Underground Men

American Splendor and Bad Santa

In 1975, an unlikely hero — working-class, perpetually broke, loudmouthed and abrasive and alienated from the culture around him — set up his soapbox in the pages of a comic book series set in Cleveland. His name, of course, was Howard the Duck. A year later, a slob named Harvey Pekar published the first issue of American Splendor, a magazine-sized comic consisting of autobiographical sketches and meditations he jotted down during his time away from his dead-end job as a hospital file clerk, farmed out to various illustrators and published himself. Unlike Howard, he had to settle for black-and-white pages and a more or less annual schedule and do without ads in which Spider-Man thwarted those who would steal others’ Hostess Twinkies, but to make up for it Pekar had a looser vocabulary and got to actually get laid, though not with any kind of jaw-dropping regularity. Now, 17 years after George Lucas’ attempt to co-opt Howard for the big screen, we have American Splendor the movie, which confirms that Harvey also makes the better movie hero. Of course, special effects have come a long way since 1986.

Mind you, it’s unlikely that the folks at Industrial Light & Magic ever brought off anything quite like Paul Giamatti’s performance as Pekar. Giamatti is one of those unbeautiful, unflashy but meticulous character actors who claim a kind of star status by sheer force of talent. He first attracted serious attention by somehow giving a nuanced performance as a villainously tightassed radio executive nicknamed “Pig Vomit” in the Howard Stern vehicle Private Parts, and more recently he gave one of the few good performances in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, channelling W. C. Fields through an orangutan mask. There he had a faint echo of Peter Ustinov’s slave dealer in Spartacus, and he carries some of that over into Pekar, both in the simianlike bearing and a sense of self-worth he suspects those around of him of regarding as delusional. In one of the movie’s wittiest strokes, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), the fan who’s fated to be Pekar’s wife and soul mate, comes to Cleveland for her first face-to-face meeting after a long courtship by telephone and looks around the station, seeing a line up possible Pekars as he’s been drawn by the different artists who fill the pages of his book. Giamatti is a plausible taking-off point for all these competing visions; he’s dumpy-looking and fairly reeks of unsocialized failure, yet in his way he’s a charismatic figure. He’s trapped in a world that seems concentrated on telling him he doesn’t matter, but no humiliation can actually dent his self-esteem — it just makes him shriller. The movie, like most of Pekar’s writing, could be titled The Man Who Kvetched “I Am!”

Underground comics percolated up from the head-shop gutter in the mid-1960s and provided a place for cranky, hedonistic satirists and fantasists such as Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson and Justin Green to give their imaginations full, unfettered freedom. Sneering and raucous in their attitude towards the pieties of the counterculture as well as those of the “Establishment,” they were the perfect vehicle for the contrarian Pekar, with his grungy outlaw literacy, and it seems typical of him that he didn’t jump in until the scene was considered dead. In 1973, the classic anthology Bijou Funnies published its final issue, complete with a farewell editorial acknowledging that Supreme Court decisions giving local communities the opportunity to set up their own standards of “legal” obscenity, along with such factors as rising costs of paper and printing, had made their job too dangerous to seem worth the effort; Arcade, the best new comic anthology of the ’70s, died after two years and seven issues. In retrospect, the ’70s seem like a transitional period between the breakthroughs of the ’60s and the flowering of alternative comics 10 to 20 years later, but at the time Pekar seemed to have shown up at the party just in time to turn out the lights as everyone else filed out. (Even his ace in the hole — his relationship with fellow record collector Robert Crumb, who illustrated a story for every issue of American Splendor for years before deciding that Pekar was finally steady enough to stand up without him — was a mixed blessing commercially. The mid-to-late ’70s were probably the low point of Crumb’s career, a time when it was fashionable to write him off as a ’60s relic.)

The movie is terrifically entertaining, especially for devotees of the comic, who should get a giggly thrill out of seeing actors like Earl Billings and Judah Friedlander bring regular figures such as the cranky hospital worker Mr. Boats and the self-styled nerd Toby to life. As Crumb, James Urbanek is just uncanny, a dandyish misfit whose celebrity has given him the license to indulge his whims. (Examining Pekar’s first scripts, he reveals a good-natured sadistic streak, mirthlessly chuckling “These are … really … good,” while poor Harvey sits on the edge of his chair waiting for the judgment from on high.) The movie’s writer-director team, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who have previously specialized in documentaries, are fascinated by the way Pekar’s life and work bleed into each other, and by the shifting perspectives the comic provides by filtering Pekar’s view of himself through those different artists. The actual Pekar and Brabner appear on screen, and the actual Toby drops in to flaunt his all-purpose conversation-stopper of a personality just when you’re starting to think that Friedlander must be laying it on a little thick. At another point, Giamatti and Davis act out Pekar and Brabner’s first night together — a classic scene of neurotic modern romance — then attend a theatrical adaptation of the comic, where they get to cringe through a version of the scene acted out on stage by Donal Logue and Molly Shannon.

What is Pekar, exactly? The movie treats him as a mixture of artist, celebrity, and found object. In the early 1980s, the leftist critic Marshall Berman saluted him as a spokesman for the uncelebrated working stiff; as he’s become more celebrated, that’s worked its way into the comic, but naturally, he’s been resistant to actually depicting himself as any kind of success. Though he makes no bones about wanting literary respect, his response to mere good reviews has always been some variant of “Yeah, but where’s the bread?” (In an American Splendor story that appeared around the time of My Dinner with Andre, Pekar described looking forward to meeting Wallace Shawn through a mutual friend, planning to hit on Shawn for his connections or some juice or something, and being floored to discover that this famous playwright-actor-New York literary dynastic figure was just scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, like Harvey.)

