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HOWL: A Novel Graphic: Authenticity and Irony in Eric Drooker's Adaptations of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

Michael J. Prince


All of Eric Drooker's book-length works bear a genre label in their title: Flood! A Novel in Pictures (1992), Blood Song: A Silent Ballad (2002), and his 2010 book of illustrations together with Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl: A Graphic Novel. By including "novel," "ballad," and "graphic novel" Drooker consistently challenges and expands genre limits and his audience's aesthetic expectations. While he freely re-uses images within and between works, HOWL: A Graphic Novel is a repetition of another kind. From 1996 to 2010 he participated in a series of adaptations of Allen Ginsberg's most well-known poem. The first, a collaboration with Ginsberg, is Illuminated Poems (1996); the second, a cartoon animation in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 2010 film, HOWL; and, finally, the graphic novel.

This paper considers how these graphic / animated representations of Ginsberg's "Howl" employ different strategies of interaction between word and text, and how, with each new repetition and distribution, unintended irony can "taint" a poetic text, one that established an aesthetic regime of "authenticity," i.e. a frank expression of direct, unfiltered experience. Illuminated Poems includes all four parts of "Howl," and the images vary from watercolors to "scratchboard," a method also used in Flood! and Blood Song that mimics woodcuts. In the film, the collaboration with digital animators John Hays, Tod Polson and other artists at the Monk Studio, has led to a strikingly different graphic product, ultimately manifested as "graphic novel" images in conjunction with Ginsberg's text. While Eric Drooker has produced a forceful adaptation of "Howl" in his animated film, the transit of image and text through a feature-length film burdens the graphic novel with images that invite intrusions of irony, in part by popular iconic renderings of Ginsberg, his intimate acquaintances, and his more striking poetic images. In spite of this ironic intrusion, Drooker's "graphic novel" is successful as a visual graphic, though less so as a graphic novel; it addresses and embellishes the visual with the aid of this canonical text, further broadening the genre border for what the graphic novel can do.

Illuminated Poems and Beat "Authenticity"

In the "Introduction" to HOWL: A Graphic Novel, Drooker says that Illuminated Poems (1996) "caught the attention of filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman"; and it is here that his creation of image to match the text of "Howl" begins (2010: xiii). In this collaboration with Ginsberg, Drooker's images encourage visual interpretations that evince the same thematic concerns as the text, and thereby a similar degree of "authenticity."

As the work that put the Beats on the literary and cultural scene, "Howl" has a potent claim to this principle of artistic creation and mediation. The Beat aesthetic discussed and practiced by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg aspires to an ideal of unmediated "truth," a direct mind-to-mind transference of impression, experience, and what is perceived at the moment to be "true." Burroughs' "Atrophied Preface" to "Naked Lunch" says: "There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing. [...] I am a recording instrument [...]" (1993: 174). Linda Hutcheon suggests that this non-mediated "factual" attitude is complemented by a concomitant dedication to non-superficiality in the aesthetic product, one she locates as a product of European Romanticism and some characteristics of Modernism. In this case, the risk is a perception of "irony [that] can be seen as trivializing the essential seriousness of art" (1994: 49, emphasis in original). This is primarily a valence marker for "serious art," but other "functions of irony" may also hinder this direct, frank communication. These are found closer to the "lesser affective charge" of Hutcheon's anatomy of irony, in particular, in the "ludic" and "distancing" functions which play more on meaning than attitude or opinion (47, 49-50). Ginsberg's flowing poetic line and starkly contrasting images from the downtrodden counterculture are nestled in this oasis from irony, in "authenticity." The Beat poet who functioned as one of muses for "Howl," Jack Kerouac, provides writing advice for Allen Ginsberg which corroborates this notion: seek an "undisturbed flow from the mind"; take "no pause to think of proper word"; and write "without consciousness" to approach this authentic ideal that holds art and the artist to a higher standard of honesty and artistic integrity (Kerouac 1992: 57-59).

Art historian Daniel Belgrad further characterizes this Beat aesthetic in terms of "spontaneity," "physicality" and "intersubjectivity." "For the beats […] recovering spontaneous prosody as an element of speech would increase the 'reality' content of the utterances" (1998: 198); "The feeling of excitement functioned […] as an index of 'authenticity,' as defined as communicating close to the bone of physical-psychological need" (202). Physicality and intersubjectivity involve the body as an integral part of the creative process, and the psyche in a communicative relationship with the audience at the moment of reception. While I make no claims for Eric Drooker's strict "Beat authenticity" in Illuminated Poems, the sparse suggestiveness of the images, as well as engaging the viewer in the interpretive act do aspire to a similar degree of aesthetic intensity. Drooker's scratchboard and pen and ink renderings from Flood!, Blood Song, and several of the images of Illuminated Poems impress the viewer with a sense of the quick, energetic production of spontaneity, as well as the palpable awareness of the physicality of the creation of these haptic images.

