The Beats, The Li’l Depressed Boy and Populist Literature

Within the last three years the Beat Generation has found a rise in popularity thanks in part to the release of two films and the pending release of another. 2010’s “Howl” starring James Franco as poet Allen Ginsburg focused on the obscenity trial surrounding his movement defining poem of the same name. 2012’s “On The Road” brought Jack Kerouac’s era defining novel to the screen. Soon “Kill Your Darlings” starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ben Foster and Michael C. Hall will tell the story of the murder that brought the trinity of Beat writers–Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S. Burroughs–together and cemented what would become a notorious friendship. The movies talk about the sex, drug use, illicit behavior and the movement’s desperation for human freedom in the face of stifling conformity. Sound familiar? But what’s lost among these three films (except for maybe “Howl” which centers on the legitimacy of Ginsberg work in the face of censorship), and lost in much of the critical and popular reaction to them is the populist literature movement many of the Beat writers were trying to push.

I’m reminded of the Beats’ desire to bring common language to fiction and poetry thanks to a few recently read comics including Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats, Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve and especially S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace’s The Li’l Depressed Boy #15. Even more to the point, a throwaway Twitter exchange with Struble on the vinyl release of Kerouac reading his work , had me recall some of these ideas explored in Bill Morgan’s The Typewriter is Holy, a history of the Beat Generation, and Ann Charters’ biography of Kerouac. What these comics have in common with the loose group of writers who came of age in Post-War America may not seem as apparent in light of today’s literary scene. But in terms of what we can call a more genre-encompassing present for comics, the “slice-of-life” focused books have enlightened and emboldened a comics scene that is closer to what some of the Beats wanted. It’s this exact slice-of-life genre that has seen superheroes and their hold on the medium diminish in light of books like The Li’l Depressed Boy and others outside the violence and spandex crowds.

The Beat writers, mainly Kerouac and Ginsberg and to a lesser extent Lawrence Ferlinghetti and John Cellon Holmes, wanted to bring the language of the street to the academy. The name for their era, Beat, derived from the vernacular usage of jazz musicians and hipsters who frequented the seedier areas of New York’s Times Square in the late 1940s. Kerouac, while talking with first published Beat novelist Holmes, applied the term to their generation as the best way to describe the young people who had survived World War II. “They were weary, they had been beaten down by society, the war, the need to conform to the times, behind which lurked some sort of spiritual longing,” writes Morgan in The Typewriter is Holy. It was the expected immediate return to normalcy following the war that pushed this group of young men (and unfortunately few women) to fight the established academics and their hold on the understanding of literary theory at the time.

Kerouac attempted to formalize this as a treatise for populist literature with his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.” Ginsberg however recognized the more practical approach in the letters of Neal Cassady–the real life basis for On The Road’s Dean Moriarty–one of which, the infamous “Joan Anderson Letter,” was also the basis for the 1997 film “The Last Time I Committed Suicide.” Cassady could write about anything and make it interesting. The letters confirmed to Ginsberg that literature didn’t have to be epic or formal to be good as long as it was from the heart.

That Kiss!, from Li’l Depressed Boy #13

What brings me to comics like The Li’l Depressed Boy, Pope Hats and Optic Nerve is that they each express an authentic “from the heart” quality using the conventions of comic storytelling. The Beats used their own lives, however dramatized, as the foundation for their works, whereas these comics too draw from the experience of their authors and the “true to life” understanding of their readers. Their formation influenced by other more traditional comics; they take the real world, the world of dead end jobs, youthful indiscretions, popculture enthusiasm and struggles for identity to engage a public lost in the aftermath of post-modernism.

Kerouac too was influenced by comics. As Tomine illustrated in one of his early Optic Nerve issues, Kerouac loved the Shadow and other pulp heroes. His novel Dr. Sax was based on a Shadow-like pulp character he created in his youth. That he would later explore pulp-style stories within his own stream of conscious writing style–famously derided as “typing” by Truman Capote–while still desirous to continue the semi-autobiographical prose that made him famous, gives me a sense of loose connection between the iconoclasts of counterculture and the cartoonists of comic subculture.

The Li’l Depressed Boy throughout its run as a Webcomic and ongoing Image series has used the conventions of comic storytelling to enliven stories on romantic misadventures, music fandom and friendship. Its use of common language, the language that superhero comics have never gotten right, has allowed its titular character–a ragdoll everyman–to enjoy a deep connection with popculture and its readers. That the imagery by Grace hangs it surrealist premise in semi-realism and indie rock iconography only furthers this relationship with Beat Generation aspirations to raise the status of commonality within the academy. And that the sad sack decked out in Converse sneakers and band t-shirts could in some world be the symbol of comic advancement is only fitting for a medium once dominated by circus strongman costumes. Even more on point is a scene in The Li’l Depressed Boy #15 where LDB gives girlfriend Spike a pin to symbolize that they are “going steady,” a contemporary allusion to the right of social passage and dating long forgotten. (Think “Goin Steady” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie.)

Similar to The Li’l Depressed Boy, Pope Hats differs in only that its tone leans to a more gothic sensibility. The book looks at the life adventures Frances “Franny” Scarland and her compatriots–an alcoholic actress and an inept ghost named Saarsgard. Its ease of reading, which derives from the book’s flowing dialogue, hides a strong underbelly of self-determination, personal preservation and existential irony. What struck me about Pope Hats place in my thoughts about populist literature is the back-up story presented in issue one. For 12 pages main character Franny tells two stories. The visual is just her in a restaurant and her facial expressions. The ease of this presentation combined with authentic dialogue is surprisingly engaging, and underlines how the main skill of storytellers is just that, storytelling.

from Pope Hats

As I wrote earlier, Ginsberg realized that while reading the offhanded letters of Cassady recounting his many sexual conquests: it doesn’t have to be high-minded to be good. It has to be authentic is some sense. In another sense it has to come from an author’s soft skill, storytelling, as opposed to literary construction. That’s something the Beat writers had an abundance, the ability to make the mundane interesting. LDB creator Struble reminded me of that in his Tweet about Kerouac reading his work. Kerouac, no matter what state of inebriation he was in (and he was often drunk), could tell stories for hours without end and never fail to entertain his listeners. That, if anything, should be an essential of modern prose.

In one appearance on the Steve Allen Show, Kerouac said, before reading sections from On The Road and his other Cassady-centric novel Visions of Cody, that “a lot of people have asked me why did I write that book or any book. All the stories I wrote were true because I believed in what I saw.” It’s debatable how true his novels were to his actual life and the actual events, but his youthful trips across the nation and the people he met certainly inspired his pursuit of a populist literary style. One thing that is true and clear is that he believed in what he saw, much as his fellow Beat writers did. So too have comic creators like the minds behind The Li’l Depressed Boy, Pope Hats, Optic Nerve and others. They believe in what they see, whether that is the romantic misadventures of a ragdoll hero struggling in the 21st century dating scene or the daily shortcomings of a haunted post-adolescent. And in doing so, they have pushed forward a similar populist literary movement. Hey Kepi, let’s go!