Dusting Off... American Splendour
In our weekly Dusting Off... feature this week we shine a light on American Splendour. A comic book adaptation like no other...
What is it?
This 2003 film directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini stars Paul Giamatti and is based on the true story of Harvey Pekar. For those who don’t know, Harvey has been a cult favourite amongst the comic book and graphic novel scene since the first issues of his comic book series, American Splendour, was published in 1976.
What makes Harvey’s comics different from those you might expect from Marvel or DC, however, is that American Splendour doesn’t have any superheroes, or super villains, for that matter. Instead, Harvey decided to make himself the central character and the comics detail his day-to-day life in Cleveland, working as a middle-aged file clerk at a hospital.
You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds pretty dull, but you’d be wrong: thanks to a combination of colourful characters – all based on the real-life bunch of outcasts and oddballs that Harvey calls his friends – and Harvey’s often unintentional hilarity, largely thanks to his grumpiness, the stories are at equal turns funny and heart-warming, winning him a small but devoted band of fans.
What’s the plot?
The film tells the story of Harvey’s life and the unlikely success story that began with a chance encounter at a yard sale. Harvey meets comic book legend Robert Crumb while browsing through some boxes of old vinyl and the two become friends, bonding over their love of rare jazz records. Harvey eventually presents an idea to Crumb: why aren’t there any comic books about real life people?
Harvey has no real drawing ability to speak of, initially presenting Crumb with some of his hand-drawn frames featuring crude stick figures to accompany his stories. Crumb sees potential in the idea and offers to illustrate them properly, becoming the first in series of artists to depict Harvey in comic book form.
Gradually, to Harvey’s surprise, the comic book starts to gain popularity and before long Harvey is invited to be a guest on David Letterman’s show, soon becoming a regular feature.
The film also tells the story of his relationship with his second wife Joyce, as well as his unusual friends, none more so than Toby Radloff. Toby is a self-proclaimed ‘genuine nerd’ who also enjoys a bizarre but brief wave of popularity thanks to his appearance in the comics, even landing a gig as a presenter on MTV.
Why should I revisit?
Even if comic books aren’t your thing, this is a charming, funny and unique film that is brilliantly put together and incredibly well acted, especially by Giamatti in the protagonist’s role. It also benefits from being interspersed with interviews and voiceovers from the real Harvey, which both adds a documentary dimension to the film and provides a showcase for his genuinely funny ramblings.
Who will enjoy it?
Anybody who enjoys off-beat, indie comedies or just looking for something totally different.