Jewish ladies in grocery lines, and women who wouldn’t date him in his underground comic American Splendor. With the collaboration of soulful artists like R. Crumb, Greg Budgett, Gary Dumm, and Gerry Shamray, he turned his friends, colleagues, girlfriends, and wives into pain-in-the-ass characters; and when his comic began to attract attention, he made his modest fame (and the lack of money that went with it) a part of the story line, too. The tone never ventured too far toward triumph or tragedy: It held steady at sour, fatalistic, and inconclusive—yet somehow affirming.

I first read AmericanSplendor in the early ‘80s, just after the yuppies had taken over and it was suddenly unhip to be a sad sack living in a messy apartment, railing against the government, and hanging out with people neither especially beautiful nor successful. Pekar’s was the voice of consolation. He consciously invoked the great American naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser, but the stories, he maintained, didn’t have to end with the hero being crushed by the convergence of character flaws and social forces. They could end with the hero shrugging, giving a little homily, living to mope another day.

Or even … getting his life turned into a delightful movie like the new American Splendor (Fine Line Features), directed and written by the husband/wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The film isn’t in the same key as Pekar’s comic: The tempo is buoyant, puckish, and even more “meta” than the original. It isn’t framed as the story of a lonely, self-styled schlub who works as hospital file clerk, collects old jazz LPs, and searches for meaning, love, and transcendence. It’s the story of a lonely, self-styled schlub who gets famous, meets the mate he deserves, then comes face to face with his own mortality. Licking cancer, he gets to hang out on a movie set—this very movie set, in fact—and bask in his own celebrity.

American Splendor rides in on that celebrity, presenting Pekar himself early on. Sitting in a director’s chair in a studio against a white backdrop, Pekar says of Paul Giamatti, the actor who’s playing him: “He don’t look nothin’ like me. But … [a broad shrug] whatever.” That might have killed the illusion in the cradle if Giamatti wasn’t so nervy an actor; he goes Pekar-to-Pekar with Harvey and doesn’t blink.

But Giamatti isn’t really Pekar; he’s the alter ego Pekar created for his comic—a kind of sad-eyed misanthropic humanist, like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, only surly. You watch him as he trudges around the city, hunched over, a chip on his shoulder the size of Cleveland, and wonder how a man could survive under the weight of so much tsuris. Yet he’s strangely open to everything—and so is the movie. American Splendor uses scratchy comic book frames and captions that evoke the comic’s edginess, and the free-floating jazz score by Mark Suozzo might remind you, subliminally, of Peanuts—which is also about a bunch of neurotics (disguised as kids) hanging out and griping and developing odd fixations. These characters go beyond the neurotic, though. Judah Friedlander is the obsessive über-nerd Toby (whose real-life counterpart stops by the soundstage), and James Urbaniak—with a straw hat, a laugh like old bedsprings, and a voice that stays insistently at the same pitch—gets deep inside the encrusted weirdness of Crumb.

About a third of the way into the movie, Pekar meets Joyce Brabner, played by Hope Davis, and this is the Hope Davis performance we’ve all been waiting for. As Joyce, she has a sort of radioactive drabness: The dull brown hair hangs defiantly limp, the glasses are freakishly oversized, the voice is a postnasal drip that somehow sings. Harvey and Joyce’s first date on-screen, in a yuppie chain restaurant, is a getting-to-know-you scene that will enter the annals of neurasthenic romantic comedy: She approves of the ethical treatment of animals but can’t embrace vegetarianism on account of her “self-diagnosed anemia” and genetic disposition to degenerative illnesses. Davis doesn’t flinch as she recites her litany of woes, and Giamatti looks simultaneously smitten and ill, as if Cupid’s arrow had been tipped with a gastrointestinal virus.

When the movie runs actual footage from Pekar’s famously antagonistic appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, I was reminded why I hated them back in the ‘80s. Letterman’s shtick was making fun of the folks back home, whereas Pekar’s comic books barrel through ironic derision and come out the other end, into acceptance. The movie makes that contrast clear in every spacious, compassionate, un-Letterman-like frame. My only complaint is that it goes by too fast (it’s barely an hour and a half) and ends too abruptly. You’ll want to pick up the new issue of American Splendor titled “Our Movie Year.”

American Splendor opens with a scene in which the young Pekar goes trick-or-treating as himself and is taken aback when people regard him as peculiar beside all the kids in superhero get-ups. American Splendor—which is more thrilling than Daredevil, more powerful than TheHulk, and more freakish than X-Men—is proof that ordinary guys can hold the comics, and the screen, as well as superheroes. This Halloween, I want to be Harvey Pekar.