What Harvey Pekar and “American Splendor” Teaches Us About Staying True to Yourself

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I love the movie “American Splendor.” You know, the documentary-cum-feature film about underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar. The Oscar-nominated film was released in 2003 and still airs on HBO every so often.

In the film, Paul Giamatti plays Pekar, a Cleveland native, as a lonely, sort of misanthropic character. He mostly serms intellectually isolated — he works a lowly day job as a file clerk but his real interests are records and books. In this, Pekar is a blue collar hipster, a man before his time. It deeply inspires his work, the comic American Splendor.

Pekar died in 2010 and to the extent that he was ever really a mainstream figure, the movie helped him get there. Before the film, he had a cult following, critical acclaim and a handful of awards. He’d also frequently appeared on David Letterman’s TV show (that is, until he boycotted the station on-air). And yet it was never enough. He was still just a file clerk. Which was the source of much frustration.

Not only was American Splendor not really selling, but it was also a financial drag. In 1984, almost ten years after he began self-publishing, the comic was losing money. “I literally lose thousands on it,” he said. By 1993, sales had increased, but he was was still only moving about 7,500–10,000 copies. Asked if he found this demoralizing, he said: “Everybody wishes that they would reach a larger readership, I guess.”

As Pekar released more books, that readership grew. It was never significant, and there were many low moments, but it was something that was uniquely his — American Splendor largely dealt with the humorous trivialities of Pekar’s everyday life. Perhaps millions didn’t care about that, but thousands did. Enough to merit a film.

When the movie was released, it broke Pekar out into a wider audience. It was, as they say, a platform. And given that platform, the books really started selling. The money he’d long been denied started rolling in.

Two years after the movie came out, Pekar said: “Since the movie, my book sales have really, you know, skyrocketed. I mean going from practically nothing into respectability. I mean I actually for the first time in my life, and I’ve been doing comics for many, many years, I’m actually making royalties. I feel like that’s quite a luxury.”

When I was researching Pekar’s sales numbers, I was blown away. Given its enduring popularity, I couldn’t imagine American Splendor selling as little as it did (note: in an interview I am far too lazy to go around looking for, especially for a Medium post, he says the first few issues sold less than a thousand copies).

But the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense. Pekar, in his day, was not unlike many famous jazz musicians, guys who were celebrated by critics and a small coterie of die-hard fans, but who never really sold any records or made very much money at all.

That’s the very essence of being underground.

Now, had Pekar had pandered — like, if he’d made comics about super heroes — I think it’d be easier to write off his pre-movie readership as the workings of a failed comic book writer. That isn’t underground, that’s just being unsuccessful.

When Pekar said his royalties were a luxury, they were; and they certainly didn’t last, if later interviews are to be believed. But for almost thirty years, he did his own thing, and the audience was small and loyal. Finally, it had gotten bigger.

Now, everybody clamors for a large audience. But many try attaining that audience by giving people exactly what they want. They think that by doing that, the audience will come. Then they get mad if it doesn’t.

Following Pekar’s example, if you don’t pander, it may take you longer to gain the audience — and even then, it’s not guaranteed — but the upside is you may one day be seen as a true original. Maybe they’ll even make a movie about you.

“I’m trying to create my own genre,” Pekar once said.

Now that’s a goal worth aspiring to.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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