Follow TV Tropes


Comic Book / American Splendor

Go To
Harvey Pekar in 1986 with a copy of his comic.

"Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."
Harvey Pekar

What is a Comic Book really, but words with pictures? Why, the words could be about anything, as long as the pictures matched. They don't have to be about extraordinary beings in fantastic settings, about Superheroes or Funny Animals.

Why, really, they could just be about an ordinary man, with an ordinary life. They could even be autobiographical.

That's precisely what American Splendor was: the illustrated, sequential tales of ordinary, shlubby Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar, as told by ordinary, shlubby Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar himself (along with a variety of artists), documenting his generally mundane life from 1976 to his death in 2010.

Due to the nature of the series, people from Harvey's life (such as his wife, Joyce and his foster daughter, Danielle) continually appear in the comics.

A film, American Splendor, was released in 2003 starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar. The film both dramatizes Pekar's life story, and vignettes from his comic books. The real life Pekar, his wife Joyce and Pekar's friend Toby Radloff appear as themselves in several on-the-set documentary segments throughout the movie.

See also Robert Crumb, a friend and fellow jazz aficionado of Harvey's, who drew several American Splendor stories (and yes, was even featured in a few as a character).


  • Actually Pretty Funny: In "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," when going over the jabs he had at his surname growing up, Harvey mentions an "admittedly witty" joke his best friend once made: "What comes after the dining car? The Pee Car!"
    Harvey: Despite this we remained friends...
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the story "A Marriage Album," Joyce is seen in a panel imagining the various ways Harvey is drawn in the comic, right before she meets him. Partially lampshaded in the movie, when Joyce talks to Harvey about it on the phone:
    Joyce: You know, I don't really know what to expect. Sometimes you look like a younger Brando... but then the way Crumb draws you, you look... like a hairy ape, with all these wavy, stinky lines undulating off your body. I don't really know what to expect.
    • Joyce is better looking in the movie than in real life.
    • Harvey's smoky voice is much more subtle in the movie.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance:
    • In the movie, Toby is present when Harvey first publishes American Splendor in the 1970s, and Harvey even remarks that Toby is in the issue everyone looks at. Harvey actually didn't meet Toby until 1980, and Toby didn't appear as a character in the comic book until issue 9 in 1984.
    • Also happens in the movie with Harvey's second wife, Lark, and it's exaggerated to an extent. Harvey married Lark a year after starting American Splendor, she's a minor character in a few comics, and they divorced in 1981. In the movie, Lark leaves him in the 1970s, which is what prompts Harvey to start writing the comic.
  • Adaptational Location Change:
    • In the comic story "Ripoff Chick," Carla blows off going to see The Maltese Falcon with Harvey. Harvey later stated that it had actually been a Marx Brothers movie marathon, but for the comic he told artists Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm to draw any old movie that they wanted.
    • For the "Alice Quinn" story. In the comic book, Harvey meets up with Alice at the bank; they go back to her house together, where they discuss Jennie Gerhardt, and Harvey meets Alice's husband. In the movie, Harvey and Alice meet up at a bakery, and then discuss Jennie Gerhardt outside on the sidewalk while walking to her car.
    • In the comic book, when Harvey and Joyce first meet in person, Harvey picks her up at the airport. In the movie, he picks her up at a train station.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the comic story "A Marriage Album," Harvey and Joyce meet and silently embrace, then the comic immediately cuts to them at Chagrin Falls the next day as they decide to get married. It's expanded upon in the movie, which adds a few scenes and lines showing the initial awkwardness between the two, then later ties in the story about Harvey and Toby discussing Revenge of the Nerds.
  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: The story "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets" is about the various incidents that Harvey (himself Jewish) observes of old Jewish ladies trying to get discounts. At the end of the story, he's astonished to encounter an old Jewish lady who actually gives back the extra change the cashier gave her by accident.
  • Anachronic Order: The majority of American Splendor is autobiographical, but it's rarely told in anything resembling the order in which it occurred.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The final shot of the film is the cover for Harvey's book-of-the-making-of-the-film-of-the-book.
  • Author Appeal: Harvey enjoyed jazz albums and was an avid collector (and in fact he wrote many jazz album reviews for several publications), so there are a LOT of references to jazz musicians and songs in the comic book.
