April 2, 2009

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The Beats: A Graphic History, text by Harvey Pekar, edited by Paul Buhle, art by Ed Piskor, 2009, Hill and Wang, 193 pages

Where to begin? Let’s just come at this head-on. The latest attempt to breathe relevancy into the thankfully short-lived “youth revolt” of the ’50s has David Letterman punching bag and underground comic writer Harvey Pekar teaming up with graphic artist Ed Piskor to present a very unfunny, and not even droll, take on the history of having bad poetry shouted at you while you try to enjoy your coffee.

Let me try to explain using the same sort of wild generalizations that this book uses.

Way back in the square days of Eisenhower, a group of drink-addled slackers named Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs (to name a few) somehow found themselves living in the same one-couch ghetto apartment with too much time on their hands because they didn’t have jobs. So, like any proper fringe of society, they went on road trips in beaters, experimented with deviant sexuality, did dope and got pissed off a lot. I mean a lot. They were angry all the time. That anger was eventually realized in a series of poetry and fiction which was bought by a whole sub-set of society that wore berets, listened to jazz and hated the Vietnam War. Most of their fans graduated from college and realized how silly the whole movement was, but some carried on the rebellion through spoken-word happenings, which became modernist poetry which became slam poetry which is the reason your java is getting cold trying to beat feet out of your local coffee emporium. The end.

There is so much wrong with The Beats: A Graphic History, that the vague, inaccurate and barely realized “history” part of the book is the least egregious of its offensives. In fact, editor Paul Buhle, to his credit, says as much in the introduction, that the book is merely a comic interpretation with no “pretension” to actual facts or literary interpretation.

But without pretension (at least give me some irony), the histories presented here are simply gruesome portraits of unlikeable, self-centered nobodies. Regardless of how you feel about such works as Kerouac’s On the Road, or Burrough’s Naked Lunch, or even Ginsburg’s ridiculous “Howl,” these were seminal works that influenced generations. But Pekar does not care a whit about that.

Let me back up again and ask a question that may get me in trouble — does anyone like Harvey Pekar’s work? The critical acclaim enjoyed by American Splendor is obscene. One critic actually compared Pekar’s everyman misery to Dostoevsky.

And in The Beats, pretty much all Pekar has is misery — drugs, insanity, laziness, confusion, it’s all there and after a while of listening to Kerouac exclaim how under-appreciated he is, it gets very old and very annoying. In one particularly grating panel, Kerouac is unable to get a manuscript published and thinks: “This is my best stuff and those idiots won’t touch it. What idiots! I’m the James Joyce of my generation.”

Ultimately, the writers featured in these panels are flawed but fully-realized human beings. But Pekar and the artists are only interested in the flaws. I lost count of the number of panels that show one of these men vomiting, shooting up, drunk or beating someone up. Pekar’s script is so relentlessly unimaginative and mundane that even the important moments — Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” or Kerouac’s decision to write On the Road as one long roll — are played down and followed by some other painful episode.

The book’s concept only really becomes readable when Pekar is not involved. A section on San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore is interesting and at least Ed Piskor’s detailed art is a marked improvement over Pekar’s usual collaborator, R. Crumb, whose grotesque caricatures would have further weighed down an already bloated project.

If you’re a fan of Pekar, I’m surprised you’ve read this far and you likely already own the book. If you just want a different take on the Beat poets, this collection will do nothing for you except make you never want to buy a cup of coffee again. D - Dan Szczesny