The late Harvey Pekar (he died in 2010 at the age of 70), was by some accounts, a true, original American artist. Often dubbed "the poet laureate of Cleveland", Pekar gained a fair measure of fame and attention when he began publishing his celebrated autobiographical underground comic book AMERICAN SPLENDOR in 1976. The series ran sporadically until 2008.
What was it about?
As the old bromide has it, "write what you know." Pekar, despite a deep and intense knowledge of vintage American jazz records and comic books (both above and under ground), only knew one thing really well: himself. And that's what AMERICAN SPLENDOR was all about. Harvey Pekar. It's all Harvey in every issue. On every page. In every panel. In every word, which Pekar wrote. The stories were illustrated by a variety of artists, the most famous being the legendary Robert Crumb (a close friend of Pekar's and one of my favorite underground artists). But really, that's all SPLENDOR was. All Harvey. All the time.
If Pekar had accomplished something monumental and worthwhile in his 70 years on earth, say a cure for cancer or AIDS, feeding and sheltering the homeless, some society changing technological breakthrough (not that all lives have to nor can be lived on such a grand scale), a comic book about his life and times might have provided some interest and insight. But no, Pekar only achieved celebrity by writing about what a miserable schlub he was, a loser stuck in a dead-end, soul-numbing job (he was a file clerk at the VA), a man constantly pissed off about something, a lonely outcast incapable of finding any degree of happiness. Pekar's life was a bleak wasteland of aggressively neurotic navel gazing, an endless looking in. The resulting portrait, in words and pictures, is of a man who was incapable of getting out of his own way and doing something, anything, productive. He was clearly desperately in need of therapy of some kind and I can't help but wonder how much his life could have improved had he only gotten on the right medication. Speaking as someone who takes a daily anti-depressant, I know full well the benefits of the proper meds.
Instead Pekar channeled his frustration, his rage, his inchoate anger at the world and those around him into his work. He laid out the pages of his scripts, with each panel containing dialogue and captions and stick figures to guide the artists. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, surprisingly, eventually became quite a sensation in the 1980s, with Pekar attracting the attention of a producer of LATE NIGHT with David Letterman. This led to Pekar becoming a semi-regular on the show where he was incapable of relaxing and enjoying the experience and the exposure, unable to understand (or refusing to do so), that Letterman liked him and was on his side. One night, Pekar had had enough and he went into a scathing profanity laced rant against Letterman, NBC, corporate America, television, the audience, etc. Thus endeth Pekar's television appearances.
But a different medium, film, came calling in the form of the 2003 film AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Part documentary (Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner who is an almost equal to Harvey in terms of neuroses, appear throughout the film), part dramatization of Pekar's life and career, the film stars Paul Giamatti in a tour de force performance as Pekar. Hope Davis is also very good as Joyce but Giamatti is absolutely incredible. He brings Pekar to living, breathing, seething life. It's a remarkable performance in a film that I found surprisingly engaging and funny. Produced by HBO films, SPLENDOR was written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They do a great job of bringing Pekar's comic book stories to life and providing some insight into what made Pekar click.
A confession. I've never bought a single issue of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Never read any of the stories contained therein. I suppose that makes me unqualified to comment on the work. If you feel that way, so be it. I know that the few times I paged through the comic in the comic shop, it simply didn't appeal to me. I didn't relish the thought of spending time reading about someone who is perpetually pissed off at the world and refuses to do anything to change his situation. That's the definition of a loser in my book. But the film, which recently ran on HBO, piqued my curiosity and I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did and while I enjoyed the movie, it did not in any way make me reconsider my refusal to read AMERICAN SPLENDOR. I've had my one dose of Pekar and it's enough for me. That itch has been scratched.
But what struck me while watching the film and thinking about Pekar is how we've become a nation of Pekars through social media. Facebook and the like allows us to put ourselves out there for any and all to see and read 24/7, and with no filter whatsoever. We don't have to be able to write coherently or spell correctly. We don't need an artist to interpret our words. We provide the pictures of what we love (food, pets, family, etc.) and what we hate (Clinton, Trump, hipsters, etc.). Facebook is like having your own comic book starring you and written by you.
I'd like to think this would somehow make Pekar happy but I really doubt it. It would probably just piss him off more and lead to another rant.