  • Autobiography: Written by Cleveland native Harvey Pekar about the day-to-day events in his life.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: This was one way Harvey depicted himself. He's a college dropout who spends decades working as a government file clerk, and refuses any promotions that would increase his workload and income, which later comes back to bite him when he finds that his retirement pension won't be very high. However, he's also very articulate and intellectual, writing pages upon pages of comics, jazz reviews, and his thoughts on literature and other comics. Harvey's graphic novel about his youth, The Quitter, explores this aspect of his personality in depth, deconstructing it by showing how his fear of failure led him to avoid certain situations.
  • Celebrity Paradox: The movie dives headfirst into this, as the actual Harvey Pekar is the narrator of the movie and even comments on how Paul Giamatti is portraying him. The movie proceeds to break down any real assumption of the Fourth Wall, with regular interludes with the real people and the actors taking breaks. One especially brilliant moment shows Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander taking a break from filming, then observing (and laughing hysterically at) the real Harvey and Toby arguing over jellybeans. The end of the movie then shows a sneak peek at Harvey's compilation book based on the experiences he and Joyce had making the very film we just watched.
  • Composite Character: For simplicity's sake their adopted daughter Danielle is depicted as being the biological daughter of their troubled artist friend Fred. In real life Our Cancer Year was drawn by Frank Stack, and Danielle was the biological daughter of a different troubled acquaintance.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Practically raised to an art form. Stories feature Harvey doing this then letting it go, doing to cope with some event, doing it even though his life is too mundane to warrant it, doing it because his life is so mundane that there's not much else to do, and a dozen other variations.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Discussed in "My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism". Harvey is due for his fourth appearance on Late Night, but has several issues with NBC's parent company General Electric that he intends to address on the show. These include his concerns that GE will use the network to promote big defense spending, for selling a nuclear reactor that they knew was faulty, for their appointed president of NBC wanting to start a PAC at the network, for their Kidder-Peabody insider trading fine, and for their history of antitrust violations. This leads to his infamous appearance on the show while wearing an "On Strike Against NBC" T-shirt.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: In the Vertigo story "The Demystification of Idea Generation-Marketing Articles", Harvey reads an internet review of his work. The article says he got his story ideas by "focusing on his own pathetic existence," that he moved from being "a schmuck to a creative genius," and calls his work "about this pathetic loser." He ultimately shrugs off the article's harsher words and focuses on the praise.
    Harvey: [smirking] I'll take it, I'll take it.
  • Depending on the Artist: The comic was always written by Harvey but the art itself was done by a number of different artists, who used their own style. As a result the characters and style looked vastly different from issue to issue.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: Okay, so Harvey's a gloomy guy anyway, but the movie is a lot lighter and funnier at the beginning when it juxtaposes the live action actors with comic illustrations, and the actors with the real life Harvey, Joyce, and Toby. Then the movie takes a turn for the dramatic right around the scene where a passerby recognizes Movie!Harvey as the funny guy from the Letterman show.
  • For Halloween, I Am Going as Myself: A non-supernatural example. The movie begins with a fictional event invented by the screenwriters, featuring Harvey as a child trick-or-treating as himself, in contrast with other kids dressing as superheroes.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Joyce and Harvey, and they stayed married up to his death in 2010. In "A Marriage Album," Joyce talks about it:
    Joyce: But it was just like being at a flea market—you see one thing you never expected to find there and it's so special you've gotta have it, even if it's going to take all your money and you don't know how you'll ever get it home.
  • Funetik Aksent: Harvey used this for people with ethnic accents, including those with African-American urban accents and Yiddish accents. Harvey even wrote himself with a Midwestern American accent.
  • Funny Background Event: In one comic, while traveling the world to promote the American Splendor movie, Harvey, Joyce, and Danielle stop in Northampton to visit Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. In one panel, while Alan and Harvey talk, Joyce is seen in the background worriedly covering Danielle's eyes while Melinda shows them page 31 of Lost Girls.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Harvey and Carla in "Ripoff Chick." Carla is a flaky woman who mooches off of Harvey for a month, and Harvey grumpily puts up with it because he's lonely and wants sex. Harvey fully acknowledges his behavior.
    Harvey: Of course, Carla was right about my viewing her as a sex object. Other than that I thought she was a pretty useless person (dig me - casting stones).
