Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Beats: A Graphic History

The Beats covers a lot of ground in terms of a historical movement and its constituents. The Beat Generation monicker is applied to a group of writers whose works appeared post-World War Two and were a precursor to the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Most of this book covers a triumvirate of Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. It is unflinching in its portrayals of their drug use, sexual activities, and various other activities, though it only documents profane activities and does not depict them. It also chronicles their major works, career achievements, and the arcs of their lifetimes. It is at once highly informative
as well as entertaining enough, full of interesting tidbits and good stories.
After attending to the "big three" Beats, the rest of the book contains many shorter pieces about less well known poets and writers, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth. I found these succinct pieces more desirable and informative.They certainly cast a larger view of the movement and these authors that went beyond the hard-drinking, hard-living, and largely misogynistic portraits of Kerouac, Burroughs, and, to a lesser extent, Ginsberg.

Although I am a big fan of much of Harvey Pekar's comics work, overall this set of stories is a little stiff, perhaps too journalistic, and overly celebratory for me. Additionally, I am a big fan of Ed Piskor's work, but this effort is more a story with graphics than it is a graphic narrative. I think he has grown exponentially as a comics creator, and his more recent efforts on Wizzywig and Hip Hop Family Tree are more fleshed out, vibrant, and exciting. More to my liking among the Beat poets stories were some of the shorter stories in the back of the book, especially the ones about Gary Snyder drawn by Peter Kuper and Diane di Prima illustrated by Mary Fleener. I was also enthralled by Trina Robbins and Anne Timmons' tale of painter Joy DeFeo creating The Rose, and the final piece in the book by Jeffrey Lewis on poet/anarchist/pacifist Tuli Kupferberg and his band The Fugs, which excellently portrays the transition from Beats to hippies.

Perhaps the best part of this book was a piece written by Joyce Brabner and drawn by Summer McClinton about beatnik women. This visual essay provides a strong counterpoint to the rest of the book, acknowledging and transcending the sexism and cruder parts of the beatnik movement. It is a smartly written and well flowing look at a largely overlooked set of writers and thinkers who deserve more credit for their accomplishments.

The reviews I have read have taken this history to task for various matters. The New York Times' John Leland called the book "plainly celebratory" and added that it glosses over some history and is somewhat self-promoting. Pádraig Ó Méalóid, a fan of Pekar's earlier work, did not enjoy this book, stating "that the writing and art often seemed terribly static and undynamic." Gerald Nicosia felt that the beginning of the book was a "disaster" and fraught with errors, but that the latter parts focusing on beatnik women and more minor poets saved it. He summed up that it was "notable for the completeness of its portrait of that magical era - an achievement that, whether in comics or literary biographies, is as impressive as it is rare."

The Beats: A Graphic History was published by Hill and Wang.

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