Cinematic Soulmates: Ghost World and American Splendor

When most people think of comic book movies, they tend to think of muscle bound men and sexy women strutting around in revealing spandex costumes, striking poses and pummeling one another within an inch of their lives.  However, there is another side to comic books, one that looks at the human condition through the lens of ordinary, everyday folks who haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders, given a power ring, or been injected with some sort of super soldier serum.  Welcome to the world of indie comics and graphic novels, more and more of which are finding their way to the big screen every year.  Two of the best examples of this loose genre (for lack of a better term) are Ghost World (2001) and American Splendor (2003).  Not only do both films exemplify what most people think of when they hear the term “indie comics,” but they also share a number of themes in common, all of which makes them perfect candidates for Cinematic Soulmates.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, and based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World follows the adventures of Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch), a misanthropic and thoroughly cynical teenager, and her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) as they leave high school behind and try to navigate the waters of real life in their boring and oppressively normal home town.  One day, while perusing the personals, Enid and Rebecca stumble upon a pathetic and desperate ad placed by Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a self-loathing, middle-aged geek who spends all of his free time collecting records and listening to music that was old on the day he was born.  Enid and Rebecca decide to play a prank on Seymour, but Enid immediately feels guilty about it.  She befriends Seymour, and sets about trying to help him better his life.  At the same time, Enid’s own life is spiraling out of control, and she has begun drifting further and further apart from Rebecca.  Soon, Enid comes to the realization that her refusal to grow up is adversely affecting her relationships, but she doesn’t know how to fix things, as she has no interest in settling down into a normal life.  Finding herself at a crossroads, Enid is forced to decide whether she wants to conform to everyone else’s expectations, or just run away and continue being true to herself.

American Splendor, on the other hand, is based on the comic book of the same name, and chronicles the life of Harvey Pekar (portrayed in the film by Paul Giamatti, in a breakout performance), an irascible and anti-social file clerk who went on to become an underground comics star.  Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the film blurs the line between fact and fiction, and completely shatters our notion of what a biopic can be.  While the film covers a lot of ground, it mostly focuses on two periods of Pekar’s life; his courtship of his second wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), and his harrowing battle with cancer.  Along the way, the filmmakers peel back the curtain, and introduce the real Harvey Pekar and friends, allowing them to speak for themselves through interviews and archival footage.  Thus, the film truly captures the spirit of the comic book that inspired it, in that it serves as a firsthand account of a normal life, while at the same time unfolding as complete and satisfying narrative.

Aside from the fact that both films are based on popular indie comics, they share a number of other things in common, as well.  Both films are examinations of damaged, misanthropic, but ultimately lonely fringe types who are desperate to make a connection with another person, despite the fact that they profess to hate everything.  Enid lashes out at everyone around her, including her meek but clearly loving father (Bob Balaban), but when both Rebecca and Seymour start drifting away at the same time, Enid is clearly devastated.  She did not realize how much she thrived on those connections until they were gone, and it is why she decides to sort of re-evaluate her life late in the film.  Nevertheless, she doesn’t know if she will ever be able to conform to society’s expectations, and this just adds another level of pain and confusion to her already angst-ridden life.

Similarly, Harvey Pekar spends his life afraid that he will die alone in obscurity, yet he seems to actively drive people away.  He is anti-social and argumentative, preferring to retreat into his solitary life collecting records and comics, while only occasionally making some sort of vague connection with other like-minded outsiders, such as sexually dysfunctional comix artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) or genuine nerd Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander).  This is why it is such a pleasant surprise when Pekar strikes up a relationship with the equally irritable and awkward Joyce Brabner, and invites her to come visit him.  He is reaching out to someone who seems to understand and accept him, and in doing so, he is actively trying to change his life and avoid the lonely future he fears is always right around the corner.  Despite everything, Harvey is a likable individual, and we want to see him succeed.  We want to see him get the girl, despite the fact that their relationship at first seems destructive and based on mutual self-loathing.  Eventually, though, we see that this relationship works for both of them, and they soon settle into a sort of contentment, which is all that any of us can really ask for.  Unlike Enid, Harvey has chosen to settle into a normal life, but not at the expense of being himself.  He remains the same petulant, withdrawn weirdo he was at the beginning of the film (and seemingly has been his whole life, if the opening sequence is any indication), only he is no longer facing life on his own.  He has made a connection with another person, which in turn allowed him to open himself up to other people who not only tolerate him but love him, and it’s provided him with something close to happiness.  In the end, that’s all anyone can ask for, really.

Harvey and Enid may be the main characters of their respective films, but they are not necessarily complimentary characters.  In fact, Harvey shares more traits with Seymour than he does with Enid.  In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them attend the same record collecting “parties,” or show up at the same neighborhood garage sales, digging through the same boxes of dusty .45s or wrinkled indie comics.  But whereas Seymour is content (or more accurately, resigned) to collect old records, Harvey strives for more.  He collects stories, and then uses them to claw his way out of obscurity, eventually finding himself as a guest on The David Letterman Show.  The comic is also what brings him to the attention of Joyce Brabner; so in a way, Harvey’s stories about his life are directly responsible for changing it.  Harvey has found a way to make his obsessive personality work for him, turning his life around for the better, while Seymour merely allows his to drag him down to the depths of depression, despite his brief connection with Enid.  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be all that strange to see both men engaged in a heated but friendly debate about old jazz records, or Walt Kelly comics.

While Ghost World is rooted in fiction and American Splendor is ostensibly based on real life, they still manage to explore a lot of the same themes.  Both films look at the existential angst that comes from being an outsider, and they both feature a number of damaged characters who are scared to face life alone and just want to make a connection with others, even if it is based solely on a mutual hatred of everything and everyone around them.  As such, despite the differences in their origins, both films share enough of a connection to make them perfect Cinematic Soulmates.

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