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American Splendor and the universal grotesque

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Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is infused with trans-generic texts that evoke the spirit of the Rabelaisian carnival, which foregrounds bodily anxiety and sensory engagement. For example, Pekar relates at length his issues with health, food, sex and other so-called ‘base’ preoccupations. There are repeated scenes of physical bodily anxiety, such as Pekar’s struggle with throat ailments and later a cancer, which he presents in such graphic detail that it can be considered integral to his artistic voice. Through this sharing of a visceral, sensory experience, Pekar creates a deeply affecting work to which audiences can relate on a transcendent physical level. The film adaptation of American Splendor (Berman and Pulcini, 2003), with its multimodal and multi-genre form of storytelling, enhances this aspect of his work, retaining much of the physical discomfort and grotesque tendencies but blending music, stage, drawing and documentary film to truly represent the expansive parameters of the original. Most importantly, the film retains Pekar’s ability, through sensory engagement and the grotesque, to reach an audience at their most basic level. This article discusses how the film adaptation of American Splendor, emphasizing the grotesque physical attributes of its characters as well as a multi-modal form of storytelling, demonstrates Pekar’s ability to create a universally understandable mythic universe within a superficially quite personal and specific narrative structure. This, in part, explains why Pekar’s work continues to have a powerful emotional resonance.
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Keywords: American Splendor; Harvey Pekar; Rabelaisian; carnivalesque; grotesque

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Selkirk College

Publication date: 2013-04-01

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  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work.

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