Film Review: American Splendor (2003)

Release Date: January 20th, 2003 (Sundance)
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Written by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Based on: American Splendor and Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar
Music by: Mark Suozzo
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, Donal Logue, Molly Shannon, Josh Hutcherson, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff

Good Machine, Dark Horse Entertainment, Fine Line Features, HBO Films, 101 Minutes

Review:

“Why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?” – Joyce Brabner

Even though I grew up burying my head in comic books, I wasn’t really aware of Harvey Pekar until my late ’20s. Initially, his comic book style wasn’t something I sought out. I was more into superhero comics and sword and sorcery style fantasy epics.

However, I would say that I found Pekar (and Robert Crumb) at the right time in my life. Both men’s work captivated me and spoke to me in a very human but amusing way. Crumb was attractive to my deviant sensibilities, while Pekar spoke to that cynical observational part of myself that’s always watching and analyzing the shit show around me.

I’ve seen a lot of Pekar in interviews and things over the years and I’ve got to say that Paul Giamatti’s performance as Harvey Pekar is fantastic. While he might not exactly look like Harvey, which is actually joked about within this film in a fourth wall breaking critique by Pekar himself, Giamatti just captured the right type of charm and charisma and did this role justice.

Additionally, Judah Friedlander was absolutely spectacular as Pekar’s best bud Toby Radloff. Friedlander was so good, in fact, that even though I saw his name in the credits, I didn’t realize that it was him playing Toby until really late in the film.

All the other performances are also great. Especially Hope Davis as Joyce, Harvey’s wife, and James Urbaniak, who played Robert Crumb in a few key scenes.

The film covers the important parts of Pekar’s adult life quite well. It’s a film that has a lot of time pass in its 101 minutes but nothing feels rushed and every scene seems pretty vital, as the narrative hits the points it needs to in showcasing what was most important.

For someone that’s a professional creative and pretty grumpy on most days, it was easy for me to relate to Pekar and this film. It was a moving picture that tells a sweet story, even if the main character isn’t someone that would be likable by most people on a first impression.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Crumb and Basquiat.

Documentary Review: Crumb (1994)

Release Date: September 10th, 1994 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Music by: David Boeddinghaus
Cast: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Charles Crumb, Jack Harrington

Sony Pictures Classics, 120 Minutes

Review:

Robert Crumb is a pretty intriguing guy. He’s one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation and he made several iconic comic strips that will go on to outlive him. The man is such a unique character that he can carry this documentary on his own.

And I guess that’s a pretty good thing as this film just sort of follows him around on average days. It doesn’t really go too much into his work and his impact, it kind of just assumes that you already know who he is. Some important career things are mentioned and discussed a bit but this really is more or less “a day in the life of…” than a retrospective or biographical work.

But that’s kind of a problem for me.

You see, I know who Robert Crumb is, I am familiar with his more famous work but this film should have had a lot more about why this guy is important, as I feel like the layperson might not pick up on it. They may just see this and go, “Oh, that guy is good at making art caricatures and stuff” and then not really appreciate the context of what’s happening on screen and why Crumb is a pretty important cultural figure.

This is enjoyable but for something lacking context and narrative depth, it’s too long. There just isn’t enough meat, even though director Terry Zwigoff is feeding you a pretty large meal.

I need more protein and less filler, thank you.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Comic Book ConfidentialIn Search of Steve Ditko and other older comic book documentaries.

Documentary Review: Comic Book Confidential (1988)

Release Date: September 10th, 1988 (Toronto Film Festival)
Directed by: Ron Mann
Written by: Charles Lippincott, Ron Mann
Music by: various
Cast: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Sue Coe, Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, William M. Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman, Harvey Pekar

Sphinx Productions, Cinecom Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

This might be the best documentary on comic book history ever made, even if it is thirty years old and might feel a bit dated now.

I first found this as a kid around 1990 or so. A guy that used to work at my local video store gave me his personal copy to borrow and I had to copy it, which I did and then enjoyed for years until the tape warped to shit. I then got it again via a torrent site but finally, all these years later, I now own an actual copy of it.

I was inspired to watch this again, after checking out the commentary done by Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg on their Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. Everyone that’s into comics should check them out, by the way. It’s one of my favorite channels to watch at the moment and I’ve thought about writing about it, as well as a few other channels I enjoy.

Anyway, I love everything about this documentary. All the interviews are pretty engaging and pull you in. It spends time on a bunch of comic book creators from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone gets their time to talk about their work and their creative style.

This also has great music sprinkled throughout and fantastic editing techniques that still look great and that more documentary filmmakers could benefit from using. Creatively, the execution of this documentary felt ahead of its time and honestly, that’s probably why it sucked me in when I was eleven years-old.

Comic Book Confidential also came out in a time when I was drawing my own comic books. This, along with The Comic Book Greats video series, which I’ve also been reviewing episode by episode, were great resources for me as a kid that was trying his hand at the comic book medium.

The highlights for me were seeing Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman talking about their craft. This also made me a fan of the work of Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb. It was also my introduction to Sue Coe, who a lot of my straightedge and vegan friends in my teen years were hardcore fans of.

Comic Book Confidential is, hands down, a must own or at the very least, a must see documentary for long-time fans of the comic book medium. Solid, through and through, and its also a fun and interesting experience.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other comic book documentaries reviewed on this site: In Search of Steve Ditko, The Image Revolution and Chris Claremont’s X-Men just to name a few.