The Beats of America’s 1950s stood far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man times. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. The poetry, novels and art of the true counter-culture known as Beat is an honest reflection of American spirit and independence, commercial culture be damned.
During times of conformity, it’s the non-conformist who draw all the attention. The Beats of America’s 1950s stood so far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man 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 modeled their cool afterwhat they saw in Look magazine and on The Steve Allen Show. Beatniks spewed “daddy-o” while living off their daddies. Those that represented a true counter culture were Beat. Their resistance to the status quo and the pursuit of their own lives outside accepted social 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 understanding writer Harvey Pekar, illustrator Ed Piskor and others’ collection The Beats: A Graphic History. Many of their subjects don’t seem to be beatniks, but something else entirely. The comics celebrate the individuals that made up the anti-establishment of the times and whose art and social action outlives them. The stories are drawn by an eclectic mix of cartoonists and told by characters—including Pekar–every bit as individualistic as their subjects.
The book’s first hundred pages focuses on the generation’s three central players: Jack Kerouac (who gets the largest section), Allen Ginsburg 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. In different panels we see the often drunk and shiftless Kerouac urge Burroughs to write a novel, and Ginsberg, finding Burrough’s pages strewn around his Mexico City apartment, assembling and editing what was to become Naked Lunch.
It’s Ginsberg who emerges as the movement’s saint aiding his fellow writers, challenging the system and remaining true to his principles. All three men are shown to be flawed, addictive and with, the possible exception of Ginsberg who seems something of a pure sexual being, abusive to women and sexually confused.
Beat lovers will be disappointed the simplistic, boilerplate hash of these lives, especially readers who’ve delved into the excellent (and not so) 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 neatly explain, is its fresh, visual approach and appeal to narrative rhythm. And it’s true for much of the book. Some eleven 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 restating 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 movement’s beginnings that surpasses in language and visual appeal most of what’s in Pekar’s book. Where Pekar et al succeed is in their addressing the lesser but still important figures of the Beat movement.
The Beats’ second hundred pages– “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. Brabner defines the “Beat-chick” model as well as the their lack of acceptance by many males in the movement. She gives a shout-out to Carolyn, Cassady, Hettie Jones, Joynce Johnson and others, but no more than a shout out. (readers should dig up Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution for considerations and examples of these women’s work). 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…find it here) 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 counter-culture 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 and inspired the 2003 movie starring Paul Giamatti, 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.–Cabbage Rabbit