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Published: Sunday, 8/24/2003

American splendor

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND - As the Buckeye State's own Pretenders once sang, bitterly: “Eh, oh, way to go, Ohio.” Now, from off the streets of this city's East Side comes Harvey Pekar, a bona fide underground icon, about to go mainstream, and not kicking and screaming, either, with a big, acclaimed, possibly Oscar-friendly movie about his bitter 36-year existence as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital.

In one scene, he fumes over being stuck behind old Jewish ladies in supermarkets. In another, he drives to Toledo to see Revenge of the Nerds.

Jerry Bruckheimer did not produce - needless to say. Pekar's face is a Mount Rushmore of stony, conflicting expression: stern annoyance sits beside an ambivalent generosity, beside bewilderment, beside a hostile glare that all but moans “Whadaya want from me?”

Also, needless to say, George Clooney is not playing him. They both grew up with Ohio ties. (Clooney's dad was a Cincinnati TV anchor.) But that's all they have in common. So forget it.

Pekar is an unnerving presence in person, but one who eventually reveals an undeniable intelligence and compassion beneath his rancor. His accent is genuine knuckle-dragging Cleveland-ese. Meaning it's got a lot of Brooklyn “sumtins” for “something” and “s'matters” for “what is the matter.” It's also punctuated with long, exhausted, undisguised sighs.

Pekar's eyes do not blink. His eyeballs are huge and watery. And his posture is notable. It's an S curve, a permanently defeated slouch. The first time we see actor Paul Giamatti playing Pekar (uncannily channeling every nuance, actually) in American Splendor, the aforementioned big, splashy movie, Pekar is comically hunched and glum, but strangely humane. He's unapproachable, but open to the world, while always staring at his feet. (The movie's opening in Toledo hasn't yet been decided, but is expected to be Sept. 5 or 12.)

At times directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, a husband/wife team, cut from Giamatti to the actual Pekar sitting on a stark white set. So we meet Giamatti-as-Pekar, then the real guy is asked what he thinks of his big-screen doppelganger: “He don't look nuthin' like me,” he says. “But whatever.”

The first time we see the young Harvey Pekar, he's trick-or-treatin' around his lovably threadbare Cleveland neighborhood, dressed as himself.

Whadaya supposed to be, a lady asks.

“I'm Harvey Pekar. Whadaya think!”

Surrounded by miniature Batmans, the miniature Pekar (played by Daniel Tay) looks furious, and hurt that he can't be accepted as himself. He grows up with his face locked in a scowl. But American Splendor is not about a lonely man who finds happiness; it's about a lonely man who meets his soul mate and finds validation in his life - through art.

But he doesn't change.

By now you're probably asking yourself, why Harvey Pekar? Why was a movie, never mind a great movie, made about the life of a struggling Cleveland crank? Because 27 years ago Pekar began writing a comic book, also acidly titled American Splendor. Before the memoir became the default form for the struggling novelist and Web blogs gave any schmo with a personal computer and an Internet connection the opportunity to share his daily trials and tribulations with anyone interested, Pekar turned the comic book into autobiography.

“When I was a little kid I read comics adamantly,” said Pekar, now 63 and retired. “Batman, Superman - those kinds er' books. When I was around 11 or 12 I stopped reading 'em. But I read a lot of comic strips: Li'l Abner and Pogo. Stuff like that. I thought those were pretty good, and they were aimed at adults. A lot of comic books were just kid's stuff and I felt like I'd just outgrown them. Then Mad magazine showed me that comics could do more, and later I started thinking about an autobiographical comic where I talk about everyday experiences or mundane experiences or whatever - somehow a reader might relate.”

Pekar wasn't the first, said Gary Groth, the editor of The Comic's Journal. Underground comic legend Robert Crumb tried autobiographical comics earlier - indeed, Pekar approached Crumb to draw his first issues of American Splendor.

“But Harvey always had a real unique voice,” Groth said. “His stories were steeped in a quotidian life. They were introspective and inconclusive. My problem is no matter how carefully structured they were, over the years Harvey's schtick in his comics became him. When he started getting on Letterman, and turning into this celebrated crank, the comic book started eating its own tail.

