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American Splendor: Our Movie Year

Harvey Pekar

Ballantine Books / Random House

US First Edition Trade Paperback

ISBN 0-345-47937-8

Publication Date: 12-17-2004

174 Pages; $16.95

Date Reviewed: 12-25-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction, Non-Fiction

Having become a household name with the production, release and acclaim of his movie 'American Splendor', Harvey Pekar is not content. No, it's not as if he expects more fame and acclaim. Rather, he just wants to make sure that he can afford his rather meager lifestyle in retirement. Of course, this is the retirement of someone who is now a major release movie icon, so nothing is simple. But simple is a rather foreign concept to Pekar, who has managed to make most entertaining mountains out of the molehills of his life. For Pekar, even a trip to fill up his gas tank is filled with trials and tribulations. The fact that he can convey these with crystal clarity is what makes him and the American Splendor series a bona-fide American Institution. I've done a graphic review of this book as well, which readers might find more informative as to the style of Pekar's storytelling. Thanks to the movie, now millions of more people have heard about Harvey Pekar, myself included. Perversely, his writing about the movie experience is not nearly as compelling as his writing about trips to the gas station. But it's still a gripping story, and an excellent, perhaps the best introduction of this unique talent to those that Harlan Ellison once dubbed "the great unwashed" --which in this case, includes me.

The great appeal of Pekar's writing is that he details so beautifully, so perfectly the lives of the great unwashed. His straight-talking prose style and his microscopic subjects and stories bring pathos, humor and pure entertainment to the smallest of life's adventures. Pekar's writing is so strong and his voice so perfectly pitched, it's taken me this long to get around to mentioning the obvious -- that he writes scripts for graphic novels, or in Pekar's case, graphic short and short-short story collections. I'm not sure how many tales are told in 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year'. There's no table of contents, and there's no copyright page telling the readers where the stories were originally published. On one hand, that just gives you pure Harvey Pekar, and that's quite enough. Still, fussy reviewer types such as myself would prefer to have these things.

Pekar's adventures in this collection are illustrated by a variety of artists, as usual. They include the famous R. Crumb, Mark Zingarelli and primarily Gary Dumm. Dumm displays a range of styles that's rather remarkable, which is all for the best, since he's the main illustrator here. While these are graphic stories, they're decidedly verbose graphic stories. Pekar yaks in just about every frame. For one accustomed to reading print novels such as myself, this is quite acceptable, but sometimes one passes too quickly over the quite effective art. It's worth slowing down to enjoy the visions that Pekar's illustrators bring to his work.

Still, the star of Pekar's collection is Pekar himself, with his wife and adopted daughter playing strong supporting roles. For those new to Pekar's work, he includes a segment presumably published in some national magazine --and in color that we don't get to see in this book -- about the origins of his work. But the thrust of this book, the thread that dips and weaves in and out of the stories, is the tale of Pekar's involvement with the movie based on his life. These stories bring to life Pekar's enjoyably neurotic outlook, as he worries about the effect that the blackout might have, and the reception at Cannes and Sundance. Pekar is extremely gracious and appreciative of the warm reception his work engenders, and it effectively endears him to the reader.

But for me, the stories that shine the brightest are those that return to his low-key, real-life experiences. Yes, it's entertaining on a glitzy level to read as Pekar sees Al Gore on a plane while flying to a film festival, or to hear of his meetings with famous actors and directors. But strangely enough, for me, it was a thousand times more entertaining to hear about his trip to have his emissions checked, or to read about his dread of his own birthday and the stereo system he gets as a present. These stories -- and the way he and his illustrators tell them -- are, after all what got him into the movie business in the first place. Perhaps the best aspect of 'American Splendor: Our Movie Year' is that is will introduce millions to Pekar's fantastic prose voice and his unique style of graphic storytelling. One hopes his publishers accord him the respect he deserves as well. I'd love to see more American Splendor, published with the splendor his work deserves -- full-color versions of the stories done in color, a table of contents and source attributions. Even without these luxuries, Pekar is a compelling writer. And perhaps, in retrospect, publication without the luxuries is the perfect setting for his stories.