Clevelander Harvey Pekar, star of a long-running comic-book series that he writes and others illustrate, is reminded early in American Splendor that he's no superhero. It's Halloween, and the 11-year-old Harvey, played by a bent-over, sneering Daniel Tay, stands on a stoop, seeking treats from a woman who identifies a lineup of characters by their outfits -- Superman, Batman, Robin, Green Lantern -- but can't figure out who the costumeless nebbish is at the end of the line. "I'm Harvey Pekar," he grumbles, as though that explanation should be enough. "That doesn't sound like a superhero to me," the woman tells him, and off Harvey shuffles, to the taunts of the heroes, who call him "Pecker" to his face. "Why does everybody have to be so stupid?" Harvey mutters, in the familiar lament of the eternally picked-on and the bitterly misunderstood. Even as a kid, Harvey Pekar was one crotchety li'l bastard.
Pekar, living in the shadows as a Veterans Administration file clerk, first stepped into the spotlight on TV's old Late Night With David Letterman. Initially he was booked to plug his comic, American Splendor, which elevated mundane misfortunes into the stuff of heartfelt tragedy and told of a bright man who was better than the dead-end job that he could never bring himself to leave. But Letterman, then living between irony's quotation marks, ill-advisedly tried to turn the crank into a cutesy commodity. Scenes from Pekar's appearance show up in American Splendor: We see Paul Giamatti, as Pekar, fidgeting backstage, but the footage is the real thing, and it's as gloriously uncomfortable to watch as memory recalls.
Letterman and Pekar inevitably suffered a falling-out; Pekar reacted badly to being treated like a clown, and he showed up wearing an anti-General Electric T-shirt and going off on a rambling tirade. This episode is reenacted for the film without much context, thereby rendering Pekar as something of a self-destructive madman -- a street-corner lunatic yelling at passersby. (Years later, when Pekar wrote jazz reviews for a publication for which I was an editor, he and I would also part ways over regrettable differences about his writing style.) But the Harvey Pekar depicted in Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of American Splendor and Our Cancer Year, the graphic novel Pekar wrote with wife Joyce Brabner, isn't a crank or a kook at all. He's merely a regular guy who crawled up the ladder of success feet first.
Harvey, who began writing his comic in 1976, wasn't really a loser; he just thought of himself that way -- as a man "going nowhere," shuffling off to "shit jobs," living a "plebian lifestyle," suffering a series of "reliable disappointments." There's not a nasty bone in his body, nor is his a small, shriveled heart. To quote from the jazz music he so loves, he's just a guy who's glad to be unhappy -- or, at the very least, an overachiever in the body of a nowhere man.
Giamatti, most famous as Pig Vomit in Private Parts, doesn't offer an impersonation; he furrows his brow, hunches his shoulders, bends his lips into a scowl, but it's just a representation, one of many in a film that also uses animated illustrations of Pekar (looking alternately like a hunk and a degenerate) and even a stage-production version, played by Donal Logue. It's the real-life Pekar, seen on a white stage that looks like a cross between a one-man show and a comic-book panel, who engages us the most; you almost wish this were a documentary, à la Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (about Pekar's old pal and collaborator Robert Crumb, who's represented here by James Urbaniak). Pekar narrates and comments from the sidelines; with the real-life Joyce (played in the film by Hope Davis), he alternately mocks what's happening and acknowledges that it ain't so bad seeing your life blown up to the size of a movie screen.
American Splendor picks choice one-liners from the comic, integrates a few characters (among them nerd savant Toby Radloff and the garrulous Mr. Boats, comrades from the V.A.), and spends its final third documenting Harvey's battle with testicular cancer. It's here, just after he meets Brabner, a fan who becomes a character in Harvey's life and his work, that the film warms up. The crank doesn't quite soften, but at least comes to realize that there are bigger fights to pick than with the dishes stacked up in the sink or the old Jewish woman standing in front of him at the grocery checkout.
Bergman and Pulcini love Pekar, which means they don't feel the need to apologize for him or mitigate his cantankerousness; they also adore Brabner, perhaps the only woman alive who saw that beneath the barbed wire lies something soft and gentle. The movie might seem like a mass of post-modern gimmicks, with its thought balloons and comic-panel framing and fourth-wall-busting asides, and its cartoon characters peering over Pekar's shoulders, but it's really a gentle, frank, and often hysterical love story about two people destined, and occasionally doomed, to be together forever. Some of us should be as lucky -- as blessed -- as Harvey Pekar.