[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B000216XRQ][/pullquote] American Splendor was originally a series of comic books focused on the author Harvey Pekar. The series followed Pekar’s everyday life and his interactions with work colleagues, family and strangers in the street. Unlike the most well-known comic books, American Splendor veers away from sensationalist fantasy, like you’d find in say Superman or Batman and instead uses the medium of comic books to tell a semi-autobiographical account of life in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2003, a live-action/animated hybrid feature film was released based on the comic books. Harvey Pekar used his experiences on making the film to write a new series called American Splendor: Our Movie Year.
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. He spends his days working, discussing culture with colleagues and fills his life with records, books and other thrift that he buys from garage sales. He meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), a greeting card artist who later goes on to find success with underground comic book distribution. Crumb’s success convinces Pekar that comic books are a legitimate art form, so he sets about writing an account of his life in comic book form. His books, American Splendor, never over-sentimentalise and try, as truthfully as possible to capture the essence of his working class life.
The success of a film like American Splendor relies heavily on the central performance of the actor playing Harvey Pekar. In Paul Giamatti, the producers and directors found on of Hollywood’s finest actors and a man who can perfect encapsulate everything that Harvey is and represents. He is able to convey the smallest success or crushing defeat in such an everyday life and make it interesting and fascinating for the audience to watch. He is acerbic, grouchy and potentially unlikeable, but in Giamatti’s hands becomes something of an anti-hero. The fact that he has to play alongside animated versions of Pekar and even the man himself, shows just what a charismatic and talented actor Giamatti is.
The film covers two of Pekar’s books and shows exactly how he came to write the comic in the first place. It also blends animation, live film and real life making American Splendor one of the first semi-autobiographical, fictional, animated documentaries of all time. With all of these disparate elements, there are times where it seems like it’s on the verge of descending into a car crash, but the originality of it all is just unbelievable to see.
Unlike any other comic book film, and most like a Woody Allen film in tone and pacing, American Splendor stands among the great comic book films and shamelessly proves that the art form of comic books is not necessarily exclusively the domain of the over-powered super-heroes, or gothic graphic novels.