The Beats, a Graphic History
By Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, and many others
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Similar to last year’s graphic history of the Students for a Democratic Society, this collaborative “graphic novel” tells the story of a 20th Century movement of potential interest to today’s hipsters.
For any blog readers here who might have only a glancing acquaintance with the mid-century literary movement, the Beats were a group of prose writers and poets whose work challenged many conventions of the 1950s, both in the style of their writing and in content. The Beat trinity was comprised of Jack Kerouac (who wrote the novel On the Road), poet Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), although the movement included many other poets and a few other novelists. Following attention from the mainstream media, this little band of iconoclasts achieved worldwide notoriety, influenced avant garde literature for decades after, and continue to be read and admired today.
Popular depictions of the Beats also, of course, lead to the concept of the “beatnik,” which very quickly became a target for gentle ridicule by comics, movies, and television shows and imitation by alienated young people all over America, creating the first wave of postwar anti-establishment youth culture.
This graphic history is only semi-successful in telling the story of an odd footnote to American history. In the first half of the book, dealing with the three best known Beats, Harvey Pekar’s straight-from-the-shoulder text covers the facts but doesn’t really illuminate why this gang of misfits had such a powerful appeal. A worse problem for me is that Ed Piskor’s art, while adequate, falls short in the most basic task of making the characters in the narrative look like their real-life, iconic models.
Fortunately, the second half of the book is vastly more entertaining. Broken into short chapters, told by a variety of different authors and artists, part two illuminates “minor” Beats and people directly influenced by the Beats, presenting a vivid and exciting patchwork of 50s and 60s American culture. A section by Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton on women in the Beat movement is especially entertaining as is one by Jerome Neukirch on Chicago character Slim Brundage. Finally, the last piece in the book, on Tuli Kupferberg (by Kupferberg and Jeffrey Lewis), one of the founders of the surreal/psycho/proto punk band The Fugs, is crazy entertaining.
A couple of things struck me reading this book. First was just how astonishing and unlikely it is that a literary movement turned into a cultural one. Later youth cultures – hippies, punks, Goths – were creatures of the media and had little or nothing to do with literature. The second thing that struck me was what a powerful influence homoerotic sexuality had on the Beats – looked at from one angle, they were a gay movement, albeit an unconscious one.
Some of the Beats wanted to turn prose into jazz, lowbrow music that came to be recognized as art, so there is a certain skewed appropriateness in their story being told in another evolved, semi-respectable medium, the comic strip. Pekar and company get points for ambition and innovation, even if the result is mixed.