[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
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.
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 storieshe 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 literatehe is an omnivorous reader and
reviewer of the most demanding fictionbut it is also blunt
and plain. He is a writer whose style is fully congruent with the
almost invariably disappointing experiences translated into his
I detect very little self-pity in what Pekar says about himselfno
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 cartoonistas the
film shows, his "scripts" are populated with stick figureshis
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
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
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 believePekar
being Pekarthat 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 upbut, 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
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 booksand
then play and moviedepict 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
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 clevernessand
the filmmakers' obvious respect for Pekar's workit 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
[Posted November 26, 2003; slightly revised, July 16, 2010]