The Beats: A Graphic History

Posted by on December 4th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

The Beats: A Graphic History; Paul Buhle, ed.; Hill and Wang; 197 pp., $22.00; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 9780-080904967


Paul Buhle is a one-man book army. Having recently retired from teaching American studies at Brown University, he’s responsible for editing and sometimes penning a slew of non-fiction graphic titles: The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (2009); Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (2007); Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography (2008); Jews and Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form (2008); A People’s History of the American Empire (2008); Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (2009); and Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2005). He’s also written on social movements, the labor movement, the Hollywood blacklist and the history of Rhode Island. In all, the Paul Buhle page on Amazon lists no fewer than 35 Buhle-authored or edited texts.

His precise relationship with these graphic histories is varied. While they are all bookstore-friendly volumes with a countercultural tinge, they do not follow a set formula. In some cases, Buhle came up with the concept, pulled together teams of writers and artists and prepared a short introduction. In others, he drafted large chunks of text and collaborated with a single artist. Some are graphic novels, some are comics anthologies, and others are illustrated monographs. It is worth noting that the publishers he’s working with are all blue-chip: New Press, Abrams, Verso, Hill and Wang. When it comes to promoting the cause of historical-minded comics, Buhle is a literary Stakhanovite.

In the case of The Beats, the first two-thirds of the book consists of illustrated biographies of key Beat Generation personnel, with art by Ed Piskor and text by Harvey Pekar. Nearly 100 of these pages are devoted to just three figures – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Other poets and writers spotlighted by Piskor and Pekar include Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Robert Duncan and LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is celebrated for his role as a publisher and retailer (the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), as well as for his “witty and poignant” poetry. There are also profiles of lesser-known mid-century writers. The three-page spread on the Buddhist monk and poet Philip Whalen offers a rare glimpse into the life and work of a Beat’s Beat. As Pekar points out, “you would have to go a long way to find a poet who is as quick and informal as Whalen. Not too many poets can make you laugh out loud. He should be brought more to the public’s attention.”

The final third of the book tosses out verbal-visual snapshots, with contributions by Gary Dumm, Jay Kinney, Peter Kuper, Tuli Kupferberg, Jeffrey Lewis, Summer McClinton, Jerome Neukirch, Nancy J. Peters, Trina Robbins, Penelope Rosemont and Lance Tooks. (Most of these writers and artists have worked with Buhle before, and several are featured in the SDS volume.) Some of their pieces are biographical, such as Pekar and Kuper on Gary Snyder, and Robbins and Timmons on the avant-garde painter Jay DeFeo, while others take a thematic approach, including Brabner and McClinton on “Beatnik Chicks,” and Pekar and Tooks on jazz and poetry. The four-pager on poet and memoirist Diane di Prima, written by Pekar and Fleener, and drawn by Fleener, is a standout. We could all use a little more Fleener in our lives.

Another highlight of this solid showcase for historical comics is the piece on Kenneth Patchen that is written by Harvey Pekar and Nick Thorkelson and drawn by Thorkelson. A gifted novelist and poet, Patchen was a relentless literary experimenter who was one of the first to incorporate live jazz into his readings. His “picture poems,” which can be viewed online, date to the late 1950s and 1960s. They remain provocative from the standpoint of rethinking the boundaries and conventions of illustration, cartooning and comics. As Pekar and Thorkelson emphasize, Patchen was an anti-war radical who rejected all labels, including Trotskyist, anarchist and Beat. Tragically, he spent most of his adult life in pain as a result of a back injury. His heart finally gave out in January 1972. His wife later remarked that when he died “he looked like someone who had been homeless for 3,000 years.”

If there is a dominant authorial voice in this book it is provided by Harvey Pekar. He turns out to be an excellent match for this often heavily romanticized topic — his straight-ahead prose places the Beats themselves on center stage. He doesn’t moralize, but nor does he cover up their peccadilloes. When it comes to the “low life” phase of William Burrough’s life, for example, Pekar flatly says that Burroughs “was starting another life, as a Times Square hustler. He fenced stolen goods and morphine syrettes, and held up people at gunpoint in the subway.” On Allen Ginsberg’s drug use, he says, “Ginsberg had taken a lot of narcotics, and handled them pretty well. He was really into expanded consciousness and … advocated making marijuana legal. Various government agencies were always trying to bust him.” As for Jack Kerouac, “he was in demand and went to all sorts of parties and soirées at which he was frequently drunk. Of course he was drunk in plenty of other places too.” Pekar clearly relates to these real-life characters, with their endless struggles with publishers, rivals, inner demons and ex-wives. He recognizes their achievements, but does not minimize their contradictions.

Ed Piskor’s artwork has some of the same matter-of-factness as Pekar’s script. His figures are occasionally awkward, and his depiction of Jack Kerouac lifting a television set is pretty implausible. Some of his compositions are striking, while others are a little didactic. But he has a feel for the grimy Beat milieu, and his close-ups of angry women and male authority figures are pretty scary. His Jackie Kennedy is utterly convincing, as is his rendition of Burroughs. That said, Buhle made the right choice, I think, in leaving room for other artistic styles and approaches. I especially appreciate the inclusion of artwork by Nick Thorkelson, Lance Tooks and of course Mary Fleener. In addition, the concluding piece, a 10-pager by Jeffrey Louis and Tuli Kupferberg, vividly documents a Lower East Side that mostly exists now in human memory. Without overselling the argument, this book makes a convincing case for the lasting significance of the Beat moment. The Beats: A Graphic History is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the Beats and their legacy.

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