"Howl" is embellished in Illuminated Poems by ten illustrations; four color paintings, four black and white renderings, reminiscent of woodcuts, an additional work has blue added, and finally one frenzied pen and ink drawing. In these 23 pages, about half of the space is images. Many of these use the scratchboard technique that Drooker employed in Flood!. In fact, the illustrator was in between this wordless novel, and his next, Blood Song, when he collaborated with Ginsberg on this project (McCarthy 2010).

The book itself evokes a children's "picture book" sampler. The first full page image is of a howling child, and the cover page (Ginsberg 2006: 17) depicts seven grade-school children playing hopscotch and drawing upon a swath of urban residential pavement. There is also a suggestion of a lifecycle throughout the volume, with sperm meeting egg on page 19, and the penultimate picture of an infirm bed-ridden old man next to the last poetry, a journal entry by an ailing Ginsberg from 1992 (140-41). The combination of image and text exerts a mutual tension shared by this volume and the "graphic novel." According to Lawrence R. Sipe,

Because of the primarily spatial nature of the pictures and our drive to form "unified atemporal structures," our tendency is to gaze on, dwell upon, or contemplate them. In contrast, the primarily temporal nature of the verbal narrative creates in us a tendency to keep on reading, to keep going ahead in what C. S. Lewis termed "narrative lust." (1998: 100-01)

In Illuminated Poems, "Howl" as text does drive the reader forward, but since the images are few, the gazing also invites interpretation of the visual elements.

The illustrations in this "Howl" are, like the poem, suggestive of meaning; their ostensive "physicality" and their connotative juxtaposition with the text invoke an intersubjectivity between the artist and viewer. While the graphic elements evince the same thematic meaning as "Howl," there is virtually no direct correspondence in content from text to image. Rather than showing us what the text is telling us, the pictures themselves beg their own "poetic" interpretation. The images in Part I start with a close-up detail of  an "image of two bums standing huddled round a bright garbage-can fire as big snowflakes fell under the Brooklyn Bridge" (2006: xiii, 43); and it ends with the complete picture, so this section is encased in an image that suggests poverty, but also solidarity (55). The fire, the dog in the foreground, and the brightly lit window on the upper storey of the apartment building imply a meagre, but welcoming, domestic hearth. The second image invokes both the grainy texture and framing of an ultrasound of a foetus, and a man falling head first through a manhole. This implies a death and a rebirth, something constructive derived from the adversity of the harsh psychic and physical environment. Also, the posture is strongly suggestive of the Tarot card, "The Hanged Man," a figure who has not succumbed to indoctrination by the reigning epistemological and ideological paradigms, since he sees the world upside down with equanimity. He represents "the descent of the light into darkness in order to redeem it" (Crowley 1969: 98), thematically congruent with the garbage-can fire. The third image comes closest to being a content illustration; opposite the passages on "N.C., secret hero of these poems," there is a scratchboard rendering of table-top fornication. Yet, this image is more like those in the first part of Drooker's Flood! in tone. As in the wordless novel, the sexual act is energetic, but joyless. The fourth image covers two pages, sharing page 51 with nine lines of text. This is also similar to a scratchboard image, with sharp contrasts, white on black; it is of a reclining man aflame, leaning on his right arm, tourniquet in clenched teeth, injecting a syringe with his left hand. And the last image of Part I is a return to the full drawing of the garbage-can fire in the snow. In this brief sequence of five images, there is poverty, solidarity, sex, drugs, and a symbolic fall and redemption. Drooker is calling on the same thematic assessment of the human condition that is described by the poem "Howl," but without any direct connections between image and text.

Citing André Gardies, Linda Hutcheon regards the original text of an adaptation as "a reservoir of instructions, diegetic, narrative, and axiological, that the adapter can use or ignore […] for the adapter is an interpreter before becoming a creator" (2006: 84). The illustrations in Illuminated Poems were at the request of Ginsberg, so the poet is still imminently present, while the illustrator is not "adapting" in terms of reworking the text, so much as accompanying the original. This volume includes unpublished poems as well as some of Ginsberg's better known works. In line with Hutcheon, the twinned pleasures of repeating the same while also experiencing something different, "repetition with variation" (4) can be said to obtain, but in Illuminated Poems the visual is an accompaniment to the textual, there is no "re-creation" going on. Rather Ginsberg's poems, as poems, are presented in a context that includes illustrations by Drooker.

