Howl: A Graphic Novel by Allen Ginsberg

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Howl: A Graphic Novel by Allen Ginsberg

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Category: Graphic Novels
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Far more than an illustrated companion to the film and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0141195704

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I first came across Howl as a short film animating one of Ginsberg's own recordings of it. If memory serves, it was a scratchy, jazzy piece, full of spiky, spunky shapes and movements, and low on colour. Now for 2011 and for Penguin Modern Classics' first ever 'graphic novel' comes a very different animation. OK, the real moving animation is only to be seen in the movie Howl, but to call this merely an illustrated companion to the film is to be very unflattering.

For those who know the poem, this piece is done very sympathetically by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. All the expected elements are there - jazz music erupts from brass instruments and creates a kaleidoscope of visible sound to enter the city. Moloch starts out by looking like a cross between K9 and Battersea Power Station, before becoming more lifelike due to the humans under its sway.

For those who don't know Howl, it's almost a list poem in four parts. By far the longest, the first, itemises an inordinate number of American Everymans, and whether they're drug smuggling, suicidal, or just sexual, they're "the best minds of [Ginsberg's] generation destroyed by madness." Part three connects the author in various ways with one character thus honoured, destroyed possibly as a result of part two, the numbing annihilation offered by the econo-industrial behemoth man chooses to live in - a piece to prove Ginsberg is still very relevant today. The footnote finds a host of things holy - but to my mind diminishes the word into meaninglessness with repetition.

But whether you know the poem or not, you cannot get past the brilliance of the illustrations. Womankind, flames, jazz, the city - all leap from the black pages with a dazzling, sensate neon. Some of part one is quite literal - a besuited man swamped by skyscrapers, a poor poet entering a subway train - but there are also plenty of personal quirks. A forest of giant trees turns out to be of enormous penises instead. A man leaves the subway station steps and immediately is in Africa - like the beat generation writers, you could be convinced this is done straight and clean but there just has to be some knowledge of drugs use in the background.

You get the feeling somewhat that this is a repositioning of images from the film, and that in the real storyboard all the divebombing spirits, and the trainsurfers, are together. But Drooker has had a hand in this from first to last, and Penguin have not stinted at all. Great endpaper photos, decent notes and quotes, and the suitability of Drooker's perfect fine art skills to illuminate Ginsberg, all suggest copious people pointing out to you that Howl is a rightful Modern Classic worth discovering in one format or another. I'd heed them, and for the wealth of colour, imagery and composition here, I'd choose this edition any time.

I must thank Penguin for sending a review copy to us at the Bookbag.

We must admit to being a little stuck in finding other comparable reads. For a completely different classic script turned to a graphic novel, and one with many other generations turned to madness, there is Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis: All 50 Chapters by Robert Crumb.

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