The most controversial and popular American poem of the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl has been revered and reviled, challenged in court, and taught in college classes. Along with Jack Kerouac’s interstate prose ballad On The Road and the collection of stories that make up William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Howl makes up part of the trilogy of literature at the core of the Beat movement. Written during the 1950s of nuclear paranoia, cold warfare, and apple pie; the poem incensed the censors and gaslit the literati with its ecstatic candor. Now writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are bringing the story of the infamous poet’s most famous work to film, and, with artist Eric Drooker’s help, to comics.
The film weaves together three plot threads: the actual writing of the poem by Ginsberg (played by James Franco), the obscenity trial against City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and an animated adaptation of the poem by New Yorker artist and graphic novelist Eric Drooker. Previously, Drooker had worked with Ginsberg on the book Illuminated Poems, and for this reason was sought out by Epstein and Friedman to bring the poetic work to life.
Using the structure and pacing of the poem, Drooker creates a strong visual telling of Ginsberg’s ode to fallen friends, the best minds of his generation who he saw:
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix
Those angel-headed hipster were immortalized in the first section of the poem, “Who.” Drooker gives us visions of mid-century misfits vomiting fire and racing across rooftops, lighting cigarettes to curse the darkness and storming jungle temples. It’s a no-holds barred account of the many in Ginsberg’s life who destroyed by broken hearts, poisoned veins, and electrified brains.
In the second section, “Moloch,” Ginsberg’s vision of the dark god of industrial annihilation takes form across the pages as a scaffolding-wrapped factory glimpsed at the end of section one transforms into
a sphinx of cement and aluminum. Through Drooker’s visuals, the Darkseid of contemporary literature rages through the middle of the book, becoming more real with each page turning.
We’re left with the city burning, a sacrificial pyre to the dark god, when the poem takes us away to “Rockland,” a fictionalized stand in for the Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute where Ginsberg stayed briefly in the late forties. Addressed to fellow inmate Carl Solomon, the poem makes a final stand against the darkness, with a legion of twenty-five thousand mad comrades armed with angelic bombs. It’s a redemptive apocalypse of bop revelation, and in the end the world and all its scars and scams are made holy.
Not just an illustrated tie-in to the film, Drooker’s work uses all the comic book tricks and techniques of juxtaposition, timing, and exaggeration to full effect, creating a powerful interpretation of the poem that helped define a literary era and continues to resonate even today.
Who lives and writes in Chicago,
Who’s writing has appear in print internationally,
Who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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