Review by Fiona Jerome
Harvey Pekar’s mission was always to chronicle real life, largely his own, with an occasional detour into the stories told him by his relatives or co-workers. As a writer of comics he was a true one-off, a pioneer of self publishing with American Splendor who found fame and moderate fortune, and a film deal, almost by accident.
Pekar was a byword for honesty (and grumpiness) – the emotional openness of works like Our Cancer Year is astonishing. Our Movie Year also covers a specific period in the life of Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, and follows their fortunes when Pekar’s work is picked up by a movie producer and a film finally released in 2003. At that point Pekar went from someone a handful of liberal Americans recognized from his appearances on the David Letterman Show to the darling of the arty left which, after a while, began to grate on him.
He describes his experiences on TV and at film festivals with a great deal of deadpan humour, although one or two of the stories seem rather longwinded and too concerned with minutiae; he whines about the surreal experience of finding your own life turned into a film; he ponders the impact the film has on his life, down to whether he’s getting preferential treatment from the vet because of his celebrity.
Pekar gives himself to his audience in a free and open way few creators have equaled, whatever the medium. Willing to share his neuroses, he shows his readers how even when he finally achieves recognition he can’t quite decide whether he deserves or not. His worries are still circling overhead undermining his pleasure. And in between the extraordinary events are short and usually very strong stories about everyday life, undercutting the ‘glamour’ of Hollywood’s plaudits.
Although it has a unifying theme and is as honest and well told as anything Pekar produced, this is an uneven collection that feels like it’s had the format forced on it, rather than simply being allowed to be just another American Splendor anthology. It features a range of artists familiar to Pekar fans, including of course Robert Crumb, but like any individual issue of American Splendor, suffers from the uneaven quality of the storytelling. There are also some odd computer and photo gimmicks courtesy of Joe Zabel and Gerry Shamray, which add nothing to the story. None of the contributors are less than workmanlike, but sometimes that’s the best thing you can say about their art. Frequent collaborators Gary Dumm, always reliable, and sketchy Frank Stack, who drew Our Cancer Year in such a lively, free-form fashion, give the collection some backbone.
The title makes you expect another themed, single story volume but in fact it collects a year’s worth of material, including work Pekar produced for local magazines, which don’t really travel well. It’s a good collection – there are no bad Harvey Pekar collections – but for an introduction to Pekar’s grimly humorous world better an earlier American Splendor collection, or Our Cancer Year.