In the biopic "American Splendor," cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar frets in the supermarket. "This may be the shortest line, but I'm taking a risk because it's an old Jewish lady," he says. When the woman argues with the manager, he storms out of the store.
The banal but frustrating scenario is typical of Pekar's autobiographical comics, the source for the well-received film. The movie chronicles his miserable life as a working-class intellectual in Cleveland, his dead-end job as a file clerk, his prickly third marriage, his weird friends, his cancer scare, his unplanned parenthood and his struggle to turn his life into a comic, although he can't draw. An edgy hybrid of cartoon, drama and documentary, the film -- by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman -- won this year's top prize at Sundance.
While previous comic book superheroes counterbalance their Jewish creators' fear of anti-Semitism, Pekar empowers people in a different way. "By recording the average person's mundane struggles, he elevates the 'little guy,'" Pulcini, 38, said.
Pekar's wry observations about these unsung heroes make him "the ultimate mensch of the comic world," Tikkun magazine wrote in 1992. In the tradition of Yiddishist-socialist authors of the early 20th century, he is "the self-educated, militantly egalitarian Jew in a world of pedigreed deceivers."
Not that Pekar, 63, has escaped his own case of Jewish paranoia. "His pessimism feels like Jewish immigrant angst," said Paul Giamatti, who plays the artist in the film. "That was crucial for me in approaching the role: his family's Holocaust legacy and the financial instability of his childhood home."
At the Four Seasons Hotel recently, Pekar -- looking incongruously cheerful in a Hawaiian shirt -- described growing up with Polish parents who lost relatives in the Shoah. His mother, the daughter of a schochet (kosher slaughterer), was a communist who read the Daily Worker and refused to attend synagogue. His father, an Orthodox talmudic scholar, agonized over having to work Saturdays to eke out a living in the family grocery store.
"Every night he would play cantorial records, the last thing before he went to bed," Pekar said, quietly. "A lot of it was so mournful ... I wouldn't be able to sleep."
His 1992 comic, "Sheiboneh Beis Hamikdosh" ("That the Temple Will Be Rebuilt"), describes how he tried to like the music, but couldn't until he was asked to review a cantorial record as a freelance critic in the 1970s. "Then I could see the beauty of it," said Pekar, who by then had lost his father. He named the '92 comic after the most famous song of his father's favorite cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky.
While Pekar now considers himself a champion of Jewish music, he preferred jazz albums in his youth. It was while scouring a 1962 garage sale for LPs that he met underground comic book artist Robert Crumb: "His work got me thinking that comics didn't have to be just about superheros, but about wage slaves like me," Pekar said. When Pekar showed him the storylines he had created, Crumb agreed to illustrate them.
The result, in 1976, was "American Splendor," which made Pekar a godfather of autobiographical comics. Recurring characters included his nerdy co-worker, Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander in the film), and an elderly pal who recalls pushcart peddlers in 1987's "Pa-aypr Reggs!"
Other comics describe Pekar's complex relationship with his wife, Joyce Brabner, who alternately praised and grumbled about her husband during an interview.
"I'm supposed to be the balabusta while the house is falling down around us," she said, wryly. "And there's Harvey ... with his elbows sticking through his sleeves, reading and reading because Jews are supposed to be the 'People of the Book.' It's like 'Knowledge is golden but money, well, that will take care of itself.'"
In fact, financial concerns were a reason Pekar sought to turn "Splendor" into a film starting in 1980. Two decades later, he finally enlisted producer Ted Hope and filmmakers Pulcini and Berman, known for lively documentaries such as "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's."
"Our first point of bonding with Harvey was that we come from ethnic backgrounds he can relate to: Jewish and Italian," said Berman, 39. "The second point was that we were not going to turn him into some fake, Hollywood hero."
The writer-directors cast Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar"), known for precise portrayals of losers, to play the gloomy Jew. One of Giamatti's techniques: "I found a CD of cantorial music and listened to it to evoke a melancholy mood."
Pekar, in person, transitions from melancholy to fretful -- the kind of guy who'd agonize over the supermarket checkout line.
"I'm obsessive compulsive and unhealthily pessimistic, and the success of the film hasn't changed that," he said.
"American Splendor" opens today.
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