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Proletarian Formalism

[Click here to read a Harvey Pekar essay on Robert Crumb, circa 1971, as published in Funnyworld No. 13, or here to go to Pekar's Web site.]

Some time ago, I ran across this statement by Stuart Hampshire in The New York Review of Books: "The most enduring achievement of fiction is in the art of illusion, in the invention of characters who have the particularity that distinguishes the actual from the merely possible, in a trick played upon nature." I agree with Hampshire, and I think that such characters exist not just in great novels, but in great comic-book stories, too.

American Splendor DVDSometimes those comic-book characters are brought to life by means that have no real equivalent elsewhere. Take, for example, Harvey Pekar's series of autobiographical comic books called American Splendor. Pekar published American Splendor himself from 1976 to 1993, when it was picked up by Dark Horse. He writes the stories—he devoted the most recent three issues, now collected in a trade paperback, to the experiences of an African-American veteran of the Vietnam war, but all the previous issues were filled with vignettes or short episodes from Pekar's very ordinary life. Readers of American Splendor have shared the quotidian details of his work as a government file clerk, his record collecting, and his happy (but far from serene) third marriage. The stories have been illustrated in sharply varying styles by a number of cartoonists, the most notable of whom is Robert Crumb, himself the author of many autobiographical comic-book stories. Crumb's last work appeared in American Splendor No. 12, in 1987, but he is still the cartoonist most indelibly associated with Pekar.

The character "Harvey" changes in each cartoonist's hands (Crumb's version is a slouching specimen of the lumpen proletariat, while others show a more sensitive and high-strung Harvey). Pekar's voice and the cartoonist's drawings blend in a different way in each story. But although the timbre changes, "Harvey" is always recognizable, like a character in a play who becomes increasingly distinct and individual as different actors perform the role, each actor emphasizing something different. So successful is the fictional "Harvey" that the flesh-and-blood Harvey, appearing as himself on a late-night talk show or, most recently, at intervals in the film version of American Splendor, seems somehow counterfeit.

As to what makes the fictional Harvey so compelling, I don't think it has a great deal to do with the real Pekar and his rather glum existence. When Pekar speaks without a cartoonist as mediator, as in a piece in the new magazine Comic Art about how the film has affected his life, his writing is more than literate—he is an omnivorous reader and reviewer of the most demanding fiction—but it is also blunt and plain. He is a writer whose style is fully congruent with the almost invariably disappointing experiences translated into his stories.

I detect very little self-pity in what Pekar says about himself—no whining to speak of, but lots of annoyance with the world in general. He has so much integrity that it seems difficult for him not to blow up those opportunities that do come his way. (During the film's depiction of the celebrated verbal brawl that put an end to Pekar's appearances on David Letterman's late-night NBC show, my sympathies were entirely with Letterman.) If Pekar's life were the true subject of his stories, those stories would amount to little more than grubby naturalism, the visual diary of an exasperating crank, and American Splendor the comic book would never have attracted its small but intensely loyal audience.

What most distinguishes Pekar's stories is his sensitivity to the comics form itself. Even though he is not a cartoonist—as the film shows, his "scripts" are populated with stick figures—his stories "breathe" through their panels as only those of the most accomplished cartoonists do. He is not afraid of a wordless pause or of breaking the dialogue between panels (a statement in one panel, a response in the next) in ways that echo the patterns of actual speech.

Neither is he afraid to stuff outsized panels full of dialogue, rather than dividing it among a sequence of smaller panels, if he believes that such dialogue overload will best convey the intensity of his anger and frustration at an editor's snub. Or, contrariwise, he will break a monologue into many small, all but identical panels, some without words, when that arrangement best matches the ruminative quality of the script. As Crumb says in his introduction to a wonderful anthology of the Pekar-Crumb stories, "He understands this medium, how comics work. … Even though there's a lot of talk and not much action, his stories move right along. They have that comic-book rhythm."

