There goes another one, and it's a big one, to boot. I think at this point that Pekar needs no introduction - although he certainly deserves a rich eulogy. Pekar, through sheer willpower, made himself one of the pivotal figures of American comics. Without him, the explosion of prurient 'adult' comics of the late 1960's would never have matured into comics with truly adult content. And by 'adult,' here, I don't mean tits and ass, the centerpieces of underground mainstays like Crumb, Wilson and others. I mean deep, thoughtful and refreshingly inconclusive character studies and meditations on modern American life at the lower end of the economic ladder and the outer fringes of the culture.
It would be impossible, really, to imagine modern 'literary' comics coming to be without his example. No one gave greater proof that comics are as much a writers' medium as an artists' - perhaps even more so, because a poorly drawn comic that's well-written is infinitely more compelling than a well-drawn one that's poorly written - and art comics in the age of the auteur offer example after example of pretty, stylish things without a thought in their head. Crumb himself was never better than when paired with Pekar, and I grateful for the work that they did together, however slim the volume.
There was so much to the man and his body of work that it would take days to sit down and just give a general outline. He was as strong a critic and essayist as he was a storyteller, and the breadth of his knowledge (like that of many autodidacts) was impressive to behold.
That's also the death of a small dream of mine, to have one day illustrated a Pekar story - and given his fealty to young and ambitious cartoonists, not such an outrageous one.
I can honestly say that Pekar is a large an influence on me as any of the other, perhaps more obvious examples (Dave Sim comes to mind, I'll bet). But while drawing pretty pictures and even the more subtle skill of visual storytelling are disciplines that can be mastered with enough patience, the human soul, insight, wit and grace that Pekar gave to his perfectly-observed and structured stories is something that can't be learned, only earned.
It's sort of interesting to view a film that Pekar-portrayer Paul Giamatti made after he starred in the (really stellar) adaptation of American Splendor - Cold Souls where Giamatti - playing himself - trades his soul in for that of a Russian factory worker so that he can bring truth to his portrayal of Uncle Vanya. Of course, the film draws the same conclusion - you can't just borrow soul. It's the one thing as an artist that you've either got or you don't, and Pekar had a lifetimes worth, and more.
Man, I'm going to miss him.
The web is full of eulogies to the man today, and you probably won't do better than the one over at the Zeitgeisty Report, which also features a great interview.