Pekar uses a simple but induplicable device to hold the reader's interest sheer force of personality. Most everything in "American Splendor" revolves around Harvey Pekar. From outright autobiography to essays (or "rants" as he calls them) on subjects he cares about, over the twenty-five years Pekar has created a remarkable hot/cold effect with his self-portrayal.
While he often comes off as a genuine jerk, he refuses to play it for laughs or sympathy. Besides being ornery, he's also highly-intelligent, and colorful. He's a working-class intellectual, a reactionary liberal, and a sympathetic jerk. (He is oddball enough to have appeared several times on David Letterman's old "Late Night" show.) It's a complex portrait, and consequently one of the most rewarding in the medium.
The first page of the latest issue, a story called "Payback," drawn by Dean Haspiel, sets the usual Pekar tone when he writes: "I think if you feel rotten most of the time by a certain age, you're always gonna feel lousy . . ." The rest of the piece boils down to a long explanation for why Haspiel was asked to draw the strip. Yes, it's completely self-reflexive and self-involved, another Pekar trait. Basically you like it if you like Pekar.
The other thing "American Splendor" has become known for are its shaggy-dog stories of everyday life. Though he has done fewer of them in recent issues, the latest contains two that are typical. "Reduction," in which Pekar's co-worker, Toby, explains his new diet, concludes with the explanation: "I'm determined to lose weight for the millennium." How simple, yet how radical.
I consider these vignettes "American Splendor"'s greatest contribution to comix. The daring of putting ordinary, "dull" events into comic form, simultaneously elevates the mundane, and challenges the audience with what it means to be a comic. It's almost thrilling. If comics can handle a story about something as trivial as misplacing your keys, for example, they can handle anything. And why shouldn't there be a comic about misplaced keys? That's my life!
The centerpiece story, "Danielle," drawn by Frank Stack, continues Pekar's examination of his home life. As usual, it's a shockingly naked portrayal, this time of his relationship with children. It begins, "The early and middle seventies-what a lonely, awful time for me! It seems like it was always snowing and I was always looking out the window by myself." This leads into his story of getting a vasectomy and eventually adopting, with his wife, a ten-year-old named Danielle.
It's a thoughtful piece, full of issues about love and communication and personal history affecting the present. But at only ten pages or so, it would have been nice to see it developed a bit more. Pekar's self-absorption can turn drama into mere exposition. In one case he fills almost an entire panel with text, explaining his lack of communication with Danielle. At the bottom he looks at us, as if in conversation, while in the background, home from school, she runs up the stairs. It says more than it means to, I think.
Pekar would be the first to say that as a "special issue," "American Splendor: A Portrait of the Artist in His Declining Years," is a crock. It neither focuses on the history of the series nor appears different in any way from previous issues. Still, even as an un-special issue, "American Splendor" deserves attention. Pekar is like the Lenny Bruce of comix. Often funny, sometimes poignant, but always truthful in a medium that mostly specializes in fiction.
"American Splendor: Portrait of the Artist" should be available at most decent comicbook stores.