“No one wants to read about Harvey buys a cucumber unless he has something to say about the act of buying a cucumber.”

Pekar met Crumb in 1962 in Cleveland. “We were both pretty big jazz fans and then Crumb got this job at the American Greetings Corporation and he did pretty well for himself. He was doing this comic book novel and it just dawned on me that were was no limit to what you could do with comics. It's an art form. You can do anything with words and pictures. So in 1972, when Crumb was visiting again, I showed him these stories I had written about my day. I don't draw. I used stick figures. He said he liked them and agreed to do 'em, and that's it.”

Pekar used a new artist for every issue. The result is dozens of artist variations on Harvey. (The movie uses a lot of them too, with animated Harveys drifting into live-action.) But he always wrote the words. His subjects became overheard conversations and trading rare 78s and how little money he made writing American Splendor. When he gained a bit of fame as a cantankerous guest on David Letterman's NBC days, the life of a minor celebrity became his topic. He once looked for his wallet for 22 pages. But somehow made the act itself sublime.

American Splendor, in short, is a comic book about nothing, and if that description has a hint of Seinfeld in it, Pekar is first to bring it up: Once he was on Late Night With David Letterman with Jerry Seinfeld, and Pekar says they talked about his comic book. Years later, of course, Seinfeld did a sitcom about nothing, and Pekar's not convinced it's a coincidence.

“Harvey doesn't have an ounce of baloney in him,” Giamatti said. “It just doesn't compute with him, and I think that throws people. He's an incredibly smart, self-aware guy. My theory is he kept that filing job at the VA for close to 40 years because he knew it was excellent material for this huge panoramic comic book about everything. Part of him said, `This is great stuff,' and he just started crafting his entire life - in a weird artist kind of way.”

Pekar turned his colleagues and his wives into characters - and the film does, too, placing the real person opposite the actor. But mostly he focused on himself, in spare, yearning scenes that don't end with punchlines or triumph or easy irony. Often they don't end at all, but trail off, just as life sometimes does. In that way, American Splendor is perhaps even more influential than Crumb.

It's the obvious starting point for acclaimed modern comics like Ghost World and their subjects of everyday people hanging on the fringes of society, not content to see their cities filling up with the chain coffee shops and big box electronic stores - with homogenization. In other words: Pekar's comics are always played in a minor key.

“Let's just say I'm not a huge fan of American Beauty,” Giamatti said. “For some reason, comic books are addressing suburbanization and lower middle class blue collar angst better than anything else. The most obvious comparison with Harvey's work is probably Theodore Dreiser. Harvey's work has the same melancholy tone, and it's very much similar to that Midwestern naturalism stuff. I love that sort of realism. The language is spare. But what I like about Harvey best is he's his own best character. And he knows better than to get poetic.”

Pekar's view is that anyone who likes his stuff enough to make a film would at least try to do a good job. He said the first time he was approached about a movie was 1980. The director was Jonathan Demme, the Oscar winner behind Silence of the Lambs - the perfect choice for generating the melancholy in American Splendor. “But he had no money,” Pekar said. Besides, Harvey had bigger worries: He had cancer, as documented in the movie, and Our Cancer Year, the comic he did with wife Joyce Brabner (played in the film by Hope Davis). He's since relapsed. Then there's his thing with money. He is not shy about bringing it up.

“I'm retired now,” he said. “I've been writing jazz reviews, especially since 1959. I did it for little or no money. I never made no money writing. It was a labor of love. All this was. Now I'm on a fixed income. I have a wife and 14-year old girl to support. Money is important. That's a big thing with me. I thought a movie might mean publicity for the comic, because my stuff has never been real popular - there've been great critical comments and the American Book Award and all that. But I'm kind of pessimistic. Maybe something will come of all this.

“It's one of the best movies I've ever seen - and I'm not just not just saying that, you know, because I'm in it and because, you know, it's all about my life or anythin'. I'm not bragging or nuthin.' They did a great job.”

And with that, Harvey Pekar manages to sound grateful and profoundly disappointed and at peace with the world - all at the same time.



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