But, as Drooker's further work with "Howl" evolves to the animation and graphic novel, there is a conscious reworking of images in the act of adaptation. Selection and recalibration of these images are the crucial choices in this adaptation exchange from the physicality of the diverse graphic mediums that Drooker masters through the channels of digital animation, film, and finally the graphic novel. This study will focus on two powerful images from Illuminated Poems that are themselves "adapted" and reworked for the animated portions of the film, and which are subsequently frozen graphically in HOWL: A Graphic Novel: the reclined junky, setting the needle; and Moloch, a dynamic array of horizontal and vertical lines. In addition, the author himself, Allen Ginsberg, as the primary subject of the film, is further visually rendered in the animated sequences and the graphic novel as a part of the tale and the telling.

HOWL: Drooker's animated adaptation for a feature-length film

More so than with Illuminated Poems, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film is "an autonomous creation" (Hutcheon 2006: 85); "from the adapter's perspective, adaptation is an act of appropriating or salvaging, and this is always a double process of interpreting and then creating something new" (20), in this case, for cinematic purposes. HOWL is rich with didactic presentations of biographical and historical episodes; given these additional elements, it is better to claim that HOWL contains an adaptation of the poem: James Franco's "live" reading together with Eric Drooker's animated sequences. The poem functions with the attendant didactic and background portions as the thematic marker that anchors both the obscenity trial as a chapter in American postwar cultural history, and Allen Ginsberg's unfolding as a poet and a homosexual as personal biography. The film is composed of five cinematic registers: black and white footage of Ginsberg's earlier life and the October 7, 1955 debut performance of his poem at Six Gallery in San Francisco; 1950s stock film of the cultural milieu that fostered the Beats; an interview, in color, with Ginsberg (Franco) that supposedly takes place in New York City concurrent with Lawrence Ferlinghetti's trial in San Francisco; the courtroom drama of the obscenity trial; and the animated sequences. Liberties have been taken with the historical circumstances. For example, at the poetry reading in San Francisco, Ginsberg read only the first of the four sections of "Howl"; and he was not in New York City during the obscenity trial, but in Paris and Tunis with Peter Orlovsky and William S. Burroughs (Miles 2000: 19).

The text of the poem is included in four of these interlinked, yet distinct, registers. One, during the obscenity trial sequence the poem is discussed as "literature" of lasting merit; lines from the poem are here read aloud in the clinical wrapping of a courtroom "exhibit A," calling for a literal or figurative account as well as an evaluation of social and aesthetic purport. Two, the register that begins and concludes the film, is black and white footage of Allen Ginsberg's first reading of the poem, an event regarded as the watershed moment for the Beat poets (Tytell 1976: 104; Charters 1992: xxvii). Three-the register with the majority of the poem's lines-is the animated film portions, and it is from this that the graphic novel is adapted; finally, two or three lines of the poem are also discussed in the interview in connection with Ginsberg's creative process.

The poem "Howl" functions as a cultural artifact and a juncture between artistic production and audience reception of an aesthetic product. The film starts with the first lines of the poem, and, except for a brief explanatory postscript, it ends with the last lines of the poem. In the Six Gallery reading and animated portions, "Howl" is presented more or less in sequence, though, as with the history, the filmmakers have also treated the text with some license. Several lines are omitted; some lines are shortened by a phrase or clause. Also, the portions of the poem that are out of sequence are in conjunction with the plot structure of the film. For instance, the lines on psychiatric treatments linking Ginsberg's mother and Carl Solomon (ll. 67-70) are placed adjacent to an interview sequence in which Ginsberg (Franco) relates the events. Some of the material on Neal Cassady and the more explicit sexual references (ll. 42-43) are contextualized with these issues as they are raised in the trial. In this sense, the presentation of the poem plays on two receptions simultaneously, aesthetic experience and expository subject. Franco's interpretation of Ginsberg's reading and Drooker's animation are compelling. Franco's declamatory delivery offers more pathos than the capable, but overly intense, reading of "Howl" by John Turturro in The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation; Franco and Drooker achieve the resolution at the ending of Part III with the union of Carl Solomon with the poet. Even punctuated by the New York interview of Ginsberg, footage from 1950s U.S. society, and the obscenity trial, the short passages-varying from a one to six lines, in most cases-function to recreate the historical material circumstances of the Beat poets, as in the Six Gallery footage, as well as to adapt the text to the lush visual play of Drooker's animated art. To many in the audience, this may be the most focused reception of the text of "Howl" they have ever experienced.

