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The Beats – A Graphic History

The Beats – A Graphic History
See below for writer and artist credits
$22 HC/ $14.95 TPB
Hill & Wang

Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (William, not Edgar Rice) are the three most well known figures of the Beat Generation, the “holy trinity” if you like. While Americans were having a post-war boom, enthralled by I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, and Leave it to Beaver and zipping across the land on newly constructed interstates initiated by Eisenhower (Feds creating highways! Take that, you Tea Partiers!), and segregation was a fact of life, those of the Beat generation were disaffected by the polite veneer of social conventions.

My knowledge of this trio along with Neal Cassady is limited: Kerouac and Cassady were friends while Kerouac lusted for Neal who was the model for a character in On the Road; Ginsberg’s poem Howl was found obscene, printed copies confiscated, and he won an important legal case for freedom of speech; Burroughs shot and killed his wife in a William Tell style incident, and punk rocker Patti Smith was often inspired by his writings. Not much knowledge at all. Sad, really, which is why I was intrigued by The Beats – A Graphic History when it was solicited in Previews and was happy to borrow a library copy on a recent visit.

By the way, the line considered objectionable in Howl is: “…who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy…”

Editor Paul Buhle points out in his foreward that the book has no pretensions about its place in comparison to the volume of scholarly books on the Beats. It’s quite alright in my opinion, serving as an introductory primer with indy comics creator sensibilities. Harvey Pekar and Ed Piskor devote nearly one half of the book for telling the biographies of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Pekar didn’t shy away from the recounting trials and tribulations these three faced in their writing, coping with their often terribly problematic sexuality, drug addiction, and general trouble that comes from not fitting in to society. Piskor’s straightforward, indy rooted art style brings the events and the gamut of emotions to life. Perhaps a little too much for me, at least in the Burroughs story because, despite his literary talent, I now find his life decisions detestable. The pair make me curious to read Ginsberg’s Howl and perhaps one day I’ll finally read On the Road, but now I find Kerouac a more difficult person because of how he treated women who were in relationships with him.

The second part of the book is titled The Beats: Perspectives. Pekar and Piskor continue to introduce the readers to lesser known luminaries of the Beats (for example LeRoi Jones, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen) in short two or three paged installments,comprising nearly thirty pages. While perhaps necessary for page limitations, I think some of the subjects suffer from the four panel a page format making the lives and or writing of such talents seem quite mundane. For the remaining seventy one pages Pekar and Piskor step aside as other writers and artists focus on more figures and aspects of the Beats. There is quite a variety of art styles in this section. While I’ve no qualms over Piskor’s unsparing practicality, in such a large volume in unbroken sequence makes the art in the remaining pages a very welcomed change. Peter Kuper uses the form and theme of a tree to visualize Gary Snyder; Mary Fleener plays with pattern of black and white and Tibetan mandala imagery to spotlight Diane di Prima; Summer McClinton brings to bear the roles of beatnik women and the sacrifices and abuses suffered by wives, lovers, and daughters of the more famous male counterparts. Jay Defeo’s eight year obsession with working on her painting The Rose fueled by daily doses of brandy and French cigarettes is the subject of Robbins and Timmons’ piece. Ironically, these stories of women and how they managed in the wake of the emotional or psychological carnage of flawed and conflicted men in their lives.

There doesn’t really seem to be a connection between the Beat poets and comics, except for the Maynard character that was in the cast of the Dobie Gillis show and its short lived comic adaptation by DC. The  favorable verdict in the Howl obscenity trial of 1957 could be construed as later benefiting underground comix artists of the 60s and 70s though it was unable to impact comics labeled with the Comics Code Seal of Approval for kids and teens.

If you’re at all curious about and aren’t terribly familiar with the Beat Generation then you might consider The Beats – A Graphic History as a good source to start. Check to see if your library has a copy or can get one for you through inter-library loan or check out Amazon for a sneak peek and to order.

Writers and artists include: Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Mary Fleener, Trina Robbins, Joyce Brabner, Lance Tooks, Anne Timmons, Gary Dumm, Paul Buhle, Nancy Peters, Nick Thorkelson, Penolope Rosemont, Jerome Neukirch, Peter Kuper, Jeffrey Lewis, Tuli Kupferberg, Summer McClinton, and Joyce Brabner.

May 28, 2010
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