Cult comic writer Pekar adds touch of drabness to chic Cannes

By DAVID GERMAIN, AP Movie Writer
CANNES, France (AP) - The life story of grumpy, frumpy comic-book writer Harvey Pekar does not seem like the stuff that Cannes Film Festival movies are made of.
Yet Pekar's long and grouchy road has taken him from a dreary file clerk's job in his hometown of Cleveland to cult celebrity status for his comics about life's little miseries. Now he's the subject and co-star of his own biopic.
"American Splendor" won the top dramatic honor at last winter's Sundance Film Festival and is playing at Cannes before its debut at U.S. theaters in August.
The film stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner. The real Pekar and Brabner, along with foster daughter Danielle and some family friends, pop up in the movie as themselves, sometimes taking over for the actors and giving it a clever blend of narrative story and documentary. Pekar also narrates the film.
Cannes marked the first overseas trip for the 63-year-old Pekar, who retired in 2001 after 37 years as a clerk at a Veteran's Administration hospital.
Among the fashionable Cannes crowds, Pekar cut an unassuming figure in his black pants, black T-shirt with an "American Splendor" comic graphic, faded denim jacket and, as his wife notes, his "carefully coordinated moth holes."
"I must say I'm having a nicer time than I expected to," Pekar said. "I was kind of terrified at 63 years old coming over to Europe my first time. I was kind of apprehensive the first time I spoke English to some French guy, he was just going to turn his back on me and walk away, or start screaming.
"But we haven't had any problems. People have been very, very nice to us here."
Pekar has come to expect shabbier treatment. A self-educated connoisseur of jazz and literature and pack-rat collector of records and books, Pekar ambled his way through two broken marriages and a life of general discontent among an odd circle of friends and associates.
His "American Splendor" comics, which he began publishing in 1976, chronicle his everyday grousing about work, money, social issues and the monotony of life.
In a summer season filled with movies based on comic-book heroes including "X-Men" and "The Hulk," "American Splendor" presents a darkly humorous portrait of the comic world's anti-superhero.
"We say, Harvey's not an action hero. He's an inaction hero," said Robert Pulcini, who wrote and directed "American Splendor" with filmmaking partner Shari Berman Springer.
Written by Pekar and illustrated by comic artists including his friend Robert Crumb, "American Splendor" developed an underground following and landed Pekar as a recurring guest slot on David Letterman's late-night talk show in the 1980s. The movie incorporates archival footage of some of Pekar's actual Letterman appearances.
The comics also led him to his wife. A partner in a Delaware comic store, Brabner struck up a correspondence with Pekar, and the day they finally met, they decided to get married. They celebrated their 20th anniversary at Cannes this weekend.
People who have seen the movie "complain that when I decide to marry Harvey the day we met, that that just seemed too Hollywood. But that actually happened," Brabner said. "Hollywood has taken things like that and ruined them, flogged them to death, but those things do happen once or twice in your lifetime."
Pekar said he hopes the movie will draw more attention to his comic books and possibly land him more work as a freelance jazz critic. He remains skeptical about whether the film's early festival success might improve his outlook on life.
"I'm pretty pessimistic. I'm unhealthily pessimistic," Pekar said. "I wish I could enjoy the moment more than I've been able to so far. I'm trying to."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)