  • Hope Spot: Featured in the one page story "Kaparra," when a former concentration camp inmate tells Harvey a story about a Nazi fence guard accidentally shooting a camp guard who had just bullied the inmate moments before.
    "Ven dat heppened, I knew some vay I vas gonna make it through alive."
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager:
    • Played straight with the boys in "Roller Coaster to Nowhere", who go to Euclid Beach Park looking to pick up girls.
    • Downplayed in "My Journey to Cannes", when Harvey recounts Danielle basking in the attention she gets from the teenage boys from the cast of Elephant.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In the movie, Toby calls out Mr. Boats telling him that it wasn't polite of him to grab the issue of American Splendor without asking despite the fact that Toby did that himself when he took it from the hands of another coworker.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Arguably, depending on your opinion of Nerds Are Sexy. Toby enjoyed Revenge of the Nerds thinking of it as empowering. Harvey wasn't sold on it. He felt that the suburban middle class college kids in the film did not represent folks like Toby, an low income adult file clerk.
      Harvey: "They're gonna get their degrees, get good jobs, and stop being nerds. Look, Toby, the guys in that movie are not 28 year-old file clerks who live with their grandmother in an ethnic ghetto. They didn't get their computers the way you did by trading in a bunch of box tops and $49.50 at the supermarket.
    • For his fourth appearance on Late Night, after enduring three appearances where David Letterman poked fun at him and talked over him, Harvey wants to talk about NBC's parent company General Electric's shady business practices, since he feels like corporate conflicts of interest would stifle the network with censorship and lead to a disinformed public. When he speaks to Letterman about it before the show, Letterman facepalms and tells him that it's Late Night, not Meet the Press. Harvey doesn't take this well, but Letterman isn't necessarily wrong; Late Night is a talk show with an irreverent and comedic bent — which is why Letterman could get away with some light Biting-the-Hand Humor against GE (which Harvey dismissively acknowledges) — and not the serious forum Harvey wants it to be.note 
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Harvey. In the comics, he's moody quite a bit and doesn't suffer fools gladly. But he usually openly admits it, and he's really not a bad guy.
  • Just Here for the Free Snacks: Anytime Harvey goes somewhere that has free meals or snacks, he happily writes about the "free eats."
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Harvey got a vasectomy at 35. Decades later, Harvey and Joyce became foster parents to Danielle.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Carla from the story "Ripoff Chick" is a deconstruction. She is very flaky, speaks in a "posh" accent that Harvey believes is phony, thinks she has ESP, only uses Harvey for free money and lodgings while leading him on, has her coworker do her work for her (and gets herself fired not long after he leaves the company), steals several of Harvey's records for a housewarming party after she moves out, and gets evicted from an apartment for not paying rent. Harvey concludes the story by saying that Carla eventually went to Europe, met a Moroccan kid who she brought back to Cleveland and married, then they left town and Harvey lost track of her.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: Harvey masturbates in one story (by way of a Discretion Shot) as a way to mellow out and alleviate his loneliness, although it doesn't help him much.
  • Medium Blending: The film isn't shy of inserting comic book-style caption boxes, and putting an animated Harvey in a live-action backdrop or have it represent his inner thoughts.
  • Most Common Superpower: Averted and defied. In an interview with Fresh Air, Joyce said that when Harvey brought her into the comic as a character, she requested that she be drawn as a normal woman rather than as a stereotypical curvaceous comic book woman.
  • The Movie: Starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey, with Harvey Pekar and people from his life being interviewed and showing up in archival clips.
  • New Old Flame: A downplayed example with the titular character from "Alice Quinn." Harvey recalls having a small crush on her in college, and he remembers her for several years afterwards, occasionally wondering what it would have been like to date her. He meets her at the bank years later (not long after his second divorce), and though they have a nice conversation, he's disappointed to see a wedding ring on Alice's finger.
  • No Fourth Wall: Oh so often. Quite a few comics have Harvey's avatar addressing the audience directly. Then there's the movie...
  • N-Word Privileges: Harvey told of having been accused of anti-Semitism for stories like "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets", despite being Jewish himself. In the same story, a black fan of Harvey's asks him about the way he portrays other black people; Harvey explains that he always asks if he can use their stories in his work, since most of the people he writes about work with him at his day job and doesn't want to alienate them.
  • One-Steve Limit: Harvey was astonished to learn not only was he not the only Harvey Pekar in the United States, or even Cleveland, but he wasn't the only Harvey Pekar in his neighborhood.
