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Our Incomplete Memento

 

American Splendor: Our Movie Year

Harvey Pekar

Ballantine Books, 2004

Rating: 4.0

 

January 16, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Despite its title, which purposefully echoes the 1994 Harvey Pekar/Joyce Brabner graphic novel Our Cancer Year, the new American Splendor volume Our Movie Year is not a self-contained, fully detailed account of life for the acclaimed autobiographical comics writer Pekar and his wife during the making of the widely heralded American Splendor movie. While that film, and its effects on the life of Pekar and his family, is a central focus, it's not the only focus of Our Movie Year by a long shot.

Pekar, aided as always by a team of artists of varying degrees of talent (none of whom receive cover credit, so let's give special mention here to the always sturdy Gary Dumm and the scratchy, expressive work of acquired taste Frank Stack), also includes critical pieces on music, film and books, written for and originally published (in comics form, of course) in a host of publications including Entertainment Weekly. This scattershot approach detracts from the agreeable comics-verite sketches that make up the bulk of the collection, and comes across as little more than page-count padding.

Which is a shame, because this distracts from a collection of true-life stories that's distracting enough as it is. The genesis and making of the American Splendor movie is rehashed more than once, in stories (again, first published in other publications) that were obviously never originally intended to run together. In a way, these short stories mirror the film's innovative cross-cut approach: Just as watching Pekar come to life through glimpses of his comics, the efforts of actor Paul Giamatti and Pekar himself offered the viewer multiple perspectives, so do these intersecting tales occasionally help to shade in some details as Our Movie Year thrums along.

That's not the only way in which Our Movie Year, perhaps (self-) consciously, mimics the film: In the short "Waiting for a Jump," artist Gerry Shamray incorporates photography of real people and objects alongside traditional pen-and-ink artwork. The story itself, a vignette about Pekar waiting outside a movie theater to receive a jump for a car that won't start, is a typical American Splendor short, confronting the reader (as Pekar's best work often does) with seemingly trivial impulses and anxieties that speak volumes about his all-too-human personality traits. But the camera trickery doesn't add anything of value to the story, and in fact looks a bit gimmicky. Of course, that could be hindsight talking: Had it appeared in a Splendor issue 15 or so years ago, it'd have seemed further proof of Pekar's nimble and innovative expansion of the possibilities of the comic page. (Likewise, the 3-D computer imagery longtime Pekar artist Joe Zabel employs in another story, "E Check Day," also seems gratuitous.)

None of which is meant to sound unnecessarily harsh, for there's much to recommend Our Movie Year. Foremost among them, of course, are the stories that deal with one aspect or another of the film, particularly those about Pekar's travels to promote the film. The lengthy travelogue "Around the World and Back to Earth" gets a little bogged down in the seeming minutiae of a long promotional trip, but it makes up for that with intriguing bon mots: a visit with Alan Moore; a tantalizing one-panel visit with an unnamed, San Francisco-based comics-artist friend drawing for Marvel Comics (tantalizing, for this reader at least, because of an implied negative attitude toward Marvel on the part of the artist); and Pekar's adopted daughter Danielle's visit with the New Zealand-based special effects company Weta (of Lord of the Rings fame).

But it's the quieter, more character- and personality-driven stories that resonate the most, such as "Cat Treatment," in which Pekar, about to embark on a long promotional trip for the film, wonders if he's getting preferential treatment from his vet because of his newfound celebrity. "Fish Story," about a man's travails caring for his aquatic pets during the great blackout that affected many parts of the U.S. in August of 2003 (and caused Pekar no small stress of his own, coming as it did as his film was about to open), is an all-too-rare glimpse of the kind of observational, almost journalistic storytelling Pekar has proven so adept at in the past.

One wishes Our Movie Year had more such moments, and less recycled magazine covers (with the names of the publications maddeningly excluded) and biographical snapshots of B.B. King, Clifton Chenier and Jimmy Scott. Those readers new to Pekar, inclined to pick up this collection because of the film, would then come away with a better and deeper understanding of what made American Splendor, the comic, worth all the fuss in the first place. As it is, they've got a nice (if somewhat intimidating and, yes, padded) memento to sit next to the official American Splendor movie tie-in trade paperback.

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 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
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