Saturday, July 25, 2009

Graphic Lives: Ones With a Beat, And One You Can Dance To

The Beats: A Graphic History, by Harvey Pekar and others. Hill and Wang, 224 pages, $22.

You couldn't ask for a livelier short course on the Beat Generation than this multi-author, multi-artist guidebook.

Clearly something of a personal mission on the part of Harvey Pekar (who did most of the writing, usually working with artist Ed Pisker) the book starts by focusing on the giants, with chronological, straightforward narratives that illustrate the lives of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Pekar is dry, smart, and witty about the well-known pretenses, peccadilloes, many highs and multiple lows of these fabulous, sputtering Roman candles, and dead serious about their legacy. Too serious, perhaps; he proclaims the Beat gospel with the kind of zeal that can easily go from persuasive to pushy. Pekar and Pisker also serve up shorter, rather dutiful portraits of Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and others.

In the latter half of the book, Pekar and other gifted writers and artists serve up one idiosyncratic portrait after the next from the Beat pantheon, many of them somewhat obscure, but who nonetheless led eventful and interesting lives The poet Kenneth Patchen, bedridden for life following a botched surgery, spends his days creating picture-poems.Nancy J. Peters and Penelope Rosemont, ably supported by Summer McClinton’s photographic graphic style, tell the unusual story of their friend, poet Philip LaMantia, a committed surrealist who would influence Kerouac. We also meet the obsessive painter Jay DeFeo, who spent years painting and repainting a work that would take over her life, and D.A. Levy, whose radical poetry led to both his harassment and his suicide.

The text and art of Jerome Newkirch brings to rousing life a nutty beatnik Chicago dive known as the College of Complexes, led by a one-of-a-kind intellectual hobo named Slim Brundage.

In true Beat spirit, the book also allows for considerable dissent. Joyce Braber considers the lives of the women in the Beat scene, who sacrificed their own ambitions to their mates, and suffered far more than they did from the sexual mores of the time. Kerouac’s girlfriend gets raped as payment for an abortion, Ginsberg's wife commits suicide after his homosexuality ends their marriage, Burroughs' wife takes a bullet through the forehead when her drug-addled husband tries to shoot a glass off the top of her head, and Hettie Cohen, white Jewish wife of the black poet Amiri Baraka, gets ditched when her husband becomes an anti-Semitic Black Nationalist.

This is a comprehensive and imaginative cultural history that is an exuberant work of art on its own.

Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography by Sabrina Jones. Hill and Wang, 144 pages, $18.95

One of the great assets of the graphic form for non-fiction biographies is that it cuts historic figures down to size. The form by its nature makes it hard to take anyone too seriously, especially a figure like Isadora Duncan, who took herself seriously enough for all of us. The Jazz Age dancer -- whose many affairs, near-nude dancing, and general disregard for conventional morality of any kind scandalized the hoi polloi from coast to coast -- saw herself as the reincarnation of the Dionysian spirit, the one who would reinstall the Greek spirit of art and culture in the new 20th Century America.

Sabrina Jones' deeply researched book seems to miss no significant event in Duncan's endlessly dramatic life, spanning her humble, impoverished California childhood to her early success and her extended stays in Greece, France and Russia, and all the many guises she took on as revolutionary, radical, mother, lover. She lived heedlessly and famously died the same way, strangled when her own long, flowing scarf got caught in the rear axle of an open-air vehicle.

While few if any people alive today have seen Duncan dance -- although there are famous pictures by Edward Steichen, the dancer herself refused to allow herself to be filmed by a movie camera -- her name has become synonymous with her art, and Jones draws with a similar rapturous energy. She captures this whirlwind and worldwide life in all of its brilliant fury.

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