The Best of American Splendor
by Harvey Pekar, various artists (Ballantine, 2005)

Ostensibly a collection of the best of the underground comic American Splendor by writer Harvey Pekar, with art by the best artists in the business, the strips presented in this volume are twofold: a biography of the writer as well an unvarnished look at the cream of the American Splendor crop. The Best of American Splendor traces the trajectory of Pekar's life from his youth to the making of the critically acclaimed autobiographical movie based on his creation and is very much a companion piece to the film.

What Pekar wanted, when he first created AS, was to show that comics were more than cartoons. He believed that, correctly done, comics could accurately portray the same nuanced, truthful observations of the bread and butter of daily life as other forms of art. Working with the most respected artists in the comix underground, Pekar wrote short stories about small moments in everyday life and self-published them in American Splendor. The collaboration between Pekar and the by-then-infamous Robert Crumb turned into a collaboration that was the comic industry version of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Whether it's a co-worker voicing fear at his daughter's impending parole or a conversation with a bus driver that reveals a previously unknown facet of his personality, Pekar's slice-of-life vignettes are meaningful observations that contain the right amount of stresses and pauses at places where they are most needed, lifting everyday cliches into moments of insight about human behavior. What might seem like an ordinary, everyday moment to the average observer is to Pekar a window into another world that is a great deal more complex than the surface indicates.

Yet he avoids proselytizing and patronization. Pekar has a finely tuned instinct for the algorithms of human existence and captures them beautifully in quiet moments of observation that condense an enormous amount of information into a nanosecond of human existence. He knows when to let a moment just be itself: the stories are as hauntingly intuitive as they are sentimental and compelling. It's a victory of style and substance. Highly recommended for those who need a decent introduction to both Pekar and his work. It is truly an American rags-to-mainstream-acceptance-and recognition story.

review by
Mary Harvey

16 August 2008

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