The Beats: A Graphic History -- unflinching and wonderful history of The Beats

The Beats: A Graphic History is everything a radical history should be: critical, admiring, quirky and apologetic. The Beats is largely written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Ed Piskor, with a concluding section of more critical, less biographical pieces written and illustrated by a variety of critics and artists, including Nancy J Peters, Tulu Kupferberg, Summer McClinton, Anne Timmons and others.

The opening section consists of Pekar's biographies of the canonical Beats, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and then onto the less-celebrated members of the scene, including Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, LeRoi Jones, and so forth. These pieces are loving but harsh, sparing their subjects little sympathy for their misdeeds (which are many, ranging from murder and betrayal to vicious misogyny and naive, fleeting affairs with reactionary politics and mysticism). Pekar shows us that a mature person can admire the worthy deeds and art of historical heroes without glossing over their bad acts -- or throwing away their art with their sins.

The Beats of Pekar's work are often geniuses, are capable of great acts of charity and selflessness, and overcome great personal challenges with a great deal of style and perseverance. Pekar shows us where their character flaws took root, explains them -- and never excuses them. At the end of this section, I felt like I understood and appreciated the poetry and prose and music of these people better than I had beforehand.

But the last third of the book really puts it all into perspective. In this section a variety of writers take a much more critical run at the Beats. The best of these is Joyce Brabner's "Beatnik Chicks," a feminist critique of the Beats and a secret history of the women who made the scene without making history, sublimated in the service of the narrative of the tortured man-poet and his beautiful chela. Also fantastic is Jeffrey Lewis and Tuli Kupferberg's extraordinary history of The Fugs, one of the filthiest rock bands to ever levitate the Pentagon (both Lewis and Kupferberg were members of the band). The story told is engaging and wild, and the art is stellar.

From cover to cover, The Beats is a wonderful history of a complicated and misunderstood cultural movement -- its achievements, its place in history, its flaws and its brilliance. The graphic novel format is perfect for the subject -- straddling the line between respectability and disreputableness just as the Beats themselves did.

The Beats: A Graphic History

Publisher's site for The Beats


  1. All right! A book about that group from “Doug”… wait.. oh.. my bad… I thought it was “The BEETS”….

  2. I can’t be the only one that thought this post was about the band from Doug, can I?

  3. On upper Grant Av. in SF was a coffee shop known as “The Place”. They had a spot that was used on “Blabbermouth Night”. Anyone could discourse on anything. One past winner of Blabbermouth Night was sitting drinking his coffee when a Grayline tourist bus pulled up. When the door opened he jumped in the bus and went up and down the aisle and to each in turn said “Fuck You!”.
    When the tourists got off the bus they all took his picture and those with Polaroids wanted his autograph.
    As time went on and the tourists got more pesky the Beats acquired broken thrift store cameras. Every time a tourist photographed a Beat, the Beat would pull out his camera and photograph the tourist.

  4. It’s amazing how these guys hang on. This was 50-60 years ago! Their output rivals Bloomsbury for scantiness and superficiality. There are maybe a dozen works of true merit among them.

    The beats were just a heavily media-created branch of 20th century American bohemia, although Allen Ginsberg by himself was a public relations dynamo and an indefatigable literary agent. Certain inclusions, however, would, wail to the heavens to be called ”beat.”

  5. Anyone interested badly needs Off the Road by Carolyn Cassidy, Neal’s wife.
    Or, as a friend of mine once said, “When I read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I wondered who washed the dishes.”

  6. I know Neal Cassady died walking a railroad track outside of San Miguel de Allende, what I want to know is: was he really counting railroad ties?

  7. Probably. He would get absolutely ripped on speed, just wailing, babbling obsessively; one of the world’s great marathon talkers/drivers/fuckers. I once listened him circumnavigate a question for 15 minutes, wide open, before landing with both feet on the answer, grammatically and logically intact. The poor bastard was a marvel of nature.

  8. On hold at the library. Done and DONE. I don’t think I’ve been let down by a graphic novel recommended by BoingBoing yet.

  9. How would you judge his general characterization by the various other beat writers to be exaggerated, or dead on?

  10. Spot on. Of course he was kind of living up to his reputation when I knew him, post-”On The Road, but he was still obviously extremely intelligent and running wide-open.

    Few have paid much attention to his literary influence. But it should be remembered that Ginsberg gave Neal’s prison letter (“The First Third”) to Kerouac and said that “This is the way we should be writing.” And what happened? “Howl” and “On The Road.” If you haven’t read the letter, you probably should.

    Yeah, sure, he was a hustler, a low-level sociopath — “a common Western type,” Larry McMurtry called him — but he was also something more than that, although I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what.

    I wonder if he ever took an IQ test?

  11. Buddy, thanks for sharing the first person accounts of these roustabouts. That’s amazing to me that you knew them.

    In high school we had to pick an American author and read 1000 pages of their work and write a report. Can you believe my Dad actually suggested the name Kerouac? My English teacher was a little reluctant to let me do it, but just sort of shook his head and said, “Ok.” And, uh, since then, I don’t think I’ve ever really been the same. :)

  12. Wolfiesma,
    I think Kerouac holds up really well. His was a genuine talent. Your father did right to recommend him. Looking back on the times, it seems to me that he foreshadowed the sort of international mobility the next generation of American bohos became noted for. I’m surprised he’s not required reading in high school Am Lit classes.

    I didn’t really know that many of the old Beats, just some of the California poets and artists that came to be associated, usually mistakenly, with the Beat Generation. It was mostly a media creation anyway.
    Memoirs ain’t what I do, Takuan, although I do have a couple of great stories about Janis Joplin that I might someday share.

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