American Splendor (2003)

Analysis of Book

American Splendor was a series of comics written by Harvey Pekar with a focus on the real world instead of the extended fantasy of more common place superhero comics. Seeking to make a comic book for adults, Harvey Pekar draws on events from his life to find the humor and artful drama of an ordinary American life. Through this he  reveals his morose and angry disposition at having a dead end, blue collar job and a life that seems set to mediocrity. The realism presented in these comics proved to be quite popular as more people could relate to the happenings in his routine American life.

Analysis of Film

American Splendor is a sort of biopic on Harvey Pekar and an adaptation of his popular autobiographical comic series. The film itself incorporates several different film styles to stay true to Pekar’s comics. It is part animation, documentary, biopic and adaptation that come together seamlessly to tell Pekar’s story. Animation in the form of comic panels and dialogue bubbles in live action scenes remind people that this movie is based off of Pekar’s several graphic novels, where he pioneered a realist movement. Interview scenes and documentary footage interspersed throughout the movie reveal the directors’ documentarian roots as Pekar candidly explains his inspirations for American Splendor and his other comics/graphic novels. This is a story about an ordinary person just finding the complexity and drama in simple things that happen all the time to most people. His voice over narration of the seeming mundane events that occur in his life reveal Pekar’s deep insight into his view of the world, which turns out to be a gloomy and miserable one sprinkled at times with happy undertones. For all his pessimism though, Pekar reveals a glimmer of hope and optimism when he reflects about the nature of living at the end of the film, “Sure I’ll lose the war eventually, but the goal is win a few skirmishes along the way, right?”

Analysis of Adaptation

The film adaptation of American Splendor stays true to form to Pekar’s original work by mixing genres. The film manages to keep to the themes and overall feeling of Pekar’s comics even though it isn’t a scene for scene accurate copy. The inclusion of comic elements like panels and dialogue bubbles help remind audiences of the roots of the source material. The documentary parts of the film served to provide a backstory to Pekar’s comics and this combined with his voice over narration turns the story into an autobiographical account of Pekar’s life.  It also serves as a way to remind people that Pekar derived all his stories from his own true experiences and successfully draws humor from the series of unfortunate events in Pekar’s life.

Online Research

  • Interview with directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, and Paul Giamatti.

  • Review in New York Magazine.

  • Interview with Harvey Pekar where he discusses his thoughts on the film and how filmmakers handled his material.

Critical Analysis

After reading his comics, some people consider Harvey Pekar a difficult, negative person, while others claim they can see a concerned, compassionate person trying to break out of the kvetch. What did you see? And did you see anything different in the book excerpt as opposed to the film?

Although Pekar’s negative, difficult and morose personality is dominant there are still several instances where he demonstrates that he is a concerned, compassionate person. He is patient, understanding and most of all friendly to Toby and gets defensive when he sees that networks like MTV are exploiting and making fun of Toby and other “salt of the Earth type people.”  A somewhat more noticeable turn around in his negativity seems to turn around when he is diagnosed and treated with cancer. After being close to death, he seems to have reexamined his priorities and tries to do right by Joyce. When he is sick, he sees the joy that Joyce gets from playing with his artist’s daughter so he insists that the artist bring her every time. Although he never gives a reason, there is a subtext that he is doing it for Joyce’s sake because he wants her to be happy. Even though he claims he’s terrible with kids and would never want to have one, he takes in Fred’s daughter after both of her parents aren’t able to care for her.

In his rant on David Lettermen, Pekar demonstrates his compassion for the lower class of America as he talks against the concentrated power of media and government. His compassion and sparse optimism comes out most effectively at the end of the movie when he has this to say about life, “Sure I’ll lose the war eventually, but the goal is win a few skirmishes along the way, right?” In the movie Joyce claims that Pekar had a tendency to keep out the good or happy parts of stories so all audiences ever saw was Pekar as a negative, dark person. I don’t believe that Pekar truly is as morose as he comes off in his work but a fairly balanced person that the public never got to see until it is revealed in this film.


One thought on “American Splendor (2003)

  1. lordbyrne says:

    Pretty good analysis. Especially insightful argument paragraph. But I had to take off a point for lateness. 9/10. JB.

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