After 10 years of self-publishing, Pekar made his first serious break into the mainstream in 1986, when Doubleday published the first trade paperback collection of his work. The cover to that book was a Robert Crumb cartoon depicting an unkempt Pekar stinking up the set of a TV talk show while a Carson-like host stared at him in dismay. Even at the moment of Pekar’s greatest success to date, the implication was that any real celebrity he might attain would have to be that of a sideshow freak, and in fact that was the basically the idea behind the string of appearances that Pekar made on David Letterman’s show in the 1980s; he went on to plug his book, broke the audience up with his grumpy-loser shtick and wound up doing return engagements as Cleveland’s answer to Brother Theodore. It’s telling that the movie’s major deviation from factual accuracy (at least as we know it from the version of his life that Pekar’s told in the comic) comes in the section that recreates Pekar’s stint as a Letterman semi-regular. The build-up to Pekar’s big on-air break with Letterman (which occurred in 1987) is presented as having been precipitated by the onset of the illness recorded in the book-length Our Cancer Year, as if Pekar’s body had gotten sick as a reaction to his whoring for applause from a TV audience he didn’t respect.

Pekar worked his ass off and went in the hole for God knows how much money before he was even in a position to get a real comics publisher to step in and offer to take over the chore of getting his work to the readers. It was that important to him, and that’s why it seemed not just crass but a little obscene when Letterman, in their big on-air spat, sneered under his breath about how ludicrous it was that he was being called illiterate “by a guy who writes comic books.” Pekar is the ultimate model for all the bloggers and zinesters who’ve come along in his wake, secure in their assumption that they have something worth sharing with the world. That might sound like a back-handed compliment when you consider how much meaningless raw data is being set down and disseminated by colorless narcissists across this big blue marble. The difference is that narcissism never seemed to be Pekar’s defining factor, not even when he was writing “stories” about masturbating before work on a cold day and finally getting out of bed to try to find two socks that were still intact. The idea then wasn’t “This happened to wonderful me, so it ought to be of interest to you,” but “It would do the world good to see this in a comic, because it’s not like anything you’re gonna see anywhere else, not in a comic or on TV or at the mutliplex.”

American Splendor, which ends with footage of Pekar’s retirement party from his nine-to-five gig, gives shape to his life and career, and it’s true to his conception of himself as an outsider in this society — a loser to the end. What keeps this from being sentimental is that Pekar accepts society for what it is and isn’t demanding that it change and, more importantly, isn’t dreaming of somehow climbing into a cushier section of it. (In the movie, he pitches a fit about Toby’s claim to draw strength from the movie Revenge of the Nerds, not because he objects to Toby’s regarding himself as a nerd but because of what he sees as Toby’s concession to the mainstream in identifying with glamorized, Hollywood-movie “nerds.”) Pekar doesn’t mind being regarded as a loser, he just reserves the right to scream himself hoarse over the justness of having his own standards and value for himself and people like him. Mel Brooks used to do a routine about a teen idol whose conception of his relationship to his fans was, “We are all singing, I have the mouth.” Change “singing” to “bitching,” and that’s Pekar.

The rowdy, transgressive spirit of great underground comics is something the whole culture desperately needs a shot of right now. The director Terry Zwigoff has done as much as anyone to bring it into movies, with his his great documentary feature Crumb and his own comic book adaptation, Ghost World. (It’s there, too, in the hedonistic-folkie spirit of his debut film, Louie Bluie, a profile of the late musician Howard Armstrong that grew out of the love of a lost musical culture that links him to Pekar and their mutual buddy Crumb. In fact, Zwigoff can be spotted in the very first story that Crumb illustrated for American Splendor, a sleepy-eyed little fellow with a Fuller Brush moustache who looks as if Crumb rescued him from a jar of formaldehyde.) Zwigoff’s new movie, the instant holiday classic Bad Santa, isn’t actually based on a comic, but in every way it’s an extension of the Zap/Bijou Funnies spirit. The most gleefully transgressive comedy in memory, it’s like something cobbled together by Robert Crumb’s Snoids.

The movie’s title flashes onscreen alongside the image of Billy Bob Thornton, in a Santa Claus suit, throwing up in an alley behind the bar where he’s been throwing ’em back, and all any reasonable person should need to hear is that this opening neither misrepresents what follows nor constitutes its peak. It’s a one-joke movie, but the joke has more electricity and juice in it than most you’ll encounter in any current movie, and Zwigoff and his cast really run with it. Thornton’s character turns out to be a safecracker who works once a year, cleaning out whichever department store he and his dwarf sidekick (Tony Cox) have been playing Santa-and-elf in for a month, so that he can spend the time between New Year’s and Thanksgiving drinking and rutting himself insensible. Thornton has given his fair share of wild man performances in the past; the best of them (such as his recent cameo in the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty) can be considered sneak previews for this one. He has a way of making his lines sound dirtier than they are, which given some of his lines here has to be considered a godlike achievement.

A sick joke that ends up as an unlikely tribute to the saving resilience of the doomed — Billy Bob finds himself playing father figure to a freakish social leper of a fat kid who would’ve been tortured to death behind the school gymnasium by the Brady kids — Bad Santa is truly a joyous holiday experience for your ass. The only way anyone will top it next year is if someone remakes It’s a Wonderful Life with Harvey Pekar as a George Bailey who lectures Clarence the angel on the injustice of the savings and loan system and political anarchism and persuades him to join him in firebombing Old Man Potter’s mansion.