The Beats: A Graphic HistoryText by Harvey Pekar and others. Art by Ed Piskor and othersEdited by Paul BuhleHill and Wang, 208 pages, $22.
The Beats is a supremely disappointing book, dry and dull where it should sparkle and enlighten. You would think it would be tough to make the lives and work of writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs seem uninteresting, but writer Harvey Pekar, artist Ed Piskor -- along with other contributors like Joyce Brabner, Trina Robbins, Mary Fleener and Peter Kuper -- seem more than up to the task.
Pekar and Piskor take up the bulk of the book detailing on the lives of Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. They also cover lesser known poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka. The rest of the crew fills up the final third of the book with short biographies of figures like Diane di Prima.
Pekar recounts each person's history in a flat "and then this happened" manner that conveys little of the individual's personality. It's just one anecdote after another. What's worse is that he never provides us with any samples of the very thing these people are famous for -- their writing. Apart from "Howl's" famous opening line, we never get any excerpts from any of these authors allegedly great works, and thus never have any real sense of why they're important. Pekar tells us again and again that these people are significant, but he never shows us why, never fully explains their influence or why their writing matters.
Ed Piskor's art does little to remedy the situation. Very often his panels mirror the text in the most obvious, literal fashion, so that if we learn that so-and-so taught for a little while, sure enough there will be an image of the author in front of a chalkboard. When Pekar does refer to a particular work, Piskor draws the author reading the work aloud or at a typewriter instead of trying to visualize the story or poem. Some panels have inexplicably little to do with the narrative. An image of Robert Duncan walking past a row of books, for example, accompanies a text box informing us that Duncan got in trouble in 1944 with an essay about his homosexuality. Basically, this is a book full of above-the-shoulder profile shots, many no doubt taken directly from photographs. If that sounds enticing to you, then The Beats is for you. I also suspect you are someone who does not ask a lot from his or her funnybooks.
It's surprising that Piskor's art is so flat and uninvolving in The Beats, as it's quite charming in Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker.
Hacker continues the story of Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle, a fictional computer hacker based on real-life pioneers Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen. The first volume dealt with Kevin's youth and isolation from his peers. Vol. 2 finds him discovering the world of BBS and uncovering the inner workings of Ma Bell only to receive a short jail stint for his efforts.
Piskor's art is much more cartoonish -- even grotesque at times -- than in Beats, which works to his advantage since his figures can come off as stiff and posed at times. I like the way he shows how Kevin is not just talented at computer science, but also at manipulating people. Yet, Kevin always remains a sympathetic character, even when you know he's using people or setting himself up for a fall. It's that sort of in-depth reader identification and eye for character detail that is completely missing from The Beats. I'm not sure why Piskor wasn't able to bring those storytelling abilities with him on that book, but I'm glad they're present in Wizzywig.