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.