With fewer and fewer people reading books these days, it is no surprise that a lot of literary stuff is being made available in comic book form. When the popular artists Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor and others united to do a collection of comics based on the lives of the writers of the so-called "Beat Generation" that sounded like a great idea.
However now that the results have been released by the publication of the hardcover comic anthology The Beats: A Graphic History , unfortunately the quality is very mixed. While the writing accompanying the comics is first-rate and supportive of the idea that the Beats were major figures in American and World Literature, the pictures that go along with the text are often ugly and inappropriate.
The chief appeal of Beat Literature is in it's celebration of life, Jack Kerouac in particular had a gift for seeing the excitement and adventure in life even in the face of unhappy and even sordid circumstances. These drawsings capture all of the sordidness, but too little of the love of life. It's hard to believe it could be done, but even Neal Cassady, the most intensely passionate of the Beat adventurers, is made to look neurotic and depressed.
Kerouac is portrayed as a pathetic drunk.
Nearly all of the figures from the Beat scene come across as depressing lowlifes.
Of coures the truth is that they WERE lowlifes in some ways. But that was the point, that despite their "beatness" they still celebrated the ability to get the most out of life even while living on the edges of society. It is this enthusiam for life and love of existence for its own sake that was at the core of their appeal. Stripped of that quality by these gloomy comic images, anyone who had never read any of their books might well be left wondering by these comics what the appeal of the Beats was in the first place.
Despite this major flaw, there are some important areas where these comics make meaningful contributions. The section of the book called The Beats: Perspectives has some great material giving long overdue credit to some of the so-called minor figures of the scene, such as Robert Creeley, Kenneth Patchen and Dianne di Prima. There are a few who are overlooked, such as Jack Micheline, but in general these comics are important additions to our understanding of the scene as a whole.
The best of the beat perspectives is a cartoon written by Joyce Brabner and drawn by Summer McClinton called Beatnik Chicks. This cartoon explores the less than admirable way the male beatniks treated the women in their lives. Whatever their literary virtues, from a feminist perspective the male Beats were sometimes real bastards, as shown below in this devastating critique of poet Leroi Jones and his marriage.
Even the sainted Cassady is denounced by Brabner as "a sociopath, dangerous to know and hurtful." Some of Brabner's criticism is unfair, since you can't really hold people of the past to the standards of later times. Sadly, despite their celebration of freedom, the men of the Beat Generation were all too typical of many of the men of that era in being exploitive and even cruel to the women in their lives. While we might wish that they had been more enlightened in their behavior and attitude towards women, to condemn them for being like most men of the 1940's and 50's is like saying that we wish people of the 1800's had been more enlightened about child labor. It's just not reasonable to expect those in the past to have lived by social standards that simply didn't exist at the time.
Overall I would judge this book as worth reading, if only for the fresh critiques it offers of the Beat era and the appreciation it shows for some of the lesser known figures. But in the area in which it should be most effective - the artwork - it is mostly disappointing.
Here's some cool pics from ace Valley photographer Jeff Ziff.
The scene outside the Haymarket in Northampton.
Holyoke street scene.
Bunch of guys making a scene at the Mt. Carmel celebration in Springfield.
Sumner Avenue in Springfield.
Railroad tracks in ol' Pine Point by Five Mile Pond. As a boy I once came upon the skeleton of a dead dog on these tracks.
Hell of a hood in Agawam.
Entertainment scene in downtown Springfield.
Classical Condominiums in Springfield.
Holyoke Police Chief Anthony Scott.
Porter with pregnant girlfriend in Brimfield, Ma.
Statues atop the Barney Mauseleum in Springfield's Forest Park.