These presentations of "Howl" are highly mediated, however, and herein lies a potential for irony's diluting the "authenticity" of Ginsberg's text. The Six Gallery reading is more "cinema" than documentary; and the animated sequences are dominated by visual and audio richness-color, motion, music-that subordinate text to the image. And yet, the didactic portions of the film-the New York interview and the obscenity trial-often appeal to and advocate the frank unadorned exchange of ideas and feeling, the most integral aspect of, and necessary condition for, "authenticity."

One issue that the filmmakers and Eric Drooker had to grapple with was how to work when one is so tightly bound by the text. Direct quotation is the highest order of intertextuality, one that can drift ironically into parody. This source text is particularly problematical because it was written with a pronounced anti-ironic sense. This is tempered in the film through advocates of "authenticity": Ginsberg (Franco) during the interview sequences, and the trial lawyer Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) while defending Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The scenes are chiefly didactic, obviously so in terms of historical and biographical exigencies, but a prominent subtext is a serious consideration of the creative act and the aesthetic product. One example is when Ginsberg (Franco) in an interview section describes the "source" of poetry as it delineates subjectivity through physicality and spontaneity:

Poetry generally is a rhythmic articulation of feeling, and the feeling is an impulse that begins inside-like a sexual impulse, almost as definite as that, it's a feeling that begins in the pit of the stomach, and rises up through the breast and out the mouth and ears. […] In the moment of composition, I don't necessarily know what it means. It comes to mean something later. […] If it is at all spontaneous, I don't know whether it even makes sense sometimes. And other times, I do know it makes complete sense, and I start crying, 'cause I realize I'm hitting on an area that's absolutely true.

At this point, the film and Drooker's animation avails itself of a visual allusion by including Paul Cézanne's Mont Sainte Victoire, as a point of departure for one of the animated sequences. So, closely juxtaposed to Ginsberg's (Franco's) discussion of "spontaneity" in the creative act, the implication is that this can also lead to abstract compositions. Cézanne's series of painting of this mountain are known for challenging the realism of line for the abstraction of patches of color (Düchting 2009: 202, 214). The positioning of Ginsberg in front of this painting is ahistorical-the painting hangs in The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg-but associatively it suggests not only a drift toward the abstract, but, in line with Cézanne, one that reflects a deeper truth about nature (203). Yet, Drooker's animation focuses on a detail in the painting, and then quickly draws the viewer in through a barred window, to a saxophonist in a jail-cell, suggesting that this side of life, too, is "absolutely true."

The weaving of these diverse cinematic textures and discourses results in a powerful and convincing film, combining biopic, historical documentary, and artistic performances of the poem. Epstein and Friedman, with Drooker's contribution, adapt a concrete American milieu and the creative act around the poem to a film that captures and transmits much of the essential tone and themes of the "original," especially for those equipped or predisposed to receive them. But channeling "Howl" through a widely distributed film may forever alter its significance. As John Storey points out in his discussion of Tony Bennett's and Janet Woollacott's Bond and Beyond, "once the films were in circulation it was these that dominated constructions of the figure of Bond, […] it was the films which provided the interpretive framework through which to read the novels" (56). With the poem "Howl" and the author Allen Ginsberg, the cinematic adaptation may come to overwhelm the reading of the "original." Cinema and DVD distribution facilitates and imposes broader media dispersal among less cognoscente audiences. As Hutcheon corroborates when she discusses the additional intertextual layer imposed by an adaptation in a mass-market technology, "Palimpsests make for permanent change" (2006: 29). Or at least, the risk is there, as will be seen in a discussion of three specific images as they transit another adaptive step from the film to the graphic novel.

HOWL: A Graphic Novel and a novel graphic

With a further adaptation to a visually rich print format, and a repeat project of combining Ginsberg's poetic text and Drooker's graphic ones, HOWL: A Graphic Novel is at the terminus of a series of adaptations. It is here that the intertextual "palimpsests" have the most layers; and it is here, in the graphic novel, that there obtains an unintended intrusion of irony with a potential to dilute the "authenticity" of "Howl" for some readers. The process is one where the adapters have set up the circumstances for this intrusion, and the diverse backgrounds, ideological and cognitive, of the "discursive communities" of the audience complete the circuit.

The "graphic novel" is a genre still under development, but its most frequent definitions coalesce around "an extended-length comics narrative" and "sequential art in book form." The last decades of the twentieth century saw marketing of graphic novels to "discerning adult readers [who] were more attracted to these square-bound texts printed on glossy paper stock" (Williams 2010: xiv-xv). In 1985, Will Eisner claims that "the graphic novel […] is currently the fastest-growing literary medium in America" (2008: 148). The use of "literary" is telling here. Practitioners in the field of graphic novels tend to stress the storytelling function, and the writing behind it (Moore 2007: 3-4); Eisner devotes an entire chapter to story and writing (2008: 127-45). Compared visually to Drooker's HOWL: A Graphic Novel, a typical graphic novel would involve much more use of frames, borders, speech balloons, and more hand-drawn images, i.e. closer to comics, and closer to Drooker's earlier projects, Flood! and Blood Song.

