Monday, 15 September 2014

The Beats: A Graphic History Review (Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor)

Harvey Pekar presents a brief introduction to the artistic movement from the mid-20th century known as The Beats, focusing on the three major writers of this movement: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Pekar also takes a look at some of the minor artists while providing an historical context of this period.

The best parts of this volume are the appraisals of the lives of Kerouac/Burroughs/Ginsberg. While I knew something about these writers’ lives already and have read their major works, I still learned some things about them I didn't before reading this. Kerouac was very conservative despite his reputation for being free-wheeling, and he was misogynistic, homophobic, and racist, all of which were odd stances as he was bisexual himself and had many Jewish friends (Ginsberg for one).

Burroughs' life was as sordid as I remembered it though I hadn't realised his own son's had been quite so horrific as well. I liked how Ed Piskor drew him throughout as a kind of vampiric zombie - Burroughs didn't seem like a nice person despite the art he produced.

Ginsberg's life was full of political activism and he could rightly be considered a celebrity because of his work and his connections to just about everybody within the Beat movement. He also comes across as the nicest person the group, a man with demons of his own but who didn't deal with them destructively nor allow them to destroy him.

The second half of this 200 page comic takes up the rest of the Beats, none of whom I recognised and shows you how well-researched and fascinated in the subject Pekar was. Through brief strips you get to know these people and a variety of artists illustrate these parts (Ed Piskor illustrated the first half of the book that covered Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg).

Joyce Brabner (Pekar's wife) contributes an excellent strip at the overlooked women of the Beat movement, showing the similarity between their difficult lives and their male counterparts’, which were somehow never recognised to the same extent. It also casts the "heroes" of the Beat movement in a critical light, showing them as pretentious, selfish and hypocritical.

Overall the book was an excellent read that was very informative about these interesting, though flawed, artists and this particular moment in history. More than anything, looking upon this explosion of art inspires you to turn your hand as easily as they did to anything at all, writing, music, painting, and so the book is overwhelmingly positive in this regard to creative readers looking for a spark to set them off.

Pekar manages to provide the reader with a highly informative and entertaining impression of this movement and anybody looking for a none-too-demanding overview of the Beats would do well to pick up this book.

The Beats: A Graphic History

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