Pekar, however, seems to find a kindred working-class hero in Kerouac, and occasionally pops into a panel to comment. Pekar is a pioneer of the autobiographical comics trend from which books like Maus and Palestine evolved, and The Beats might have been better served by more of a first-person approach. But the book as a whole suffers from a dearth of quotations from its subjects’ work, the material that justifies their fame. David Halberstam made the same mistake in The Fifties when he suggested that the lives the Beats led were more important than what they wrote.

And yet, just as the Beats were characterized by relentless linguistic play, The Beats manages to make the scene new again on the sheer strength of artistic play. Piskor dispenses with realism altogether, transforming these overly familiar accounts into lurid, EC Comics-worthy pulp fictions. This is a good thing. Piskor rejuvenates the Beats, or at least their collective mythology, via his vaguely menacing depictions of their romantic hookups, artistic frustrations, drug problems, and eventual rise to legitimacy. His shady yet realistic art provides a skewed point of view that at its best unifies this structurally chaotic overview.

Che, on the other hand, opens with Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s premature birth in Argentina in 1928. These hundred dazzlingly drawn pages cover Che’s medical education, the famous nine-month motorcycle journey that radicalized him, the Cuban revolution, his rocky experience as director of post-Batista Cuba’s economy, and his subsequent career as instigator-in-chief, concluding shortly after his 1967 assassination in Bolivia. A biker and radical himself, Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez lent a gritty revolutionary spirit to the first wave of underground comics during the late 1960s. In the pages of Zap Comix and alternative newspapers, Rodriguez portrayed superheroic dissidents battling fascist police forces in the dystopic future. Indeed, his best-known character, Trashman, bears a striking resemblance to Che, although Rodriguez has largely steered clear of embellishment.

Rodriguez briefly enters the book himself to recall being a scared and confused kid at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, but Che is anything but a first-person account. Like every good biography, it provides context for the more dramatic moments of its protagonist’s life’s arc, while skillfully manipulating space and time to give the story a richly detailed and almost visceral presence. Che’s one-cylinder Norton motorbike has never been so lovingly represented as it is here.

What graphic journalism, biography, and history do best, suggest 08, The Beats, and Che, is convey the aura, emotions, and fuzzier details of lives and events. The better the artist, the better the resulting interpretation will be. Of course, journalists and writers still provided the information from which Dan Goldman, Ed Piskor, and Spain Rodriguez quite literally drew their conclusions. But there’s something superheroic about the ability to make those facts soar anew. 

 

Richard Gehr lives in Brooklyn and writes "Pulp Fictions," an online column about graphic narratives and comics, for The Village Voice.