Flashy layouts and dramatic staging would be alien to Pekar's subject matter; what his stories do offer, in the way of risk-taking, is both subtler and more daring. Perhaps Pekar's success with comics can be traced to his obsession with jazz, another art form whose practitioners often transform mundane raw materials, like trivial popular songs, into much finer stuff. Pekar's life may be, for him, like the chord structure of "Tea for Two" for a bebop musician, the starting point for far-reaching formal explorations. And as with a jazz musician like Charlie Parker, there's nothing cold or remote about Pekar's sensitivity to form; his stories are absorbing and even moving because his formal devices coalesce into a powerful narrative architecture. His stories' formal rigor ennobles their ostensible subject matter.

I find nothing in Pekar's stories to suggest that their felicities are the product of a primitive's good luck. Likewise, even though I have to assume that the cartoonists involved, Crumb especially, did some tinkering with Pekar's scripts, I can't believe—Pekar being Pekar—that there has been any major surgery. (Crumb's own autobiographical stories don't much resemble Pekar's; Crumb seems far more self-indulgent.) It is Pekar who deserves the greatest credit for the intelligent and formally sophisticated stories that make up his American Splendor comic books and the paperback anthologies derived from them.

The American Splendor movie, since it is a movie, can't reproduce what Pekar does in the comic books. Instead, its co-writers and directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, play cleverly with the multiple-Harveys idea. When Pekar's future wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives in Cleveland to meet Harvey, she doesn't know what to expect, seeing, in the bus station, three different "Harveys" as drawn by different cartoonists for the comic book. Then the "real" Harvey (Paul Giamatti) shows up—but, as we already know from having met the real real Harvey onscreen, this Harvey isn't the real Harvey either, and he doesn't even look much like the real Harvey (as the real Harvey has already helpfully pointed out). The Harvey that the Giamatti Harvey sees in a 1990 Los Angeles stage production of American Splendor looks even less like the real Pekar. (I saw an earlier theatrical version at Arena Stage in Washington, in 1987; that Harvey, played by the late Richard Bauer, didn't much resemble the original, either.) When Harvey is summoned to New York to appear on the Letterman show, it's the Giamatti Harvey who leaves the "green room," but the real Harvey who appears with Letterman on the TV screen, in a tape of the actual show.

The movie also acknowledges the circularity of Pekar's life: as he transforms that life into comic books, it revolves more and more around those comic books, and so, inevitably, his new comic books—and then play and movie—depict a life that's centered on producing comic books about his life.

There are echoes, in the movie's ceaseless play with this circularity and with the unsteadiness of "Harvey's" identity, of countless avant-garde plays, films, and novels from the last century. The movie is, however, a product of Hollywood, not the avant-garde. Like any other biopic, it takes liberties, more for the filmmakers' convenience than for any other discernible reason. (As Ed Park has pointed out in an excellent piece in The Village Voice, it transforms the middle-aged and happily married Frank Stack, who illustrated the Pekar-Brabner collaboration Our Cancer Year, into "Fred." This character, who is, as Park says, "a youthful illustrator who appears to be in a troubled marriage," eventually transfers his daughter, Danielle, to the Pekar-Brabner household. The real Danielle entered that household by a different route.)

Watching American Splendor, I was reminded most of the Seinfeld episodes devoted to the filming of a pilot for a sitcom called Jerry, in which actors played fictional versions of characters who were themselves not only actors but also fictional versions of real people. All that's lacking is for Giamatti to reveal himself as, say, a sensitive aesthete who finds the real Pekar uncouth. The movie is, I think inevitably, rather cool and dry, without the emotional undercurrents of the comic books, but thanks to its genuine cleverness—and the filmmakers' obvious respect for Pekar's work—it will probably wear quite well.

Pekar is now in his mid-sixties and retired after thirty-seven years as a file clerk (the movie includes a staged retirement party for the real Harvey; he actually retired shortly before filming began). Today he is ill again; as he writes in Comic Art, he is suffering from a recurrence of the lymphoma that was the subject of Our Cancer Year, the graphic novel he co-wrote with his wife. At some point, inevitably, Pekar's running comic-book commentary on his life will end. But I hope it continues long enough to give us American Splendor's take on American Splendor the movie. The Comic Art piece is fine, but entirely too benign; we need a comic book to tell us what the real Harvey really thinks.

[Posted November 26, 2003; slightly revised, July 16, 2010]