The front cover suggests a multitude of generic renditions on "Howl." The largest typeface is the title HOWL, and the next largest identifies Allen Ginsberg as the main author of the work, so this could be regarded as a version of the poem (it is so listed in the bibliography for this article). Beneath Ginsberg's name is "Animated by Eric Drooker"; below this, "Including Art from the Major Motion Picture"; and in slightly larger capitals, right below the title, "A GRAPHIC NOVEL." One may immediately ask, how does one "animate" a book, in this case a graphic novel? On the title page, this is clarified with "Animation Art by Eric Drooker," but genre and adaptational tensions persist: is this an adaptation of the poem, or of the film, perhaps to economically exploit "a safe bet with a ready audience" (Hutcheon 2006: 87)? While there is little disputing that the overarching trajectory of the poem suggests a "plot," having Ginsberg's "Howl," one of the most celebrated poems in the postwar canon, relegated to the novelistic source of a graphic novel may strike a chord of skepticism among the dedicated aficionados of Ginsberg's poem and the readers of graphic novels.

While one could explore this tension purely at the genre level, this study will focus on potential incongruities in reading this adaptation among what Linda Hutcheon refers to as "discursive communities." In Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony, she posits that irony happens primarily in the reader, and different groups of readers will derive different, even conflicting, readings of the same text (1994: 89-115). As mentioned above, irony may have a "trivializing function," in which the detection of a discrepancy between intention and reading makes the text less possessed of artistic purity (49) and "authenticity." Julie Kristeva, Roland Barthes, virtually any critic involved in "popular culture studies," and Hutcheon herself, all acknowledge the unavoidable situation of intertextual and extratextual references contributing to the perception and enjoyment of a work. Of the three critical categories of adaptation outlined by Linda Hutcheon-adaptation as "product," "process," and "the audience's palimpsestuous intertextuality"-it is the "intertextual" that most clearly reveals this tension (2006: 15-22).

These three successive versions of "Howl" therefore are entwined in potential readings where the written or narrated text is affected by the visual media, and vice versa. W.J.T. Mitchell writes "Any notion of purity seems out of the question with those […] media, both from the standpoint of the sensory and semiotic elements internal to them and what is external in their promiscuous audience composition" (2005: 258). Mitchell introduces a higher order or complexity in this interrelationship, for even "critical discourse […is…] crucial to comprehension" of visual media (258). Various "discursive communities" bring to Drooker's illustrations and animation different sets of expectations and intensities of historical knowledge, popular folklore, and theoretical/critical perspectives around the Beat poets in general and Allen Ginsberg in particular. This text/image co-dependence goes beyond audience expectations, "[creating] the doubled pleasure of the palimpsest: more than one text is experienced-and knowingly so" (Hutcheon 2006: 116). Ginsberg's "Howl" has a central place in the Beat poets' canon, and the Beat aesthetic is established on a bedrock of "authenticity," so a risk of "trivialization" via the ironic intrusion of intertextual elements is unavoidable in the simultaneous experiencing of multiple texts.

Since the graphic novel has been channeled through the medium of film, with its broad distribution and allegiance to photo-realism, a dominant layer of the palimpsest's influencing reception can be in the form of a "popular cultural icon." This combines a specific portrayal with generalization derived from promiscuous repetition. In Understanding Popular Culture, John Fiske states "All meanings are ultimately intertextual-no one text […] can ever bear the full meaning […], for this can only exist in that ill-defined cultural space between texts that precedes the texts that both draw upon and contribute to it, which exists only in its constant circulation among texts and society" (1991: 6). What this means in practice is that the historical-material reality of, say, Madonna, and her opus, are diluted as the symbolic quality is increased: "Madonna is only the intertextual circulation of her meanings and pleasures; she is neither text nor person, but a set of meanings in process" (124). This same cultural iconic process may be an effect of the Ginsberg-Epstein/Freidman-Drooker repetitions through successive adaptations. For the film audience and the readers of the graphic novel, Ginsberg as historically-specific Beat poet can become a cultural icon, "the intertextual circulation of [his] meanings."

