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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Art Evolution: 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.
- Author Appeal/Genius Bonus: Harvey enjoyed jazz albums and was an avid collector (and in fact he wrote many jazz album reviews for several publications), so there were a LOT of references to jazz musicians and songs in the comic book.
- 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 the actors taking a break from filming and observing (and laughing hysterically at) the funny interactions with the real Harvey and Toby. 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.
- 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.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Harvey does this in one story as a way to mellow out and alleviate his loneliness. Except it doesn't help, and it's a squicky scene anyway (but thankfully we get a Discretion Shot).
- Death by Irony: Harvey was on antidepressants to make himself feel better. He died by accidentally overdosing on them.
- 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 Harvey as a child, trick-or-treating as himself in contrast with other kids dressing as superheroes. This is a fictional event invented by the screenwriters.
- 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 occasionally wrote himself with a Midwestern American accent.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- Mandatory Motherhood: Harvey got a vasectomy at 35. Decades later, Harvey and Joyce became foster parents to Danielle.
- 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.
- The Movie: Starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey, with Harvey Pekar and people from his life being interviewed and showing up in archival clips.
- No Fourth Wall: Ohh 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.
- Real Life Writes The Entire Comic Series
- Real Person Cameo: All the time. Especially in "Grubstreet, U.S.A." (where he meets Wallace Shawn), and definitely in "Our Movie Year," which was about the making of the American Splendor movie. And Robert Crumb is depicted in various comics too, of course.
- 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.
- Show Within a Show: The self-referential play within the movie.
- Slice of Life
- Spiritual Successor: To the works of Jack Kerouac. In fact, in the forward to the first American Splendor collection, Robert Crumb mentions that Harvey is the type of person who wouldn't be out of place in a Kerouac novel.
- Split-Screen Phone Call: Used in a phone conversation in the movie between Harvey and Joyce.
- Stick-Figure Comic: Harvey's art style, which he then gives along with the dialog to the artists who will pen the actual comic.
- Underground Comics: Initially a self-published and distributed comic book. Later distributed by Dark Horse Comics, and later still Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Vomit after a kiss.
- 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.
- White Void Room: Many comics just feature Harvey talking in front of a white background.