The Mad Ones
Illustration by Ed Piskor ; from “The Beats”
A Graphic History
Text by Harvey Pekar and others.
Art by Ed Piskor and others.
Edited by Paul Buhle
199 pp. Hill & Wang.
$22 By JOHN LELAND
Published: April 10, 2009
The writers of the Beat Generation had the good fortune to give themselves a name and to write extensively about their lives, in novels like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and William Burroughs’s “Junkie,” in poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and, later, in memoirs like Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters” and Hettie Jones’s “How I Became Hettie Jones.” Jones once said they couldn’t be a generation because they could all fit in her living room, but in the popular imagination they were much more than the sum of their body parts or writings. They were a brand.
When the country still considered literary writers and poets important public figures, these were literary writers and poets who came with luridly colorful lives, full of sex and drugs and cars, “the best minds of my generation,” “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live,” cultural avatars who were often linked more by lifestyle considerations than by writerly ones. If they inspired lots of bad poetry set to bongos and little poetic discipline, they have even more effectively escaped disciplined literary or historical analysis. They rocked; they posed a threat to the nation’s youth. Either you got them or you didn’t. What could matter compared with that?
“The Beats” moves this mythology into the comics realm, where it finds a nice fit. In the introduction, Harvey Pekar and the lefty historian Paul
Buhle write that the book has “no pretension to the depth of coverage and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in many languages,” adding that “no one claims this treatment to be definitive. But it is new, and it is vital.”
The pages that follow, mostly written by Pekar and illustrated by his frequent collaborator Ed Piskor, live up to both of those claims, while also living down to the caveats. “The Beats” is plainly celebratory. The writers and artists don’t try to untangle the Beats’ hazy history — which is often drawn from works of fiction — or to examine their writings. There are almost no quotations.