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New DVDs shed light on comic-book culture

John DeFore

It was a sad day for lovers of nonmainstream comics last month when Harvey Pekar, author of the "American Splendor" series, died in Cleveland.

Obituaries for the writer, who helped invent the open-ended comic-book memoir and whose lively, prickly mind kept him one of the format's most distinctive voices even after a deluge of navel-gazing artists followed his lead, could only go so far in conveying Pekar's appeal. Fortunately, we have the very fine film "American Splendor" (HBO) to expand the portrait. Ignoring the line between documentary and biopic in the same way the series ignored assumptions about what topics comics could address, the movie occasionally lets us glimpse the man himself while we're watching an actor (Paul Giamatti) re-create episodes from his life.

"Splendor" is a gem and has been on DVD for years. New to the shelves this week, though, is a Blu-ray release of "Crumb," whose subject played an important role in Pekar's life and is even more stubborn than Pekar was in critiquing the failures and disappointments of contemporary culture.

Viewers of the 1994 "Crumb" were astonished to learn that, for all his artistic importance, old-timey affectations and sexual eccentricities, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb wasn't necessarily the most interesting person on-screen.

Robert's brothers Charles and Max endured the same painful childhood environment he did, but didn't manage to channel their own creative talents into careers. When we meet these funny, tragic characters, one is still a recluse in his mother's house while the other practices dubious monklike rituals such as passing a long linen tape through his digestive system to "clean" his insides.

The Criterion Collection's new edition of "Crumb" offers almost an hour of unseen footage, providing further evidence of the clan's fascinating strangeness. And viewers intrigued by Charles Crumb's childhood artistic output will find his entire "Famous Artist Talent Test" reproduced in the an accompanying facsimile booklet.

Alongside "Crumb," Criterion has released director Terry Zwigoff's previous film, 1985's "Louie Bluie." Another documentary (and a more modest one in scope), this focuses on Howard Armstrong, an elderly fiddler who was a member of an important black string band in the early days of recorded music. Emphasizing present-day performance and candid footage of Armstrong, the movie celebrates a musical genre that Crumb and Zwigoff cherish (they were bandmates for some time in the Cheap Suit Serenaders) — and while Harvey Pekar's tastes ran more toward jazz, it's a safe bet he would have appreciated Zwigoff's record-collector enthusiasm for his subject.

Those eager for more of Pekar and Crumb should, of course, go read their comics, many volumes of which are in print.

But both men can also be seen in Ron Mann's sometimes-charming, sometimes-overreaching 1988 documentary "Comic Book Confidential," where they take their rightful places among modern alt-comix stars (Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Jaime Hernandez and many more) and superhero trailblazers like Jack Kirby.

In 2002, Home Vision released "Confidential" alongside a late-'80s BBC doc "The Confessions of Robert Crumb" — a more straightforward effort than "Crumb" that might be truer to the cartoonist's image of himself but misses much of what makes Zwigoff's film a must-see.