Harvey Pekar's working-class, ordinary-palooka autobiographical comic American Splendor has been earning enthusiastic critical acclaim for decades without scoring much mainstream popularity. He came closest in 2003, through Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's innovative film version of his work: Part biopic, part comics adaptation, and part narrative experiment, American Splendor sparked an wave of interest that carried Pekar around the world for publicity appearances and conventions. Just as American Splendor the movie promised in its closing scene, Pekar has documented the experience with Our Movie Year, a collection of comics written about and during the period surrounding the movie.
It's disappointing that Our Movie Year doesn't offer one cohesive storyline, like Pekar's intimate cancer diary Our Cancer Year. Most of Our Movie Year's constituent comics are undated and unattributed, but many of them originally appeared in other venues, so they often cover the same ground for different audiences. Pekar summarizes his career, praises the movie, and airs his ever-present anxiety about finances and the future several times with relatively little variation, and he offers little detail about the filmmaking process, beyond the observation that he hung out on the set often to chat with the cast and enjoy the "free eats."
Our Movie Year perks up after the movie production (and the repetitive exposition) wraps up, as Pekar documents his ensuing depression and treatment, his brushes with minor fame, and his worldwide publicity trips. But his travel coverage tends to be sweeping, generalized, and vague. Only the trivial stories about his home life, his car, his family, and his cat capture the old American Splendor vibe. Pekar also devotes a sizable chunk of the book to critical looks at musicians and films he admires, including musical history, reviews, and detailed liner notes for the American Splendor film soundtrack.
The results are scattershot and even sometimes impersonal, which is unusual for Pekar's work. It seems incongruous that his world-hopping and his celebrity encounters should so often be humdrum, while his detailed recounting of an hour spent waiting for a tow truck is so involving. The book's most riveting segment by far doesn't even involve Pekar; it's a first-person story from a friend whose salt-water fish died when a blackout took out his aquarium pump and air conditioning. Without sentimentalizing the story or mocking his friend's intense focus, Pekar captures the little details of process and emotion that made the event into a grim private tragedy. Our Movie Year only intermittently finds that level of detail, but when it does, it captures the mundanity and personal depth that's always made American Splendor a fascinating read.