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Book Review < Back

American Splendor:
The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

Credits: Written by Harvey Pekar and Illustrated by various artists
Publisher: Ballantine Book

Commentary

My first recollection of Harvey Pekar comes from his numerous, bizarre appearances on the Letterman show, back when Letterman was still kind of a tool and the show was on NBC. Pekar, with that weird, wheezing bark of his - to say nothing of the fact that he always looked as if a hand-grenade had just gone off in his head - came off like a lunatic hobo that Dave had on for cruel kicks. Which, in a way, he was.

Years later, Pekar narrated a short of his in Ron Mann's documentary Comic Book Confidential. The short was about Pekar's addiction to collecting rare jazz sides, and how once he tried ripping off a college radio station. He bungles the swipe and freaks out, first because he's afraid of getting busted, and later because, goddammit, he didn't get those sides. It was a sharp little kick of a story about the irrational lengths a collector will go. It resonated with me so much that I still remember moments of it line-by-line, all in that funny little Pekar wheeze-bark voice.

So how was it, I wondered, that there was a comic guy that I knew from movies and TV, but not actually from his goddamn comics?

Finding AMERICAN SPLENDOR has never been easy. In spite of the critical acclaim that it's collected since first appearing in 1976, the book has never sold well. Doesn't matter that it's a trailblazing, astonishing document of everyday life, doesn't matter that some of the greatest cartoonists in the world have worked in its pages, doesn't matter that AMERICAN SPLENDOR is, without hyperbole, genius work on the magnitude of Carver: The bottom line is that AMERICAN SPLENDOR is a slice of life autobiography about a vaguely neurotic file clerk in Cleveland. Tough sell, right? It's the most brilliant comic that everyone loves but few have actually read.

In a stroke of the surreal so odd it boggles the mind, the most critically acclaimed comic-inspired film of this past summer (and the big winner at Sundance) was, no shit, an adaptation of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. What would be another chance for people to know Pekar from everywhere but comics has been thwarted by Ballantine Books, who have reprinted the first two SPLENDOR collections in a single volume, given it trade dress to match the film, and have re-released it into the world at large.

Paraphrasing Brian Eno, AMERICAN SPLENDOR is like the Velvet Underground of comics - not everyone read it, but everyone that did made their own autobiographical comics. Most of which are devoid of the observational skill, the street-level wit, and the pure goddamn humanity of Pekar on even his worst day. AMERICAN SPLENDOR is how that particular world began: not with a bang, but with a weird, wheezing bark.

-- Matt Fraction

 
Matt Fraction splits his time between motion graphics and design house MK12, writing comics, and reading comics. He is the author of the graphic novels The Annotated Mantooth and Last of the Independents, both available from AiT/Planet Lar. He can be found on the web at mattfraction.com. His wife is hot.

 


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