‘Howl: A Graphic Novel’ Wails Brilliantly Into the 21st Century

Erik Drooker first met Allen Ginsberg in 1988 during the Tompkins Square Park Riots on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was one of many skirmishes New York City would experience in the ’80s, between the forces of gentrification and those who refused to give up territory they felt was rightfully theirs. The sympathies of both Drooker and Ginsberg were with the riffraff—the squatters, homeless, artists and other troublemakers whom the police were trying to evict from the area—and when they met again a year later the two discovered they had common artistic tastes, as well.

In a testimony to the kind of unplanned interactions and chance correspondences which make city life so rich, Ginsberg had an apartment full of street posters he had “collected” from neighborhood walls and lampposts and Drooker revealed that he was the artist who created them.They decided to collaborate on a poster together and over the years created many projects combining Ginsberg’s words and Drooker’s art.

One product of this creative relationship was the 1996 collection Illuminated Poems which included “Howl” and became something of an underground classic. Some years later this collection caught the eye of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who were preparing to direct the feature film Howl which centers on Ginsberg’s life in the ’40s and ’50s, including his famous performance of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. So the poem “Howl” is central to the film and the directors were faced with the difficult task of communicating the power of a literary work through a visual medium. Epstein and Friedman decided to use animation and hired Drooker to work with The Monk Studio to bring the poem to life.

Now Drooker has produced a book-length graphic novel of “Howl”, adapted from the imagery created for the film. It’s a richly imaginative work which honors the continuing power of Ginsberg’s words, acknowledges their place in Epstein’s and Friedman’s film, and adds another interpretative voice through Drooker’s artistic presentation of the poem. The relationship among the three is made clear in an early spread which juxtaposes a 1955 black and white photograph of Ginsberg typing the manuscript of “Howl”, a color still from the film of James Franco as Ginsberg in a similar posture, and Drooker’s illustration of the author of the poem as presented in this graphic novel.

The similarities are obvious and so are the differences: the actual person Allen Ginsberg is filtered first through James Franco’s fairly realistic portrayal of him and then through Eric Drooker’s much more stylized interpretation of the poem’s author, who he portrays as a solitary figure typing in a room illuminated by the blue light of the moon.

“Howl” is an American classic which can support any number of interpretations and Drooker’s book is a worthy addition to this enterprise. It’s impossible to overstate the impact “Howl” had on American poetry, nor to exaggerate how powerful it remains today. Ginsberg stated that his goal in publishing this poem was to plant an “emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness, in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy” and you could say he got it right on both scores: the military-industrial-nationalist complex is alive and well and becoming more solid by the day while “Howl” continues, undaunted, to explode in the minds of those who read it. Drooker’s imaginative interpretation may help to introduce those unfamiliar with the poem to the power of Ginsberg’s text, while giving those already familiar with Ginsberg’s work the chance to view this poem through the lens of Drooker’s art.

Drooker preserves the incantatory quality of “Howl” by honoring its form, presenting small but complete linguistic units from the poem in conjunction with illustrations which sometimes refer directly to the words and sometimes present more of a psychological or philosophic interpretation of them. The result is a book which amplifies the impact of Ginsberg’s words by presenting only a phrase or two per page, a process which focuses attention on the care with which Ginsberg chose his words as well as the distinctive rhythms which are the poem’s trademark.

In an inspired artistic choice, the words of “Howl” are presented in a typeface which resembled the output of an amateur typist using an imperfectly-adjusted typewriter: some letters are slightly smeared as if the typewriter keys were struck with too much force while other are so faint they barely register. This gives the text a handmade feel while reminding us that it was written in an era long before the invention of modern conveniences like personal computers and eBooks.

Although more than 50 years have passed between the first performance of “Howl” and this edition, there is no feeling of disjunction between Drooker’s modern style of illustration and the poem’s words. Instead, they emphasize the continuing power of “Howl” and its ability to speak across generations.

RATING 7 / 10