The cultural icon injects a "trivializing" element in the reception of the image, depending upon the discursive community of the audience member. While Hutcheon's "discursive community" concept ascribes a certain ideological disposition to the audience (1994: 89, 92), I would imagine that the audience for Epstein and Friedman's HOWL to be self-selecting, and that a homophobic non-literature oriented viewer would spare cost and time used on the film. But still, there will be gradations of familiarity with the characters, milieu and the poetic work, from novice to cognoscenti. The figure of Ginsberg, the poem "Howl" itself, and other persons orbiting Ginsberg run the risk of becoming cultural icons within the film and the graphic novel. If all text is intertextual, all images derive meaning from textual discourse (and vice versa), then diverse "discursive communities" are differently equipped to call into their reception various strains of this intertextuality. Knowledges and expectations of these discursive communities are also shaped and enriched by familiarity with common aesthetic works and historical knowledge (Hutcheon 1994: 97). In this case, the intensity of acquaintance with the Beat poets is a useful marker for distinguishing varying degrees of "cognoscenti."

In the film, Epstein and Friedman have treated key players in the historical and biographical narrative as two-dimensional, relevant to the story only in the degree they are related to Ginsberg or the poem. These include the relatively obscure Peter Orlovsky, but also the more visually familiar Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac. These key players in the history of the Beats and the composition of "Howl" have no speaking parts in the film. By removing much of the known history of these figures, they are iconically emptied, allowing other meanings to circulate. To the cognoscenti, the photo-realistic depictions in the film invoke these figures merely as "cultural icons," since their role in the narrative is devoid of known historical specificity. Ginsberg escapes this fate to a large degree-after all, the plot of the film is completely dependent upon his development as a poet and his ultimate acceptance of his sexuality.

In the animated portions, however, and even more so in the graphic novel, Ginsberg attains a cultural iconic status. The beginning of the graphic novel illustrates this point. The double pages 6 and 7 contain four half-page images: top left is a black and white photograph of Allen Ginsberg at his typewriter; lower left is James Franco as Ginsberg is a similar pose; and top right is Eric Drooker's animated Ginsberg, significantly less detailed than the photographs, yet recognizably Ginsberg, in the role as "the poet" in the animation and the graphic novel. As if trying to deliberately trigger the empathy that Scott McCloud claims for the "cartoon" (1994: 36), the lower right image is of "the poet's" typewriter viewed from his perspective (Ginsberg and Drooker 2010: 6-7). In the graphic novel, this is a muted success, as the reader is confronted with a close up frame of the cartoon Ginsberg, full face, as the text of the poem begins (16). This sequence of images dilutes the thematically relevant occurrences of the poem and the historical Allen Ginsberg; in the graphic novel, it is the cultural icon that becomes the poetic persona.

To those with an even deeper familiarity with the Beat poets, the hardcore cognoscenti would have experienced this trivial ironizing of the historical figure to cultural icon with another image as well, the "reclining junky." While William S. Burroughs is wholly absent from the Epstein and Friedman film (except for a single mention in the "Footnote to Howl"), to many viewers of the film and readers of the graphic novel, he would be present in his absence. Burroughs and Ginsberg had a strong emotional attachment to one another. Their friendship was life long, Ginsberg assisted in the publication of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and Burroughs functioned as a mentor and confidant for Ginsberg throughout both of their lives (Tytell 1976: 49-50; Morgan 1991: 89-90; Miles 2000: 41). The image that we encounter on pages 44 and 45 of the graphic novel has its origins in Illuminated Poems (Ginsberg 2006: 50-51). Via animation, this figure is adapted from the black and white image into a sequence wherein the junky is metamorphosed from flesh to ash in an ashtray. When this image appears in the graphic novel, however, its visual lushness cannot mask a strong cultural iconic charge for the discursive community acquainted with William S. Burroughs and informed about his key position in Ginsberg's development, both artistically and personally. This discursive community would also be aware of Burroughs' seminal prose work Junky, the persistent junk and addiction references and metaphors that drive Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy, and perhaps even link Drooker's image with the scene in Anthony Balch's collaborative film with Burroughs, Towers Open Fire, in which Burroughs sets a needle and injects a shot. Furthermore, while the image in Illuminated Poems depicts a young muscularly robust junky with a shock of spiky hair, HOWL: A Graphic Novel portrays the junky as bald and lithe, iconically echoing the more familiar images of the mature Burroughs.