  • Real Life Writes The Entire Comic Series: Pekar wrote the comic mostly autobiographically.
  • Real Person Cameo: All the time.
    • Robert Crumb is depicted in various comics, of course.
    • In "Grubstreet, U.S.A.", he meets Wallace Shawn.
    • In "Jack Dickens' Comic Kingdom," Harvey and Joyce meet a young Ed Brubaker.
    • In "Late Night with David Letterman", Harvey goes on the titular show and talks to David Letterman. Letterman would make a few other appearances in the comic after this.
    • Definitely in "Our Movie Year," which was about the making of the American Splendor movie.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: In the film, both Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander sit watching Harvey and Toby argue over jellybeans, to show that neither Giamatti nor Friedlander are exaggerating or mugging in any way, and that Harvey and Toby really act that way.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Harvey gives one to Carla at the end of "Ripoff Chick," calling her out for calling him a "male chauvinist" whenever he brings up her mooching off of his generosity. He then addresses the reader and points out how it was a Both Sides Have a Point situation.
    • Harvey receives one from David Letterman at the end of his last Late Night appearance, and Harvey responds in kind.
    Letterman: You're not coming back at all—
    Harvey: That's alright, I don't care—
    Letterman: Because we've given you many, many chances to come on this show and talk about things we thought would be of general interest to people—
    Harvey: So what!
    Letterman: And also to promote your little Mickey Mouse magazine, your little Weekly Reader, but you've blown every single chance you got. You're a dork, Harvey.
    Harvey: Dave, you're fulla shit. You're fulla shit!
  • Show Within a Show: The self-referential play within the movie.
  • Slice of Life: Each story is a sectioned off portion of Harvey's day-to-day life. Stories range from his coping with loneliness, his conversations with co-workers, his thoughts on jury duty, and so on.
  • Split-Screen Phone Call: Used in a phone conversation in the movie between Harvey and Joyce.
  • Spoiler Title: The 2006 story "Joy Gets the Job," about Harvey's physician friend Joy applying for a job at a Cleveland clinic.
  • Stealth Parody: Discussed when Harvey writes about Dion and the Belmonts. Harvey describes Dion's songs as really over the top, and discusses the kazoo solo in their song "Little Diane". He says that Danielle laughs at the kazoo...
    Harvey: Which got me to thinking — were Dion and the Belmonts, their songwriters and producers, subtle satirists? I mean, a kazoo. C'mon...if they were, then they deserve even more credit than I gave them.
  • Stick-Figure Comic: Harvey's art style, which he then gives along with the dialog to the artists who will pen the actual comic.
  • Take That!: The single-page story "The Man Who Came to Dinner - And Lunch And Breakfast" satirizes Maus. As he stated in letters to The Comics Journal, Harvey (himself Jewish) strongly disliked Art Spiegelman's loathing depiction of Vladek, saying that the story was written in such a way to make Art look better by comparison. He also had issues with the anthropomorphic portrayals in the comic, saying that it diminished the impact of the Holocaust to a certain extent, and calling it unfair to characterize all members of a nationality as certain animals.note  To that end, the story in American Splendor depicts a Jewish mouse who stays in a Polish pig's basement during the Nazi occupation, then stays and mooches off of the Pole after the war and well into 1990. Both characters are depicted as anthropomorphic animals, and artist Carole Sobocinski apes Spiegelman's art style. Harvey is aware of what he's doing, as the characters in the opening panel state:
    Zigmund: Is this meant to foster Polish-Jewish solidarity?
    Herschel: Or to ridicule what's sacred?
    Harvey: Read on! Then, go figure.
  • Trademark Favorite Food:
    • Harvey's seems to be donuts. He will never turn down a free donut if it's available. In one story he's disappointed when the Late Night green room doesn't have any, and he's seen eating them several times in the movie.
    • For Toby, it's White Castle hamburgers. The story "Say No to Drugs" starts with one of Toby's appearances on MTV extolling White Castle's virtues, and cuts to a discussion between Toby and Harvey about the hamburgers. There's also a scene in the movie where Toby binges White Castle before driving to Toledo to see Revenge of the Nerds again.
  • Underground Comics: Initially a self-published and distributed comic book, although it was later distributed by Dark Horse Comics, and later still Vertigo Comics.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: In the movie, Joyce vomits after kissing Harvey, but we only see Harvey's concerned reactions to the sounds.
  • Wall of Text: Quite a bit, though in American Splendor, the artwork itself isn't the focus; it helps frame the narrative, and it keeps the story going.
  • Well, This Is Not That Trope: From the movie:
    Harvey: If you're the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day... Guess what? You've got the wrong movie!
  • White Void Room: Many comics just feature Harvey talking in front of a white background, and the movie features a scene based on those parts, in which Harvey monologues about other people that share his same name.