Harvey Pekar is one of those names that sounds sort of familiar, but maybe you can't quite figure out why. Chances are, if you were a big fan of Late Night With David Letterman back in the day, or if you recognize the name R. Crumb, or if you remember the underground comic Our Cancer Year from the early 1990s, you know Harvey Pekar.
American Splendor, winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2003, tells Pekar's story in the cinematic equivalent of how he portrays it on paper. Based on his comic book series of the same name, American Splendor was simply about Pekar's ordinary, "downtrodden" life -- and as such, reveled in a sort of lovely anti-glamour. Never before has an American city (Cleveland) looked so downtrodden and grimy, never before have dirty dishes and empty food wrappers conveyed so much about the person who left them there. Overweight file clerks shuffle by in ugly polyester shirts. The love of one's life wears enormous, owly glasses and crawls around in bookstores reading comic books. People get cancer and refuse to handle it graciously. For those of us who divide our movie-watching between indie and mainstream, American Splendor was audacious in its banality -- deliciously voyeuristic even when nothing much was happening. Further underscoring the comic-book feel of the film were appearances throughout by Pekar himself (Paul Giamatti plays him elsewhere in the film) and visual narrative intrusions straight out the pages of his own books.
Pekar comes to Spokane on April 14 to host a screening of the film and a discussion afterwards. His voice is exactly the way it sounds in the film, a kind of yowly mutter full of pauses and incredulousness. When asked if he was surprised at how well people have responded to his film, he says, "Well, I always could get people to like me, you know when I was joking around with them and stuff," he says. "But the success of the film is surprising to me.
"You gotta look at my position at the time," he continues. "I was a retired Cleveland VA hospital file clerk, I'd just had a recurrence of the cancer ... I was thrilled that someone wanted to make a movie about that kind of stuff. And they did a great job with it. I really think it's an amazing, innovative movie."
Pekar says that it wasn't too unusual to see himself and his life played out on the big screen, adding that part of the reason for that has to do with the nature of his comics. He wrote his first "rant" in 1972, showed it to a cartoonist by the name of Robert Crumb who'd just happened to have moved into Pekar's neighborhood -- and the rest is comic book history. Crumb asked if he could take the story home and illustrate it; since then, American Splendor has become a cult favorite in the underground comics scene and has been illustrated by Frank Stack, by Joe Stacco and of course, by R. Crumb.
"I always knew I was going to write about ordinary life. They always say you gotta write what you know, and I like to write about the mundane events in ordinary life. That's what I know. So I knew that was the right card to play from the start," he says. "On the other hand, I had this flunky job, this ordinary life and I always felt like I represented 99 percent of the population when it's that one percent who actually gets all of the attention. So I just figured it would be real unusual to write about ordinary life in the realm of comic books, where you're not considered normal unless you can fly."
As much as he's made his home in the word bubbles and carefully plotted squares of the comic book milieu, he doesn't have much to say about them or their upscale cousin, the graphic novel.
"From the time I was 12, I realized comic books were intrinsically limited. I got some kind of following and I've managed to keep it up over the years, but I always thought there'd be a big breakthrough in alternative comics. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good artists but since the early '70s, it's just been rougher and rougher to make a living that way."
Pekar turns the conversation to questions about Spokane and says he's looking forward to being here as audiences take in the movie based on his own life and work.
"It's nice to see such a competent effort, to see something that was so close to what I had written. People tell me I was innovative in comics -- well, this is innovative in film." He pauses, searching for the right PR line to satirize while simultaneously expressing enthusiasm. "It's a genre-building, postmodern escapade is what it is."