When I met William S Burroughs during a reading at Powell's books in Portland circa 1995 he was an old, hunched-over man, hardly distinctive except for the entourage and reverence that followed him. Reading "The Beats: A Graphic History" gives a completely different view of Burroughs. Harvey Pekar's script and Ed Piskor's clean black and white art distill the man's life into a series of marginal, crazy and often violent episodes, including a drunken "William Tell" stunt that ended with his wife's death and jail time for Burroughs. The sparse script hits all the key points that explain why Burroughs is now firmly ingrained in popular and literary culture.
"The Beats" is split into two sections. The first 100 pages focus on the trinity of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs and is cleanly written and drawn by Pekar and Piskor. Together the three segments on these three icons of the Beat writers cover the length and breadth, highs and lows of their lives with surprising clarity and brevity. Pekar lays out Kerouac's pinball lifestyle, Burroughs' self-destructive line-drive, and Ginsberg's ever-expanding drive for everyone to get along and love each other. The clean black and white drawings of Piskor remind me of a religious tract a la Chick publications or an anti-drug comic, warning you what will happen to your soul if you become a Beat poet.
The second part, called "The Beats: Perspectives" includes details on the San Francisco poetry renaissance, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Beatnik Chicks, and other lesser known Beat figures such as Ken Rexroth. In the second section Pekar & Pisko still contribute quite a bit of work, but they also step aside for other writers and artists such as Nancy J. Peters, Trina Robbins, and others. I especially enjoyed the counter-point to the counter-culture in the essay "Beatnik Chicks" by Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton. I was also captured by the Tuli Kupferberg segment drawn by Jeffrey Lewis in a Crumb-like style.
The essays also have the ability to condense and shift time in a way that makes it easier to gain perspective. I had never really thought of Kerouac as a product of WWII, but the concise biography helped. Another significant event was October 7, 1955 -- the "big bang" of Beatniks. Known as "The Six Gallery Reading," it brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation and was also the first public reading of Ginberg's "Howl". All the essays in the book hover around this day in a Rashomon-like manner. And finally another important year mentioned in "The Beats" is 1961, the "upside down year." It's the same year when read upside down, but it's also the year teenagers began to have more influence than their parents. It's also the year that Beatniks invaded popular culture in the form of Maynard from "Dobie Gillis," or Buz from "Route 66".
In my opinion "The Beats" should be required reading for any high-school or college student who's been assigned to read the works of these authors. I've read "On The Road," "Junkie," and "Howl," along with other books from the canon ("Subterraneans", "Naked Lunch", the list goes on...) but as semi-autobiographical as their works may be, the lens is still screwed up by their own visions. It takes someone as cynical and bitter as Pekar to lay out the facts panel by panel, including Kerouac's middle-class aspirations to buy his mom a house and reject his radical younger days right next to a panel describing his gaining popularity. He also contrasts Ginsberg's failure to address violence at the Naropa school (co-founded by Ginsberg) with his ant-war protests. Never one to shy from being "drawn out" (pun intended) Pekar occasionally includes himself and his own comments in the narrative.
After I read "The Beats" I had a new inspiration to re-read "On The Road" and the other books and poems mentioned in the essays. It's an inspiring book -- give it a try!