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Sunday, September 21, 2014

No, Not Every Story Needs A Graphic Novel Treatment

These thoughts have been rattling 'round in my head since reading Ed Piskor's graphic novel The Beats sometime last week. It was not a bad read - in many ways, it was very educational and illuminating - but I walked away from it thinking that it was presented in a very odd way. It has me wondering: do some graphic novels really need to be made if they don't do anything with the medium?

The Beats is, if the name didn't give it away, a non-fiction GN based on the lives of the Beat poets, mainly the big trio - Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg - as well as many of the 'lesser-known' writers, teachers, and folks on the scene who moved and shaped the group that would be known as the Beat Generation.

Ed Piskor collaborated with Harvey Pekar for The Beats. It's a biographical tale of a cultural movement, a topic Piskor would eventually return to for the Hip Hip Family Tree series from Fantagraphics. But damn, I don't think the Beats needed to be a full graphic novel. It wasn't necessary at all.

Why? Because while Piskor tells a good story, highlighting the ups and downs of the Beat writers, the comic medium doesn't do anything to enhance the story. For the Piskor/Pekar chapters, the format is depressingly similar across the board: each panel an image with a lengthy caption, maybe the occasional dialogue bubble or action SFX. The images themselves add a visual anchor to the text but beyond that, they do little else. There is nothing imaginative done with the paneling, with the colors, with the art style.

I would hardly complain if it weren't for the fact that the back end of the book is made up of shorter chapters about other Beat figures by a variety of other writers and artists, and what they bring to the table is much more vivacious and creative than Piskor and Pekar's contributions. They integrate the story and artwork into something organic. Some of them eschew the traditional paneling style all together. And they, above all, are the strongest parts of the book. They are the chapters I remember most of all.

I know Piskor isn't some kind of unimaginative chump. The first volume of Hip Hop Family Tree is one of the best graphic novels I've read all year; it's a colorful, vibrantly drawn throwback to the birth of hip hop and rap, part history lesson, part fantasy. The Beats would have made a rather good, if short, prose non-fiction book. Instead, Piskor made it an underwhelming non-fiction graphic novel - which, fair enough, it's his medium of choice. But it's a medium underused in this sense.

Although, I must give credit where credit is due. Piskor and Pekar doesn't shy away from the fact that these men were rather terrible people in their personal lives. They give credit to their creative work and how their poetry pushed and created a national conversation on difficult issues, but they also point out that they were drug addicts and misogynists, several of them were pederasts, and Burroughs straight up killed a man. Oh, and Kerouac and Burroughs helped destroy evidence for a friend's murder trial. #SimpleBeatStuff, and all that.

But to put all this information into a graphic novel format, they present it in the most straightforward, dry way possible? Come on. I don't expect them to recreate the poets' drug trips on page but when a graphic novel reads like an informative picture book instead of a fully involved visual experience, I don't see the point. Perhaps this is a book where the main creators should have stepped back and let the other collaborators take the reins.