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The Forgotten American Splendor

Warning SPOILERS….for an autobiography?!


Whenever someone uses the term comic book film(movie) they’re of course referring to a “Superhero movie”.  So when the topic of the best comic book films come up at the top is usually “Spider-Man 2”(wow what an original title!), “The Dark Knight”, “The Avengers” and now “Captain America: Civil War”.  The thing is most movies based on comic books(strips, graphic novels, etc.) aren’t about superheroes(check up on this).  There are films based on comics that people don’t realize where.  You can check my youtube channel in the Graphic Description playlist I show a ton of them there.  Well, anyway, I decided to review perhaps the best comic book film that’s barely remembered now and was oscar nominated as well as being a biopic.  


Sorta.  It’s a bit complicated but let’s take a look at the 2003 film adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s “AMERICAN SPLENDOR”.


American Splendor the film is an at times a loose adaption of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic of the same name.  What makes Harvey so interesting that he deserves a film about him?  Well he was middle-aged cantankerous VA file clerk who got popular writing an comic book about his observations of everyday life.  While also surviving 3 marriages, the lost of his voice as well had at least one bout with cancer and many bouts of depression.  I think that’s a pretty good basis for a movie but hey let’s take a look at the film.


The movie begins in 1950 on Halloween where we see a bunch of kids in costume at a house trick and treating.  Let’s see Superman, Batman, Robin, The Green Lantern(Alan Scott we’re more than a decade away from Hal Jordan and the Silver Age!) and a miniature George Castanza?!  It’s Harvey, he didn’t even bother with a costume.  After getting flustered by the line of questioning from the lady at house he just up’s and leaves wondering why people are so stupid.  (I can’t believe the lady was giving away caramel apples…UNWRAPPED NO LESS!)  This scene may seem a bit unbelievable.  There’s a reason for that.  This never happened.  The film-maker put this in as a way for us to get a handle on how Harvey’s going to be the rest of his life.  Frustrated, sad, angry and disappointed at everything, everyone including himself.


This is just the beginning.  In this film we’re going to see the real Harvey and people he know’s talking to each other in a scene.  We’ll also see the real Harvey talking with movie Harvey within the same scene.  It’s also part documentary at times where the real Harvey is being interviewed as well as the real people the actors portray.  There’s also comic book panels used to transition from scene to scene.  Sometimes with in the same scene.  A great example would be the opening credits.   The movie introduces us to adult Harvey via a comic strip.  (It also does this with the opening credits of the film.)  From there the movie resembles a comic strip in that until the climax there isn’t a main story linking everything.  It’s more a string of individual moments.  When you think about it that’s how life is.  So here are some great moments from the film.



*(1975) Harvey literally loses is voice and after seeing the doctor about it he goes home to learn that his 2nd wife is leaving him.  Oh, think of this is a dark comedy.


* Me finding out that it wasn’t Paul Giamatti narrating the beginning of the film(and perhaps the whole thing) but the real Harvey Pekar.  


* Seeing Harvey’s first meeting with Robbert Crumb 1962(at a yard sale) coming together over their love comics and jazz.


* He briefly discusses his passions such as when he started listening to jazz.  Also How he became a collector of things in general.


* The moment Harvey realizes he’s sick and tired of being sick and tired of where’s he’s at in his life and tries his hand and drawing comics.  He’s fails hilariously.


* Harvey’s frustration with people at the supermarket and comic book Harvey is talking to movie Harvey.  Meta surrealism and it’s best.  This event leads to Harvey coming closer to finally realizing “AMERICAN SPLENDOR”.


* When Crumb offers to illustrate Harvey’s writings and American Splendor comes about.  We finally see Harvey happy.  Today doesn’t suck anymore it’s only a “semi-bummer day”!   


* The introduction of his future 3rd wife Joyce Brabner and their unconventional love story(movie wise anyway).  Eventually we get to hear from the real Joyce when in-between scenes she and Harvey are being interviewed.  She basically says what we thought.  Harvey focuses on the gloomy depressing side of life in his comics.  Perhaps he get’s some comfortable perverse joy from it?  Or maybe he thinks the constant negative of life will sell more than the positive? 


