Description: On the Possibility of Adapting Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, with a Coda about a Comic Book Proust
Date: 27 September 2003
I promised you American Splendor this week, and American Splendor you shall have. I meant the new film, but despite my best intentions I haven’t seen it yet. You’ll have to wait until later for that; instead, let's go back to the source, Harvey Pekar’s comics.
Pekar’s been publishing stories about his life in Cleveland for over 25 years. With a few exceptions (most notably Our Cancer Year, drawn by his wife Joyce Brabner), Pekar’s work is anecdotal; he scripts scenes from his life working at big federal office building or driving around town, worrying about his career. I really don’t know what to expect from the film, not only because the comics collectively known as American Splendor don’t tell a particular story, but because Pekar commissions a variety of artists (the most famous being Robert Crumb) and so the comics don’t really have a visual style for the filmmakers to emulate. Ghostworld, the last big indy-comics adaptation, had both, and turned out to be a good movie and a great adaptation. Pekar’s art lies in pacing, and his best stories achieve an effect unique to comics. Part of that effect is timing. Pekar’s scripts manage reaction with panel-to-panel transitions. The final six panel page of “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets,” drawn by Crumb, shows a old woman returning extra change to a negligent cashier. Harvey is a witness to this occurrence and a bystander in the depiction. None of the three changes position, and Harvey doesn’t even change facial expression. The woman returns the quarter in the first panel, and the cashier plunks back in the register in the third, even while denying her error. The last three panels show Harvey in a spotlight, interpreting the incident for us. In brief, the episode caused him to reevaluate his assumptions about old Jewish women and their pecuniary habits. In the penultimate panel, Harvey stands still, with his hands in his pockets. Finally he tells us, as a short of verbal shrug, that he thought it was “one of the most interesting incidents that [he] ever saw in a supermarket… maybe the most interesting as a matter of fact.” This timing might be compared to classic stand up comedy, waiting a beat to nail the punch line. (I realize the example doesn’t seem funny in the retelling. 'Had to be there' as they say, so go buy Bob and Harv’s Comics, still in print I believe.)
But in comics, the set up and punch line always co-exist. The impression of Harvey standing mute stamps itself on the almost identical image of him speaking. Scott McCloud talks about this effect in terms of time being translated to space, but in effect it’s a sort of vanquishing of time. Maybe this is what makes Harvey’s immortalizing of mundane moments out of time so affecting. Harvey’s most famous saying is “Ordinary life’s pretty complex stuff,” and his work has been devoted to exploring that statement. In his weaker stories, Harvey comes to some kind of conclusion about ‘life.’ His better stories usually flirt with moralizing (his frustration with his artistic career often takes the form of righteous indignation) but maintain the complications and tensions in the end. His best story, “Hypothetical Quandary,” fits this description. It’s also drawn by Crumb, though it’s a little later so it’s in his less cartoon-y ink brush style. The events of the story are typical: Harvey drives to the bakery on Sunday morning to buy some bread. While doing so, he worries. The quandary he struggles with is how he would continue his work if he becomes successful and is able to quit his day job. His increased success would sacrifice his workaday point of view. Approaching his car with his loaf of rye, he realizes it’s all hypothetical, because the publisher he’d been talking to has seemed to lose interest in him. The final two panels are classic Pekar: he silently takes a sniff of the bread and then thinks “Ah, fresh bread.” This comfort in the discovered glory of mundane life, which for Harvey Pekar includes fresh bread, jazz records, and the wisdom of janitors, is what “American Splendor” is all about. While casual readers might assume the title is ironic, it isn’t. Some of his recent work has with Gary Dumm has broadened the range of our splendor by including stories about his favorite jazz musicians. Some of Harvey's heroes died in obscurity, including Kid Oliver, a major American artist who spent his final years as a janitor in Savannah. With the steady attention further spurred by the movie, this fate isn’t likely to befall a certain retired file clerk from Cleveland.Speaking of jazz, you may say that “improvisations” is as good a word as any to describe these pieces I’ve been writing. I decide on a few themes and subjects, then try to write my way around the points I’ve sketched out in my head. I did okay with Harv, but didn’t get to the new comic I read last week. I was going to fold in Stephan Heuet’s new version of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (NBM 2002) into a discussion of comics and adaptation. Heuet has produced two lovely volumes based on parts of Proust’s vast novel. He started, naturally enough with Combray, but apparently skipped Swann in Love so as to focus on M’s story. A comics Proust sounds ludicrous I know, but Heuet doesn’t try to replicate the strolling 500-word sentences of the original, and instead captures the beautiful images summoned by M’s active remembering. Heuet’s style recalls the clear lines and rich colors of Tintin, though he’s a little more adventurous with Herge with his use of aspect-to-aspect transitions, expanding and luxuriating in the texture of the recalled moments. Sitting here, I can’t recall any image between young M reading the timetable and Albertine jumping over the old man on the board walk (the material covered by this album) which Heuet doesn’t replicate, though in condensing 300 pages of prose into 48 drawn pages, I’m sure plenty has been lost in translation. But if they ever make a movie of Within a Budding Grove (Raoul Ruiz has done a splendid Time Regained, by the way), I think they could do worse than adapt Heuet's version.