The Beats: A Graphic History

Non-fiction graphic works are a relatively new development. Harvey Pekar has been a pioneer in this field, with among other things, his history of the SDS. The Beats: A Graphic History, written by Pekar with Paul Buhle, Ed Piskor, et al.; shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre. Although it is overall a compelling portrait of the Beats, there are some aspects of it I found unsatisfying.

The label “Beat” has been applied to a wide variety of writers and artists from the mid-twentieth century. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a hostility to convention and to societal restraints. Pekar believed that they paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960’s. Interestingly, they tended, with the notable exception of Burroughs, to come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds: Kerouac’s mother was a factory worker, Kenneth Patchen was the son of a steelworker, Slim Brundage’s father dug ditches, Diane Di Prima’s grandfather was an anarchist, and so on. They tended to be left-wing in their views (though Kerouac and Burroughs were politically right-wing). Another common characteristic among these writers was an attraction to Buddhism. Allen Ginzberg became a devoted practitioner of the religion. Philip Whalen went so far as to have himself ordained as a Buddhist monk. (William Everson, however, became a Dominican.) Pekar doesn’t try to explain this attraction. Were these people merely rebelling against the churches they were brought up in, or was there more to it than that? Sadly, Buddhism didn’t help Kerouac with the severe alcoholism that led to his untimely death. (The Buddhist writer, D.T. Suzuki, tried unsuccessfully to get him to give up alcohol for green tea.)

Pekar devotes the largest section of the book to Kerouac, Ginzberg and Burroughs. Characteristically, his portrayals of these people are unromantic. He shows their faults as well as their achievements. His portrait of Burroughs is actually disturbing. (I remember during the 1980’s, Burroughs enjoyed an eerie popularity. All my would-be hipster friends regarded him as the quintessence of cool. Of course, all that was shot to Hell when Burroughs appeared in a Nike commercial.) Some of Pekar’s portrayals of other Beats are too short and perfunctory. The effect at times is a bit like reading trading cards about Beats.

Most of Pekar’s contributions are drawn by Ed Piskor, who draws in a very traditional comic book style. The result is a bit predictable and becomes monotonous after a while. The contributions by other artists (Jay Kinney, Nick Thorkelson, Summer McClinton, Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener, Jerome Neukirch, Anne Timmons, Gary Dumm, Lance Tooks and Jeffrey Lewis) are more visually adventurous and therefore more satisfying as well as more in keeping with the spirit of the Beats.

I wish Pekar hadn’t relied so much on Piskor. However, this book is still a good introduction to the Beats.

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