I guess the best way to describe Harvey and Joyce’s relationship is the wrong people meeting at the right time.  There’s genuine love their but both of them are severely broken.  At times during the film I thought they might only be together because they don’t think they can do any better.  A heart breaking scene is when we realize that Joyce desperately wants children but Harvey had a vasectomy before they met(that’s something you should discuss before getting married).  This adds to Joyce’s downward spiral and to their eventual separation.  This does get resolved by the final act.  I have to admit I got a little misty when that happened.  Also Harvey’s initial reaction during that scene is priceless.




We see footage of Harvey from his appearances on on the Late Show.  It’s uncomfortable and funny but the most uncomfortable scene is when they recreated his last appearance where he goes off on Dave.  A big deal of the discomfort comes from the the obvious stand in for Dave.  Yoinks!  Also what led to the breakdown was his separation with Joyce.  Despite his issues with her he did love and count on her.




There is a very brief adaption of the graphic novel “American Splendor: Our Cancer Year”.  It’s within the last 20 mins of the film.  It was good, however we only see briefly how Harvey and Joyce deal with it.  The film is only 111 mins long so events had to be cut.  The thing is the graphic novel of it is 252 pages long.  An entire film could be made just on that.  This was further proved when there’s a montage of scenes from the comic of particular events.




The film jumps a year ahead in the last 9+ minutes of the film.  Harvey is in remission and he and Joyce are at a signing for “OUR CANCER YEAR” which they both co-wrote.  The adaption of (our cancer year) was only 10 mins.  If this film were made today by a more indulgent director the film would be almost 3hrs and the graphic novel would’ve made up one hour of it.  In the final 5 mins we see the film transition from Movie Harvey to the Real Harvey walking down the street.  This leads to us seeing the real Harvey at his desk on his last day of work.  All the real people in his life surprise him him with a retirement party.  Was this partly contrived by the film-makers?  I don’t know, maybe.  Thing is these are the real people and this was his last day.  Funny how that coincided with the end of filming of the movie.


The movie ends will Harvey finally smiling and seems content and happy with his life.  The last shot is of a copy of “American Splendor: Our Movie Year”.



American Splendor ran for 39 issues.  it was yearly from 1976 - 1991 and a more erratic schedule from 1993 - 2008.  

It started as an independent comic it would later be published and reprinted in DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics.

American Splendor wasn’t the only comics he wrote.  He did another bio of his early life called “The Quitter”(2005).

He wrote an bio comic about Michael Malice “Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story”

“So yeah I guess comics brought me a lot.” Harvey near the end of the film.



The acting is great all around.  I’m sure if some people just see some some clips of the movie they’ll feel that the acting maybe to broad but during the film we actually meet the real life people and see that they are as odd as the actors that portray them.  This just goes to show that real life is usually stranger than fiction.  



A mixture of jazz and 60’s r&b.  The music helps gives a relaxing feel thru the film.  I thought about it and if it were going the movie would’ve been tough to get thru.


RECOMMEND?:  Obviously.


This is a great film.  It’s a great study of a person and how he sees the world around him and how he deals with it.  I know people will question about this being a “comic book movie” but I believe it counts.  We see enough moments of the comic adapted in the movie.  With the story being told in an unconventional way I think that welcomes more people to watching it.  Do you like comedies, documentaries, drama’s or biopics?  Well here you go.    



I get the feeling from listening to Harvey and from this film what he really wanted was a legacy.  To matter.  With the work he created in the latter half of his life he did that.  Of course he also created a family along the way.  He seemed to want to be remembered.  I understood this feeling because before I “retired” from the phone company I realized that if I died right then in my apartment no one would know for months.  I’d be easily forgotten.  I wanted to create something so I could have a legacy.  A form of immortality.  That’s why as a failed artist I keep trying.  Because I sure am not going to get married anytime soon and it’s too late to have kids.  So this is the only way I can have a legacy.  It’s a main reason why people have kids or create a legacy.  I’m about the same age as Harvey when he started “American Splendor”.  If he can succeed after all that time there’s a chance that I can too.


So  I supposed the main reason this is one of my favorite films is that I have a personal connection to it.  It helps that it’s a great film as well.

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