At last one of the movies I have been waiting months for has arrived – American Splendour. Partly a drama and partly a biopic/documentary it follows grumpy misanthrope Harvey Pekar through his blue-collar life in a crummy neighbourhood of run-down Cleveland. Talking with his friend Robert Crumb, Harvey decides that everyday life is as complex as anything in books and teams up with Crumb – by then making big waves as an artist – to produce a slice of working-class, everyday life, with himself and his co-workers and friends as characters.
The comic was unique at the time – this was long before the likes of Joe Sacco or Dan Clowes were being published. I came to them in the second phase of my comic book reading life in my mid-twenties. Looking for something different I came across a dog-eared copy of the collected American Splendour graphic novel.
I’ve been dying to see the film since I heard about it going into production. Alex managed to see both the film and Pekar himself during last summer’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and told me it rocked. Well, I have to agree, I was not disappointed. It had the same mix of humour, tragedy and the ridiculousness of everyday life as the books. Watching it and thinking back on the books I was suddenly struck with the way in which AS pre-empted the modern media’s fascination with ‘reality’ shows. Long before the dreadful Big Brother or the staged ‘realism’ AS was bringing us a fascinating, almost voyeuristic look at someone’s life, warts and all.
Actors playing Harvey and his co-workers and friends play out the tale, interspersed with appearances by the real people and their comic-book incarnations too (you have to remember everyone in Harv’s life pretty much becomes a comics character too) – it’s a postmodernist’s dream come true. I especially loved the scenes with Harvey on the Letterman show, which reminded me very much of the trouble my hero Bill Hicks had with Letterman (who was a former colleague in the stand up clubs, which made it worse) described in the excellent biography American Scream. The people who created it obviously have a complete love and respect for the source material and have produced a remarkably unusual motion picture which compliments it perfectly – can’t recommend the film or the book (reprinted recently in the UK by Titan who nicely send me a lot of wonderful graphic novels) enough to anyone.
As a sidebar I found out when I went back to work this week that our one little branch had accounted for 16% of the sales of the graphic novel for the whole of our company. Bear in mind that Waterstone’s is the biggest book chain in the UK with about 200 stores yet our small branch whipped everyone’s ass. Then again we have beat the ass off other bookshops for years on the graphic novel front – the sheer volume of Palestine or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen we sold in 2003 is huge and often way above what even our massive super-store branches can manage. Marketing campaigns come and go, but the best way to really sell books – graphic or otherwise – is to have sections run by people who know what they’re doing and bring interest and passion to it. That’s worth far more than any head office campaign or advertising. And I’m sure when Matthew was commenting that all Waterstone’s were crap I’m sure he meant to add the caveat ‘except the nice Edinburgh one where my mates Alex and Joe run a fabulous SF section with a dynamic range of titles, reviews and tremendous author support’. Well, he better have meant that or I’ll have give his beard a nasty tug and hide all the signed copies of any new Ken MacLeod books from him. Heh.