I only saw the AMERICAN SPLENDOR movie once. And I didn’t like it.
I felt it was a jumble of meta-movie making, the confluence of self-aware nods to those slick Behind The Music rockumentaries and true crime shows like America’s Most Wanted which featured poor reenactments/dramatizations of real events. The whole movie felt hackneyed. It was meant to represent the style and substance of Harvey Pekar’s groundbreaking American Splendor comic book. You know that comic: the one that laid the foundation for a whole explosion of masturbatory asshole confessionals – the junk that clogs up zinefests with minicomics and other bubbly perzine self-indulgence.
Sure, the movie tried to capture that feel – the difference between the represented, scripted story versus the real strange grump who wrote them. It was an inevitable conceit for the movie. It does not take much imagination and little effort to see that structure. But it suits Pekar fairly well, because, well let’s be honest, he was not very imaginative and was horribly predictable, himself.
I should tell you that I knew Harvey Pekar. He came into the library where I worked, a few times a day for over ten years. But in the last seven or eight years, he really came to rely upon us, the librarians, more and more. I knew him as a customer, a patron, as a staggering, sloppy, mumbling helpless old man who liked to flirt with the female librarians and was severely disappointed when he went unrecognized by the general public.
Harvey was an uncomfortable mix of arrogance, pride, helpless passivity, rudeness and shtick. He epitomized a certain aspect of Clevelandness. Anyone born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio will immediately understand the boringness of Harvey Pekar. He was a dime a dozen among the depressing characters that populate the failure and misery of a town on the verge of self-conscious collapse. The inherent pride in living in “a tough town” where nothing ever works out and the sky is always the color of domestic violence. A town, STUCK. And the sulfur cabbage farts belting out of the still-born industry smokestacks still hobbling along the Cuyahoga River no longer makes the residents gag.
Harvey represented the mixed lineage of Cleveland, eastern European, predominately Jewish, working class with a pretentious cosmopolitan inferiority. His fame and achievement was local and permanently unrecognized, aside from his trips to the David Letterman show, more as a Midwestern freak in line with Larry Bud Melman or stupid pet tricks than as an established writer. His biggest claim to fame was that his stories had once been illustrated by R.Crumb – a true underground comics hero. All the while, his comics stared out from their local bookstore display, that same panicked scowl, sweaty and untouched by human hand or employee dust rag.
Once the movie came out and he had signed a new deal to produce more comic books, he started bothering us at the library every couple hours a day. He would limp up to the reference desk, asking us to look up specific things for him on the internet. Specifically, always things about him. “Hey willya put into that thing, Harvey Pekar and Comics Journal.” Then he would want print outs of what we found.
You see, he would hear from friends, his wife, or telephone calls about reviews or interviews or other website mentions about him and his new work. He could not wait to read it. And no one at his house would help him look it up. His wife refused to print out what she found nor would she read it to him, even when the site was right there on her home computer screen. Nor could he wait for the weekly package of press clippings he got from his agent. His ego demanded urgency. Immediate gratification. Or at least that is what he told us as he plodded off with his print outs rolled into a tube.
He, also, thought that the grumpy, curmudgeon moniker was overused. He was constantly disappointed that people only latched on to that and did not see his larger purpose as an artist, as a prose stylist. For he really thought he was doing great work, designing literature, telling epic stories. But, in fact, all he was writing were cranky little episodes in the life of a grump. It was what he did best and the thing he most despised in his own work.
So in the end, it really was a movie that brought Harvey fame. Or at least closer to a status he felt he deserved. And once again it was R. Crumb that really made it all possible. Had CRUMB failed as a sideshow attraction of malformed oddities, then a movie like AMERICAN SPLENDOR would never have been green lit. The appeal of the movie is not a celebration of crankiness or curmudgeonly goodness, but rather a sort of gawking expose of kooky weirdoes. Horrible people, living horribly. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, short on pathos, made Harvey famous, not for being a jerk, but for being a pathetic loser who’s life makes our own seem all the more tolerable. And maybe that was Harvey’s purpose all along.