The third image to be discussed here is affixed to Part II of "Howl," "Moloch." While only a small portion of the readers of the graphic novel would be acquainted with the Assyrian sacrificial deity, Moloch enters the popular culture iconography with the Fritz Lang film Metropolis. In this famous sequence, the factory works are transformed into the man-eating god; Ginsberg's line 83-"Moloch whose mind is pure machinery […]"-bears some signs of influence from Lang's film. Many of the images of Part II, however, are ruled by references to urban architecture, and Lynd Ward's woodcut for Michael McCurdy's 1978 poster of Ginsberg's Part II (Reader's Almanac 2010), strongly reflects this. In the preface to Illuminated Poems, Ginsberg affirms "Ward's images of the solitary artist dwarfed by the canyons of a Wall Street Megalopolis lay shadowed behind my own vision of Moloch" (2006: xii). Drooker's rendering of Moloch in Illuminated Poems is stark, dynamic, almost abstract; neither factory, nor building, the simple pen and ink drawing channels the violent energy of Moloch (57). The figure's jaggedness is reminiscent of one of Edmund Burke's criteria for the sublime, an absence of smoothness (1998: 103-04).

The fuller rendering of this image in the film and graphic novel may reflect a desire to assist a younger audience in accessing that violence in the animated sequences of the film. As Drooker points out in Ari Messer's San Francisco Gate article, "I made Moloch, the God of War, look more or less like a Greek minotaur, […]. It has the head of a bull and the body of Schwarzenegger. It's a terrifying character. We send our firstborn to war, in ancient times as well as in modern times" (Messer 2010). In the graphic novel, Moloch enters visually at the end of Part I as an imposing building, i.e. as architecture (Ginsberg and Drooker 2010: 140-41); upon its conversion to the minotaur (159-60), it (thankfully) invokes nothing from Schwarzenegger as cultural icon. While there may be a faint visual echo of Arturo Di Modica's "Charging Bull" statue near Wall Street, this image as cartoon falls too easily into a template for humanized cows. This Moloch could serve as well as a roguish paramour to David Reid's "Elsie the Cow," used to market milk and cheese for Borden Dairy since 1938 ("Udderly Immortal" 2009). Even without the connection to this cultural icon, the cartoon specificity of Drooker's Moloch figure leaves the threat of Moloch neutered, even with blank eyes and illuminated by a garish orange light. In spite of Drooker's stated intentions, it is difficult to read this image as "terrifying."

This invites consideration of the success of HOWL: A Graphic Novel as comics. Discussions of comics frequently involve the interaction between image and text, and Drooker's book combines these two in an unexpected way. Scott McCloud's analysis of the relationship between "words and pictures" (text and image) within comics allows for seven  "distinct categories" (1994: 152-56), four of which will be helpful in this discussion: "Word specific combinations, where pictures illustrate, but don't significantly add to a largely complete text"; "additive combination where words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa"; "parallel combinations, words and pictures seem to follow very different courses-without intersecting"; and "interdependent, where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone" (152-54). A reader of "Howl" as a graphic novel must be aware that this is not simply another printing of the poem. For example, anyone familiar with the poem recognizes that the first line has been artificially extended over three pages. Members of the discursive community who have a commitment to the original as poetry may accuse Drooker of mangling, or at the very least, altering, the force of the poem. After all, the lynchpin of the "physicality" aspect is that line length reflect the human breath. By forcing these readers to turn the page to complete the line, the poem as poem succumbs at once to a trivializing function (Ginsberg and Drooker 2010: 16-19).

Hopefully, even this audience can see that something quite else is going on. Drawing out the 127 lines of poetry to cover over 200 pages of images indicates that this work is at least as much about the images as the words that accompany them.  Drooker's project in the graphic novel is oddly un-novelistic. If this is storytelling through sequential art, the story is one that is highly abstracted, both by spreading the text out over so many pages, but also by inciting an interpretive rivalry between the internal image invoked by text and the associated image dominating the page. True, some occasional images function as "word specific," such as page 102-03 that is conjoined with line 57, "who jumped of the Brooklyn Bridge […]" which depicts a man underwater, leading the bubbles excited by his impact. But the reader / viewer of this volume would encounter many more "parallel combinations" where word and image function distinctly,  such as line 66, "Who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers […]" on pages 118-19, which is printed over a red and green close up of a screaming face. Even more disjointed is the parallel combination of the near identical flying translucent skeletal figures on pages 182-83 and 208-09, which accompany the radically different texts as line 109-"I'm with you in Rockland where there are twenty-five thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale"-and line 123-"Holy New York Holy San Francisco […]."

