PRINT Summer 2003


the making of American Splendor

Last January a movie based on my comic book series, American Splendor, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Man, that’s hard for me to believe. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the movie was excellent, but I’m not used to winning anything. My comics sell so lousy. People are always coming up to me and saying how much they like them. I want to reply, “Yeah, but did you ever buy one?” What I did for a living—I’m retired now—was to be a flunky file clerk for the federal government, mostly for the Cleveland VA Hospital, for thirty-seven years. I mean, it was steady work with pretty good fringe benefits, but not the kind of gig that’d make you feel you were one of the chosen ones or anything like that.

So what happened was this: In 1999, a friend in New York told me that he’d done some work for a film company called Good Machine and that one of the producers there, Ted Hope, dug my comics and wanted to base a movie on them. My wife called him up, and bang, they had a tentative deal. I signed an option with Good Machine, but I wasn’t that excited about it, because ever since about 1980 people have been contacting me about doing movies based on my comics (the first was Jonathan Demme, before he made a name), but nobody could raise the money to do it. But guess what? Good Machine got this bright husband-and-wife team, Bob Pulcini and Shari Berman, to write a script, and on the strength of it HBO made a deal with Good Machine to finance the film. Man, I was flabbergasted!

They shot the movie in Cleveland in the fall of 2001, just after I retired. I went down to the set a bunch of times, because the film crew was so nice to hang out with and because I got a bunch of free meals. I had no idea what the flick was going to be like, though. After they finished shooting, I came apart at the seams. I was hospitalized for major depression, and while I was in the hospital, in January 2002, they found out that I’d had a recurrence of lymphoma, which I’d been treated for in 1990–91. So there I was with major depression and cancer. Well, I was in and out of the hospital a bunch of times in 2002. In the summer of that year HBO flew me to New York for an advance screening of American Splendor. I liked the movie, but I was too close to it—and too badly screwed up—to completely grasp it.

Other people must have liked it too, because it got accepted for Sundance. HBO flew me and my wife and kid out to the festival for the premiere. Al Gore was on the same plane out to Salt Lake City. We stayed in a real nice condo at Sundance and went to see American Splendor. The audience loved it. That was surprising, to have hundreds of people cheering me. Al Gore came to the movie, though I’m not sure that was the main reason he’d come to Utah. We saw the picture a couple more times, and it got the same enthusiastic response. At that point companies were competing to distribute it theatrically. I asked Bob Pulcini if he thought we’d win a prize, and he answered something like, “Who knows, but we’ve already won.”

Oh, and by the way, if anyone wants book or record reviews or comics from me, I work cheap and fast. E-mail me at I don’t always write in slang.