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In The Beats, as in Students for a Democratic Society and Macedonia, Pekar is dealing with pivotal events that shaped his life and times on and off the streets of Cleveland. In this these works are essential companions to American Splendor. Readers are fortunate that a talent like Pekar is allowed a platform to explain why what happened to millions in his era happened. It would be hard to truly understand Pekar and the peers he generally speaks for, common folk, without some background on the context.
Pekar puts on the same glasses he uses to discern his own life to discern this group. His vision is intentionally stripped of fawning, platitudes, and the intellectual apologetics that often dominate accounts of the more famous beat characters. The fusion of music, literature, film, politics, and just enough, but not too much mass media, is what grabbed us and changed our lives. Pekar tells the story the way we heard the story, and saw parts of it, in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. Other than in often hard to find Beat writings, which tended to make big names like Kerouac seem a constant romantic wanderer, minimizing the sad, right-wing, drunken momma's boy, all we heard were bits and pieces about their lives. Certain books we were fortunate enough to find, like Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians, focused on Beat unknowns and presented a lifestyle that was alluring as well as repellent. (Though Ginsberg is inspiring at times, Burroughs makes me want to get a government job and go to church.) This tension made most of us, after brief flings in hippiedom, spend our lives as VA file clerks, teachers, social workers, nurses, small business coffee house and used bookstore owners. Pekar eloquently depicts this tension in simple panels, such as on page 20, with Kerouac's mom saying, "Welcome back!" on one of the many occasions when Jack returns broke to her door. Page 59 has him afraid to visit with Allen Ginsberg, who is hiding in the bushes because momma would be upset, as well as the stress, decadence and death that plagued these writer's lives. There is great power in reading about these events in Pekar's pithy prose and seeing them in the artist's panels. It all appears very intentional, without a wasted word or drawn line.
Pekar, as always, speaks more for the majority that didn't make it so big. This book really gets going on page 95 when Pekar and partners get into the lesser known, but perhaps even more essential, beat community. Pekar reminds us that with or without the three "giants" of beatdom there was a vibrant San Francisco scene that was flourishing long before a handful of screwed up guys hit town from New York. We get introduced to folk like d.a. levy from Cleveland, outstanding, and Slim Brundage from Chicago, fantastically portrayed by Jerome Neukirch. I had never heard of him before and just ordered a book of his writings from Amazon-thanks Jerome. Joyce Brabner does a great job on Beatnik Chicks. I enjoyed her feminist point of view on the "top guys" and only wish there was more from her perspective. Tuli Kupferberg helped write about himself, and that was great. These are just some of the folk that made this a real movement, who were into community organizing, the people, and not just out for themselves. Pekar and crew do here what was done in Pekar's Macedonia. They don't just focus on the train wrecks but on the folks and places that are doing things right, staying out of war and creating spaces for us to get involved with making the world a better place. The Beats: A Graphic History is an inspirational five star book.