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The Beats

The Beats

by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle, Ed Piskor (Illustrator), Joyce Brabner, Trina Robbins

In The Beats: A Graphic History, those who were mad to live have come back to life through artwork as vibrant as the Beat movement itself. Told by the comic legend Harvey Pekar, his frequent artistic collaborator Ed Piskor, and a range of artists and writers, including the feminist comic creator Trina Robbins and the Mad magazine artist Peter


In The Beats: A Graphic History, those who were mad to live have come back to life through artwork as vibrant as the Beat movement itself. Told by the comic legend Harvey Pekar, his frequent artistic collaborator Ed Piskor, and a range of artists and writers, including the feminist comic creator Trina Robbins and the Mad magazine artist Peter Kuper, The Beats takes us on a wild tour of a generation that, in the face of mainstream American conformity and conservatism, became known for its determined uprootedness, aggressive addictions, and startling creativity and experimentation.

What began among a small circle of friends in New York and San Francisco during the late 1940s and early 1950s laid the groundwork for a literary explosion, and this striking anthology captures the storied era in all its incarnations—from the Benzedrine-fueled antics of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to the painting sessions of Jay DeFeo’s disheveled studio, from the jazz hipsters to the beatnik chicks, from Chicago’s College of Complexes to San Francisco’s famed City Lights bookstore. Snapshots of lesser-known poets and writers sit alongside frank and compelling looks at the Beats’ most recognizable faces. What emerges is a brilliant collage of—and tribute to—a generation, in a form and style that is as original as its subject.

Editorial Reviews

John Leland
…the medium provides a new angle on a familiar story, in a voice more directly empathetic than those of many prose histories. It gives the hipsters back their body language. In a book that is largely about license and the enlightened rebel, it is easy to find reflections of both in the graphic form. The panels, which are flat and often horrific, capture the dullness and insanity not only of the lives the Beats sought to escape but of the ones they made in their place. The Beats here inhabit a world that looks a lot like Harvey Pekar's Cleveland. No wonder they had to go go go and not stop till they got there.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Well researched and earnest, this book might work best as a superficial Cliffs Notes on the beats, but in no way does it inspire or open the mind as the works of the authors covered do. Much of this volume feels like leftovers from coauthor Pekar's American Splendor, and one wonders if that magazine's "drab and normal" style of illustration is appropriate for the more adventurous/experimental/flamboyant beats. Nor does it help that the art used on the best-known authors (Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs) feels rushed, with little detail and little variation. Because Joyce Brabner's script about "Beatnik Chicks" takes a genuinely critical eye to an aspect of the beats others prefer to ignore-their rampant sexism- it's probably the best and most passionate writing in the collection, with Jerome Neukirch's art for the bio of proto-beat Slim Brundage being the artistic standout illustrations. Lance Tooks, Peter Kuper and Nick Thorkelson also make strong contributions, while Jeffrey Lewis's story on poet/musician Tuli Kupferberg is a wonderful puzzle piece to work through; it's the most ambitious entry and may be the truest to the artistic vision of the beats themselves. (Mar.)

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School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up–Buhle has brought together a heady group of writers and artists to create a well-informed, engaging, and dynamic presentation of the core precursors and descendants of the Beat ethos in both literary and popular American life. The first half of the volume, drawn by Piskor, interweaves the development, achievements, and interactions of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and, to a lesser degree, William S. Burroughs. Details such as Kerouac’s left-handedness and Ginsberg’s changing physique across his life span are shown, while snippets from their writings are suitably incorporated into the text, which is both discursive and critical. The remainder of the volume comprises 22 pieces, most by Pekar, exploring related figures, like Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; contemporaries whose personal circumstances varied enough from the core of Beats to demand artistic and life expressions that differed from the canonical Beat identity, including LeRoi Jones, Diane di Prima, and Kenneth Patchen; and related arts including visual and jazz. Joyce Brabner, Trina Robbins, Peter Kuper, and Lance Tooks are among the 17 contributors to the volume, which belongs in every library where any Beat literature has a home. This is a perfect gateway to both the art and the era for today’s teens to access the Beat world.–Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia
Kirkus Reviews
An illustrated tour of the world of hepcats, bongo bangers and other denizens of the bohemian 1950s. The culture of the '50s really began in the '40s, when Jack Kerouac started palling around with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others of their experimental, countercultural ilk. Fittingly, Pekar (Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, 2008, etc.) and Buhle (American Civilization/Brown Univ.; editor: Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, 2008, etc.) begin this pen-and-ink survey of Beat Generation icons with that trio. Their exploits will be well-known to readers familiar with their contributions to literature. In the hands of the profoundly dyspeptic Pekar, however, the less-than-appealing aspects of the three-Kerouac's alcoholism and right-wing extremism, Ginsberg's pederasty, Burroughs's bad aim with a pistol-are laid bare. But we still read their work and that of many of their contemporaries, and one of the best things about this collection by various hands-including art by noted underground cartoonist Jay Kinney and text by surrealist doyenne Penelope Rosemont-is that it elevates lesser-known figures tied to Kerouac and company. Among those are Kenneth Rexroth (who pointedly asked not to be numbered among the Beats, but has been labeled so evermore all the same), Diane Di Prima, Michael McClure, Kenneth Patchen, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia and even Tuli Kupferberg, beatified octogenarian and rabble-rousing Fug. Again, this roster will harbor no surprises for those who know the Beats, but those who do not may be surprised at how varied the movement was-and how different its East and West Coast branches were. The only seriousdrawback is that few of the drawn figures look much like their real-life counterparts. Instead, it seems, they are shifted one contemporary to the left-Ginsberg looks like William Gaines, Kerouac like Gregory Corso, Patti Smith like Joan Baez, and so on. A worthy introduction to the makers of Howl, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turtle Island and a small library's worth of enduring books.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.20(w) x 6.24(h) x 0.79(d)
Age Range:
15 - 18 Years

Meet the Author

Harvey Pekar is best known for his graphic autobiography, American Splendor, based on his long-running comic-book series that was turned into a 2003 film of the same name. Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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