The Beats: A Graphic History
Edited by Paul Buhle
(Hill and Wang)
Continuing their smart series of alternative cultural historical graphic novels, Hill & Wang has come up with one of the best of the bunch. This quick-take introduction to the beatnik generation is about three-fourths excellent short-take biography and one-quarter well-meaning addendums of varying quality. The book starts with a lengthy take on the (like it or not) king of the beats, Jack Kerouac, and gives his sad tale—always running after the cool kids, forever trying to please mama—all due respect.
Using Kerouac’s alcoholic, bisexually fractured, French-Catholic, fulsomely tormented and rhapsodic story as a lens for viewing the rest of the countercultural clan proves problematic later on, but not so off-base as you might imagine. The pistol-packing and smack-frazzled autodidact scion of a wealthy Midwest family, William S. Burroughs, gets his artistic due here, even if the credit for assembly of his randomized masterpiece, Naked Lunch, is handed off to others. Allen Ginsberg—pretentious and maniacally bed-hopping, but warm-hearted to a fault—comes off as the most normal of the bunch, though it’s a bitter exchange, as the book doesn’t make nearly as strong a case for his lasting artistic profile. You’ll leave these chapters wanting to rip open your copy of On the Road again; Howl less so.
The moody syncopations and expressionistic closeups of The Beats create a jazzy feel, even if the text (by the suddenly very hard-working Harvey Pekar) can occasionally seem more workmanlike than inspired. (That said, the depth of research here is particularly impressive, tossing out a few facts that will likely surprise even well-versed fans; and the appreciation of each artist’s writing feels honestly-lived and not painted on.) After blasting out of the gate with a trio of hard-edged geniuses, it’s hard for the book’s later chapters on lesser-known figures in the movement not to disappoint.
The exception to that rule is Joyce Bradner’s piece on the usually forgotten beatnik women, a particularly hard-parodied bunch who were long ago turned into cultural mannequins in black leotards, sporting cigarette holders and draped blankly over poet boyfriend’s arms. As The Beats shows, though, it’s the legend of the hard-drinking, hard-writing beatnik men that has endured so far, and given its audience-pleasing take on them, seems likely to endure that much longer.