The Beats A Graphic History

Text by Harvey Pekar et al.; Art by Ed Piskor et al.

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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A School Library Journal Best Adult Book for High School Students
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.


Praise for The Beats

"[An] anthology that mashes up biography, criticism, and literary readings from the seminal creative movement. Comic art legend Harvey Pekar presides over the enterprise with a boldness befitting the Beatniks' sensibility, along with graphic geniuses Peter Kuper (of Mad magazine fame), Ed Piskor, and other big names in the medium. The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and '50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo's flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history."—Kristin Butler, The Atlantic

"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 . . . 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."—John Leland, The New York Times Book Review

"This revelatory and exhilarating and funny book not only tells us of the Beat generation, but of a time when we as individuals felt truly free. It is as fresh and pertinent as the latest scholarly history only far more entertaining."—Studs Terkel

"History with a deeper perspective is the province of The Beats, a multifaceted effort led by writer Harvey Pekar, his frequent collaborator Paul Buhle and artist Ed Piskor. It delivers the texture of a movement easy to underestimate in brief biographies of touchstones like poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, novelists William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and lesser-known lights like poet d.a. levy (an underground Cleveland icon) and mythopoeic poetess Diane di Prima . . . This fearless, substantial history entertains as it uncovers."—Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe

"Pekar's history of the post-war literary, cultural and spiritual awakening is well researched and intended . . . Piskor is joined by such stellar artists as Kuper, Tooks, Gary Dumm and Fleener . . . More writers pitch in, too, and the diversity of images and narrative voices add texture and resonance to the proceedings . . . The absorbing graphic presentation may elicit interest from unexpected quarters."—Richard Pachter, The Miami Herald

"Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs need no introduction, but here they are introducing The Beats: A Graphic History—in the section written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Ed Piskor. It's warts and all: the alcohol-fueled writings, the drug-fueled globe-trotting, not to mention the rampant sexuality and jaw-dropping misogyny . . . But there's humor here too by Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton on a topic ripe for latter-day ridicule: 'Beatnik Chicks.' Good thing too that Pekar et al. salute some lesser lights in this primer on the birth of the cool: City Lights bookstore founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in addition to poets Philip Whalen, Kenneth Patchen, and D.A. Levy, plus former hobo Slim Brundage."—Leonard Gill, The Memphis Flyer

"Graphic novels don’t just have to be about dystopian alternative universes, no matter if Watchmen might indicate otherwise. Just peruse the eye-catching The Beats: A Graphic History (in stores as of Tuesday), from Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor and Paul Buhle, which takes an illustrated look back at a very real part of American pop-culture history, when beat culture of the ’40s and ’50s—sandwiched between the improvisational nature of jazz and the recklessness of rock ’n’ roll—began to speak to a part of a generation at odds with mainstream society. One word sums it up: Cool."—Cary Darling, Star-Telegram

"The history of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs as told by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Ed Piskor turns hipster history into a digestible, fun read . . . Edited by Brown University professor Paul Buhle, the 100-plus page graphic novel is an entertaining, educational ride . . . Anyone who has followed the lives of these iconic writers will be amused by this book."—Kathleen Pierce, Lowell Sun 

"Do we really need another bio on the lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg, et. al.? Yes, especially should it be one like The Beats. I expected The Beats to be dry, regurgitated history presented in graphic novel form simply because graphic novels are so 2009. So much for first impressions. American Splendor's Pekar leads a troop of writers who bring these influential—and often seriously flawed—writers to life . . . The Beats is strong, dramatic storytelling that is executed and illustrated by major leaguers."—Randy Myers, Contra Costa Times

"Written by Harvey Pekar and four other authors, with art by eleven cartoonists and illustrators, The Beats covers all the major writers of the generation—Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Olson, Diane DiPrima, and many more. 'No one claims this treatment to be definitive,' Buhle and Pekar write in their introduction to the book. 'But it is new and it is vital.' And, perhaps more important, it's fun."—Poets & Writers

"If you're a fan of Harvey Pekar, author of the successful graphic novel-turned-film American Splendor, then you can imagine how his voice sounds on a weekday morning, discussing topics including homophobia, Yiddish, and moves about Joseph McCarthy. In his latest project, The Beats: A Graphic History, Pekar conjures an imagined, often hilarious dialogue between Beat Generation writers."—Holly Siegel, Nylon 

"It always seemed to me that most of the work by Jack Kerouac and the rest of the Beat Generation was more about visceral experience than any kind of linear plotline. It's weird to think that Harvey Pekar sat down with a kajillion other dudes to put together a sprawling retelling of a movement that primarily consisted of sometimes admirable man-boys acting out weird fantasies and then publishing book about them, but he did. As an introduction to the beats, the book works."—Sam Hockley-Smith, Fader

"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."—Boing Boing

"The Beats might be amused to know that one of the most incisive histories of their cultural moment is now available in comic form, a medium that wasn't more than children's entertainment in the 1950s. The Beats: A Graphic History focuses on heavies such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs as well as lesser-knowns (Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima) and scene hot spots, including San Francisco's City Lights bookstore. Though the bulk of the work comes from American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar and his frequent artist partner Ed Piskor, the volume also features contributions from comic luminaries Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener and Jay Kinney, among others. The downsides of the movement—misogyny, rampant substance abuse—aren't glossed over, and it all adds up to a balanced, informative look at a generation that was 'mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time.'"—Bryan Hood, Anthem

“This lively graphic history spotlights the 1950s youth revolt that said no to conformity and opened the way to a new world of unfettered imagination.”—Franklin Rosemont, cofounder of the Chicago Surrealist Group

“Capturing the flavor of that poetic era with style and wit, The Beats is a slice of countercultural history that’s enhanced by its unique visual format.”—Paul Krassner, author of Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?: Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today and One Hand Jerking: Reports from an Investigative Satirist

“This graphic history has a grittiness and attention to difficult anecdote that brings a classic American romantic venture, with all its deviant sexual and economic ‘crazy wisdom,’ down to the gritty realism of pen-and-ink earth.”—Edward Sanders, author of America: A History in Verse

"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 and Buhle begin this pen-and-ink survey of Beat Generation icons with that trio . . . 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 . . . A worthy introduction to the makers of Howl, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turtle Island and a small library's worth of enduring books."—Kirkus Reviews

"Well researched and earnest . . . 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."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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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  • Text by Harvey Pekar et al.; Art by Ed Piskor et al.

  • 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.
  • Harvey Pekar © JT Waldman