1. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was a series of autobiographical comics about Pekar’s life in Cleveland. The comics touched mostly on Pekar’s everyday life–his life with his third wife, Joyce Brabner, and their adopted daughter Danielle, money troubles, and his work as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland. Although the comics were comprised of mostly mundane events, they included Pekar’s thoughts and concerns on the matter, and the events began to encompass things like Pekar’s appearances on the David Letterman Show as it gained popularity. The comic also had several offshoots related to American Splendor like Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel detailing Pekar’s battle with cancer during the mid-1990s.
2. Like its source text, the film version of American Splendor is an autobiographical take on the life of Harvey Pekar. However, the film spans a much larger period of Pekar’s life, with the film starting while Pekar is a child. From there the film develops his life, showing his beginning of the comic through his battle with cancer, ending with his retirement party in 2001 after he left his job as a file clerk. In the film Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti, displays the same concerns and fears that his comic counterpart has in the series.
3. Although the film is an adaption of the comic, which itself is an adaptation of Pekar’s life, it isn’t a true adaptation of the comics. It’s meant to function almost like a docudrama, with commentary from Pekar himself and archival footage from events like his Letterman interviews and other major moments. However, it does its best to include elements of comic books, using thought bubbles to convey the characters’ actual thoughts and comic book panels in transitions between scenes.
This article favorably compares the elements used in American Splendor to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The author compares the narrations by Pekar himself to addresses Allen makes in Annie Hall, and the subtitles that show what Allen and Diane Keaton are thinking to the thought bubbles Pekar uses in the film to convey his thoughts. Annie Hall also uses archival footage of Woody Allen’s stand up routines to provide context; American Splendor uses archival footage of Pekar’s appearances on the Letterman show to construct his relationship with Letterman in the film.
The author cited the film as one of her favorites for its unusual mix of documentary, drama, and comedy; she pointed out Giamatti’s dramatic scenes as some of her favorites, but noted that in Pekar’s narration he points out Giamatti doesn’t look like him.
In a preview interview for the film, Pekar explained his row with Letterman–tired of his shtick over Pekar’s profession and that he was still a clerk but publishing the comic, Pekar read up on GE, NBC’s parent company, and claimed his comments were meant to stir Letterman’s jokes about GE, which eventually led to their spat on the show.
5. The characters as portrayed by themselves were more interesting than the depictions of the characters by actors. Although Paul Giamatti is terrific in his portrayal of Pekar–Giamatti is able to capture the feelings he has for the people around him and his concerns with his life effectively–Pekar’s narration gives us a real insight into what Pekar is like–his thoughts on his career, on people he met along the way, and on the adaptation of his life into a film. The footage of the Letterman show demonstrated how effective using actual footage of him was–although Giamatti is a talented actor, it would’ve been hard to top the emotion in what actually occurred. Giamatti pulls off many of the emotions Pekar felt during his career, but they are understood better and made more compelling through Pekar’s appearances and narration, which made his scenes more interesting.