McCloud maintains that the "interdependent combination" where the image and text are self reinforcing and thereby uniquely defining is "perhaps the most common" (1994: 155), and therefore a touchstone for comics as a medium. But that is not what is going on in Howl: A Graphic Novel. Far and away the most common and aesthetically powerful combination at work here is the "additive," where, in most cases, "words amplify or elaborate on an image" (154). But, in order to fully appreciate the additive combination, one has to be liberated not only from the reading of this as a poem, but also from the animated film segments. With both, what must be abandoned is the relative strength, even the primacy, of the canonical text as either written or recited poem, and with that an expectation of sequence. In Illuminated Poems, the pictures enhance the text; in the later work, the text is there to supplement the images. Howl: A Graphic Novel functions, then, at the level of a collection of pictures, almost all of them from the film animation, put on display. The book is in some respects closer to museum catalogue, with the text of Ginsberg's poem functioning, line by vivid line, as a caption to each image. The additive information may be poetic, and certainly is familiar, but it is there to embellish Drooker's artwork, and viewing the book double-page by double-page, reading the "caption" does enrich most of the images. In a picture book and a generic graphic novel, the text speeds up the viewing of the images; but with so little "interdependence" between text and image here, that sort of a reading is bound to be difficult. The images slow down the text, to the point where lines, even fragments of lines, carry a new aesthetic charge and focus, one almost (but not quite) liberated from their well-known canonical context. Reading Allen Ginsberg's lines one by one, with haiku-pondering scrutiny provides a different literary experience, even (and also) out of sequence. Sometimes, this experience is tainted by the dense aesthetic and historical-biographical intertextuality available to diverse discursive communities, but, as my discussion above shows, this happens at the visual level. Drooker's book is an invitation, or even a command, to slow down, to enjoy those words with that image.


All of Drooker's adaptations aspire to a fidelity with the mood of the original, though in different ways. With these three renditions, one could surmise that the illustrator is done with "Howl." But news of recent projects by others indicates that contemporary cinema is far from done with Allen Ginsberg. Walter Salles' On the Road is due for release autumn 2012, with Tom Sturridge playing Ginsberg analogue, Carlo Marx. And John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings, due in 2013, will feature Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Ginsberg. With such intense media production, Allen Ginsberg (and the other Beat poets) will be well on the way to becoming an intertextually, self-reinforcing icon. For an audience with intimate knowledge of Ginsberg's life and work, the Beat poets and the "Beat Generation," I have argued that photorealistic visual images, combined with an attendant impulse to portray, in particular, the author of the poem in the popular culture "iconic register" open up for "trivialization." This dilutes "authenticity" with the insertion of an ironic tension that would be available to the cognoscenti, who are equipped as a "discursive community" to muster intertextual and extratextual references and thereby receive the images and texts in a more complex way, a far cry from the "mind to mind" ideal of the Beat aesthetics.

However, were one to posit an alternate discourse community, one with less investment in either the figure of Ginsberg or "Howl," a more successful project emerges. There is much in favor of the argument that a biopic on Ginsberg with the title of his most well-known work begs for attention from the cognoscenti, but the audience for a feature length film and internationally distributed DVD cannot fail to include the less knowledgeable and committed among those numbers. And for this audience, HOWL is more successful. To these people, the film could have been a complete work of fiction; without the faded but immanent intertextual base of the "palimpsest," Drooker's animated images provide a satisfying and "authentic" aesthetic experience. Most of the text of "Howl" is present in the animated sequences, but to a generation accustomed to music videos, this should be a completely natural experience of a creative work, albeit not a natural experience of "poetry." Viewed this way, the animated passages are a sequence of visually connected vignettes applied to lines of poetry, and lines of poetry that accompany images, a powerful and sincere narrative that is an animated feast for the eyes, a Fantasia for the American counter-culture.

As a further adaptation to "graphic novel," there are good reasons to be more reserved in regarding HOWL: A Graphic Novel as an unqualified success. As an adaptation, it is the repetition of the visual which is paramount. Without acquaintance with the animated portions of the Epstein and Friedman film, the images, while vivid and striking on their own, would be even less associated with the text of the poem. The case for cultural icons' creating aesthetic dissonance for the "cognoscenti" is made above; but even for the new audience, simply on the basis of genre expectations, the "graphic novel" is not as successful as a graphic novel as the film is as a film. The collection of images with captions is rather closer to a picture book, with text and image loosely conjoined thematically, mostly as "additive combinations" where Ginsberg's lines affect Drooker's illustrations. Part of the enjoyment of the work lies with a repetition of "Howl" at a strikingly different pace than what one is used to with poetry: the activity of reflecting on each of Drooker's distinct images with the additive quality of the poetic line. This stretches the borders of the graphic novel as a genre, one that has been stretched by Eric Drooker before with Flood! and Blood Song. With HOWL: A Graphic Novel, he has fully exercised what Hutcheon terms "the adaptive faculty […], the ability to repeat without copying, to embed difference in similarity" (2006: 174).


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