Howl: A Graphic Novel

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic Howl gets the graphic novel treatment, using illustrations from Eric Drooker’s animated version

Suspended in our particular moment in time, it can be hard to grasp a full understanding of the attitudes and morals that formed society in the past. Even in the last generation or two, the changes in perception of where the lines between good and bad, normal and extreme should be drawn, seem to have shifted beyond recognition.

When beat poet Allen Ginsberg first published Howl, the book’s publisher was summoned to court on charges of indecency. Simply by writing about the hedonism and, in some cases, homosexuality of his peer group, the poem had to fight in court for the right to be published – essentially a question of whether its sexuality was justified by the artistic value of the whole. Compared to the liberalism of today, western society half a century ago seems as archaic and misanthropic as the most backward of extreme religious regimes in the world today.

With the passage of time, however, the poem loses some of its impact. Homosexuality and references to drug abuse seem less dramatic than they must have been when this was first published in 1956. While the off-paper antics of creative literary geniuses like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs may have seemed decadent at the time, they were no more or less so than predecessors like Oscar Wilde and the romantic poets. For better or worse, it now sounds no more controversial (though obviously better crafted) than the banter you might find on a Facebook wall.

In this book the poem is accompanied by stills from the movie Howl, which intersperses live action with an animation of the poem. These stills are all from the animated section, using a single picture across a double-page spread of the book, for each line or so of poem. It’s undoubtedly attractive but without the animation’s movement (or the illusion of movement provided by a regular comic’s panels) each page feels like a frozen frame. It damages the poem’s rhythm as a result, and detracts from the artistry of the animation, which is far from as stilted as it’s made to look here.

Some classics are well suited to the graphic novel treatment – Shakespearean plays and perhaps longer works of literature. Relatively short poems aren’t so straightforward to adapt. One line per page with a stilted illustration may look pretty, but it doesn’t have the flow the poem deserves. Fans of the poem or the film will be disappointed with this, I think, as it does something of a disservice to both.

Read our review of the movie version of Howl

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