Howl: A Graphic Novel, by Allen Ginsberg & Eric Drooker
There are arguably three works that best exemplify Beat literature: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. While all three of these works share a celebration of non-conformity and free expression, they also share a controversial journey to prominence. First published in 1956, Ginsberg’s Howl is now widely considered to be a prophetic masterpiece, but it had to overcome censorship trials and obscenity charges before becoming one of the most widely read poems of the century. An epic raging against a dehumanizing society, Ginsberg declares his motivation in writing Howl to be:
“In publishing Howl, I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness, in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy.”
Howl is divided into three main parts with an additional footnote. Part I is “a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths” and contains the most well-known passages of the poem. In it Ginsberg relates the regular lows and occasional triumphs of “the best minds of [his] generation”, the outcasts – poets, artists, jazz musicians, junkies and the mentally ill – whose truth and beauty he felt was being crushed by an oppressive, conformist society.
Part II rails against the state of the machinery of civilisation, represented by the demonic Moloch, deeming it “the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb.” For Ginsberg, mainstream society has – through war, politics and capitalism – sacrificed the heroes of Part I at Moloch’s alter of homogenised modernity.
In Part III Ginsberg is addressing Carl Solomon – whom Ginsberg had met during a stay at a psychiatric hospital and to whom Howl is dedicated – directly, sympathising with his mental demons and stating that “I’m with you in Rockland.” With his concentration back on his friends and inspiration, Part III is far less bleak in tone than Part II as Ginsberg allows his hope for the future of the “angel-headed hipsters” to begin to shine through.
The Footnote to Howl, contrary to the rest of the poem, is almost ecstatic in tone as Ginsberg uses “Holy!” as a mantra to assert that everything that exists is inherently holy and so both beautiful and worthwhile: “Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!”
Howl is hailed as being the first graphic novel to be published by Penguin Modern Classics although really it is more of an illustrated edition [picture book?] than a graphic novel in the traditional sense. Eric Drooker [friend and collaborator of Alan Ginsberg as well as author of Flood! A Novel in Pictures and Blood Song: A Silent Ballad] is responsible of the art of Howl and it’s interesting to note that he is billed as having “animated” the book rather than having illustrated it. The reason for this, and no doubt the reason for the unusual graphic style of the book, is that the majority of Drooker’s work that is used to illustrate the book comes from the animated sequences of the recent Howl film.
Illustrating Howl can’t have been an easy business, but generally speaking Drooker’s art resonates with Ginsberg’s words and so Howl: A Graphic Novel does succeed in offering a new interpretation of the poem. While I do certainly prefer the more obviously hand-drawn and painted pages of the book to those in the clear CGI, screenshot style, the differing methods of illustration do mesh together pretty well. The biggest flaw in Howl: A Graphic Novel is not found in the art itself but rather in the way the poem has been rearranged to fit in with the artistic layout. Knowing the poem fairly well, the changes in rhythm due to the fragmenting of the run-on sentences of Howl to fit in with Drooker’s ‘one page, one image’ style seem rather jarring and do detract from the reading experience.
It’s actually quite difficult to reach a final verdict on Howl: A Graphic Novel. Ginsberg’s poem is still great, still relevant and deserves to reach as many readers as possible. The majority of Drooker’s art is very good and fairly evocative. However, Howl was already rich in images and so the necessity of fragmenting it and then overlaying it on different images is rather lost on me. Howl: A Graphic Novel is an interesting attempt at illustrating a powerful poem, but it is perhaps not the best way to present Ginsberg’s work.