His work has been compared to Mark Twain and Anton Chekov. Harvey Pekar, the “genius of the mundane,” a neurotic, obsessive, erudite comic book writer and cultural historian died early Monday morning in Cleveland. It’s a great loss to American arts and letters.
A pioneer in underground comics, Pekar brought the voices and lives of everyday people to the forefront of his work. While cranky and irascible, Pekar wrote of class concerns with empathy and clarity. His work was an equalizing force kin to Studs Terkels’ oral histories (which makes it unsuprising that his last full-length work was a graphic adaptation of Terkel’s Working.) As Joanna Connors of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote:
“Unlike the superheroes who ordinarily inhabit the pages of comic books, Pekar could neither leap tall buildings in a single bound, nor move faster than a speeding bullet. Yet his comics suggested a different sort of heroism: The working-class, everyman heroics of simply making it through another day, with soul — if not dignity — intact.”
From off the streets of Cleveland…
Pekar is perhaps best known for his biographical comic American Splendor, which elegantly catalogued the unexpected pleasures and frustrations of life in Cleveland, Ohio. Pekar was a file clerk at a VA hospital by day, but wrote prolifically about jazz and literature in his off hours.
Pekar’s work broke open comics as a medium that served a greater purpose sans the superheroics. They elevated daily life to something beyond humdrum–in Pekar’s hands, finding the right pair of shoes for a song at the thrift store was a meditation on style and passing trends. He paved the way for future generations of independent comic artists dedicated to replicating the unsung morsels of daily life.
Pekar was politically outspoken, particularly about the undue influences of corporations. In the late 1980s, Pekar was a recurring guest on Late Night with David Letterman, until he became critical of General Electric on the air (GE owned NBC at the time).
Pekar worked with peace activist Heather Roberson on the book Macedonia, ultimately producing a case study about a country that, despite heavy political pressures, has never descended into war like its neighbor Kosovo. Other works include histories of the Beat poets and Students for a Democratic society.
Pekar’s work merged the personal and the political in a highly accessible way. It embodies a core democratic sentiment: That all people should have access to art and politics–and that even the most unexpected sources have something to contribute to the conversation. To see some of his last works, visit The Pekar Project.
Image courtesy of Flickr user michaelz1.