Beat Goes On

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted June 4, 2009 in Arts & Culture

During times of conformity, it’s the non-conformist who draws all the attention. The Beats of America’s 1950s stood so far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country times that they soon became the freak-show focus of films, big-circulation magazines and television shows. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. Like the hippies that followed, they were stereotyped and scorned for a supposed anti-work ethic. Never mind that they created some of the greatest literary works of their generation. 

That’s why we’ve always thought that “Beat” and “Beatnik” were two different schools. Beatniks were the posers, the wannabes that learned how to be cool from Look magazine and The Steve Allen Show. Beatniks cried “daddy-o” while living off their daddies. The Beats were the real counterculture. Their resistance to the status quo and the pursuit of their own lives outside accepted cultural definitions made them truly radical and innovative. The Beats were largely a literary movement. Beatniks were a cultural and commercial fad.

This hair-splitting is important to writer Harvey Pekar, illustrator Ed Piskor and others’ collection The Beats: A Graphic History. Their comic history celebrates the individuals that made up the anti-establishment and whose art outlives them. The stories are drawn by an eclectic mix of cartoonists and told by characters every bit as individualistic as their subjects.

The book’s first hundred pages focus on the generation’s three central players: Jack Kerouac (who gets the largest section), Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Pekar gives us just the bare bones of their stories, emphasizing the formative moments and underscoring how they influenced each others work. It’s this no-man-is-an-island connection between them that made Beat literature a true movement.

Beat lovers will be disappointed at the simplistic, boilerplate hash of their lives, especially those who’ve delved into the excellent (and not-so excellent) biographies of these three central figures. Paul Buhle, the book’s editor, and Pekar acknowledge as much in the book’s intro:

The book before you is a comic art production with no pretension to the depth of coverage and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in many languages, a literature also constantly growing. It has a different virtue, curiously in line, somehow, with the original vernacular popularization of the Beats.

That virtue, they explain, is its fresh, visual approach and appeal to narrative rhythm. Some 11 illustrators contribute and their panels, ranging from symbolic realism to the surreal, bring the movement to life. We’re shown the crash-pad hovels, the anger, frustration and depravity, the exotic locations and the confusion of the squares in comic detail. Pekar and five other writers supply the words, often re-stating the obvious when a quote or illustration would do. This isn’t the first time comics have been used to convey Beat life. Rick Bleier’s heavily cross-hatched “Visions of Paradise: Kerouac in N.Y.C.,” which appears in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, is a visually fascinating if glamorized, short account of the movements beginnings that surpasses in language and visual appeal most of what’s in Pekar’s book.

The book’s second hundred pages, entitled “The Beats: Perspectives,” is its best. It emphasizes the era’s poets and the important role of women to both its creative achievement and social consciousness. Poets Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and others, not all of them necessarily pegged as Beats, are given brief, respectful treatment. Joyce Brabner’s “Beatnik Chicks” is an eyes-open view to the contributions and hardships, not to mention stereotyping, faced by women of the movement. Pekar and Mary Fleener’s chapter on poet Diane di Prima, first seen in Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri’s spring 2008 edition of Mineshaft (a great publication true to the underground comics and literary spirit), is a mix of cold reality and spiritualistic surrealism that symbolizes the entire movement.

It’s good to see Pekar involving himself in this kind of counterculture history. The last run, back in 2008, of Pekar’s American Splendor, the comics that—with help from Robert Crumb—established him as a storyteller, was something of a disappointment. It was as if Pekar had exhausted ways to make his everyman stories relevant. The Beats gives him worthy material. While not as engaging as his graphic history Students For a Democratic Society (also edited by Buhle), The Beats serves to introduce an American cultural phenomenon to a new audience while giving some of its less well-known players fresh exposure.

The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, others, illustrated by Ed Piskor, others, edited by Paul Buhle; Hill and Wang, hardback, 208 pages, $22.


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