Saturday, June 18, 2005


Best of American Splendor

Best of American Splendor
Written by Harvey Pekar (mostly)
Art by loads of different people

Harvey Pekar is, or was for the duration of this collection, a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital. It's a shitty, unskilled job that Pekar's been doing for a long time and Pekar lets you know this. American Splendor is Pekar being crotchety, he complains about stuff all the time. Weather, money, cancer, TV appearences, it doesn't matter what it is, Pekar will manage to spin it into something negative. That's really the charm of Harvey Pekar though and it came through really well in the American Splendor movie that was released a few years ago.
I really enjoyed the American Splendor movie, though I must admit that despite being a comic nerd I'd never read any of the American Splendor comics until after the movie had come out. I'd heard of them, but I hadn't read them. Since then I've read a number of his works (notably American Splendor and Unsung Hero) and seen him in another documentary ("I, Curmudgeon)" and have discovered that Pekar is...a crotchety old guy. A lovable crotchety old guy who writes some good comics.
Pekar is sort of an oddity in comics in that while he writes autobiographical comics about his boring, kind of shitty life (normal enough) he doesn't actually draw them. Instead he gets other comic artists to draw the stories he for him, and he's worked with a number of well known comic book artists over the years. It's interesting seeing his work filtered through a number of different people's artwork as we see many different visual representations of Pekar and the other people in his life.
In fact the number and quality of different artists who have worked with Pekar on American Splendor is impressive. Sure I knew that R. Crumb was friends with Pekar and had worked with him on his comics, but until I read this volume I didn't know Joe Sacco had illustrated any of Pekar's work, let alone this much. Some of the art in the book isn't too my liking (though most of it is), but even when I don't like the art to a story, it's still worth reading just to see what Pekar will say.
The actual stories themselves are, for the most part, incredibly mundane, which is part of the charm. They're conversations between Pekar and other people, or just random things that happened to him. Some of them are interesting in that they're basically comicbook reviews or articles on jazz or literature. It's interesting to read criticism in the format of comics (it doesn't always work) and through them it's clear that Pekar is incredibly knowledgable about certain areas despite not having studied them at university or anything. I was incredibly happy when a book Pekar said was both incredibly good incredibly unknown (Andrei Bely's "Petersburg") was one I had actually read (and written essays on). My Russian degree has a use after all! (Though I can't admit to knowing anything about the jazz Pekar talks about.)
While this volume is called "Best of" I'm not sure how accurate that is. It's just collecting work from the 90s and early 00s and as the previous book put out by Ballantine collected (I believe) everything published up to the early 90s I'm wondering if this book just publishes everything from the 90s. If so I'm not going to complain as this book is full of excellent comics. In fact I think I actually prefer this book to the other big American Splendor collection I've read. Whereas that one was incredibly depressing and I found I could only read a few stories at a time, this one, for whatever reason, didn't have the same effect on me. Perhaps it's just that Pekar has truly mastered writing these stories by the time the 90s came around or perhaps I've gotten used to his complaining. Either way, there's one thing that unites the comics of this book, which is their overall quality (excellent).


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