From the beginning of Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), we are presented with many versions of Harvey Pekar:
A comic strip frames Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), an uncostumed kid on Halloween in 1950. When asked what he’s dressed as, we learn that this kid is no super hero. He cranks off, “I’m Harvey Pekar. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood” and storms off with the voices of kids mocking his name in fading echos.
If memory serves correctly, we hold that same external comic frame and fade the content to actor Paul Giamatti walking that same street playing the film’s character “all grown up.”
• A voiceover of the real Pekar tells us Harvey Pekar is also a real guy and we eventually meet that guy in a sound studio being interviewed, documentary style, by Shari Springer Berman.
• Interspersed are comic renditions of the character talking to us in bubbles, telling us about who he is.
• Giamatti thinks in bubble text at the supermarket where the idea for American Splendor was born.
• We meet “the comic renditions” of Pekar again at the the train station when Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives for the first time.
• Later, we get clips of the real Pekar on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
• Giamatti also stages Pekar’s volatile GE/NBC blast on the same show.
• Last but not least, we see one more permutation when Giamatti acts repulsed while watching a play about Pekar played by Donal Logue when the voiceover adds that he, the real Pekar, wonders how he?ll feel seeing Giamatti play him in this movie.
The genius mix of reality and fiction is enough to make my head spin…
On one hand, Harvey Pekar is very real. He documents his every day life events and those of his work acquaintances in American Splendor comics. He has appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” as your average guy from the Cleveland rust belt (although he doesn’t seem very average to me). He has always kept his job as a VA hospital file clerk. Now he’s produced enough work and acquired enough fame to appear in this movie but divulges the fact that he’s doing it for the money. Throughout every rendition of American Splendor, Pekar’s reality bleeds from life to art and back again.
On the other hand, Pekar, like any artist, hand selects moments that portray his reality in a particular way. The comic story is first selected and shaped by Pekar. As one of the film’s screenwriters, he has some sway over what makes the film. Although he does little to openly display his controlled artistic bent, we get a small clue when, by his own admission, he says he has not always portrayed his wife accurately. Pekar also relinquishes much of his control?when rendered visually by a wide range of artists. That control is once again wrested from him with the inclusion of other screenwriters. At one point, he fears what the film’s outcome will be with so much room for interpretation by others. In these small spaces, we can see that the real Harvey Pekar is not so easy to pin down. Perhaps this is why, after seeing other HP’s in the phone book, Pekar ponders both who they are and who he is.
This fictionalized reality becomes interesting in that, although Pekar rebels against commoditization of corporate entertainment, particularly as he and self-proclaimed “nerd” Toby Radcliff (Judah Friedlander) are commandeered on “Letterman” and MTV, Pekar has ironically been in the business of commodifying himself from the beginning. The Pekar doll made by Joyce, now his wife, is the perfect metaphor for Pekar’s construction process. The clothing is something Pekar has truly worn, the fabric of his reality, so to speak, and something everybody can relate to. But it is his face, ultimately his identity, that is the creation of an artist. By making himself a comic book character, the visual product patterned by and after Pekar himself is what has been for sale at every stage of the game.