Coedited by Paul Buhle and David Berger, Bohemians (LJ Xpress Reviews, 2/27/14) explores the cultural Left in America between the mid-19th century and mid-20th century with a final coda in the 1960s imagining a conversation between Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar.
LJ: According to your biography, you are “formerly a senior lecturer at Brown University.” On what subject did you lecture? Did you use graphic novels in the classroom?
PB: Lecturing at Brown University, my largest lecture course in the final years (2005–09) was called the Sixties Without Apology. Students were always eager to hear the CD of Allen Ginsberg reading [his poem] “Howl” and to learn about the rebirth of Bohemianism. They read fewer pages than in previous times, and for that reason I assigned Students for a Democratic Society, the comic that I edited with Harvey Pekar, and Stuck Rubber Baby, a marvelous depiction of Bohemianism in the early 1960s American South, by Howard Cruse. The class definitely inspired my comic (again coedited with Pekar) The Beats.
What prompted you to begin creating graphic novels? Was there overlap between graphic novels and teaching for you?
The answer is somewhat personal. I learned to read through comic books, directed and aided by my two sisters, [who were] four years older than myself. MAD Comics (or rather, the reprint volume paperbacks) were my source of understanding popular culture, and my idol was Harvey Kurtzman (I later interviewed Harvey and cowrote a prize-winning biography of him with Denis Kitchen). In 1969, I produced Radical America Komiks, edited by Gilbert Shelton, and the third or fourth “underground” comic to appear to that date. In later years, I wrote reviews of “alternative” comic artists, interviewed them for publication, and began lecturing on their development during the 1990s, often in relation to Jewish American culture. So, the rise of graphic novels suited my own trajectory. So did my turn, by the 1990s, toward pictorial books of various kinds, including books of murals, photographs, and comic art. I was looking for a better way to reach young readers, but I was also thinking about the development of young artists and an evolving art form. I script and edit, work with several dozen artists, and enjoy the work enormously.
Why did you choose to script the particular stories in this collection?
At 18 and a member of the Folksong Club at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I met many Bohemians, mostly from New York or Chicago, and some of them were traveling to San Francisco for a semester or more. My future wife (a proud “Beatnik Chick” and later a famed women’s history scholar/teacher) and I took a Greyhound to San Francisco in June 1963, often visited City Lights Bookstore, and took in the ambiance that I had appreciated at long distance, years earlier, reading poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Diane DiPrima. We were just old enough, innocent Midwesterners, to become Bohemians before the rise of the counterculture. The Beats connected successfully with thousands of young people. [Bohemians] is second in sales, among my comics, only to my adaptation of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The comic Bohemians, then, is properly a prequel.
How did you and your coeditor, David Berger, collate these particular pieces into this collection? If the collection was larger or extended to a later date, which other individuals or subjects would you include?
My coeditor and I sought out suitable topics and the artists to capture them successfully. Sometimes this called for full scripting on our part, sometimes a free hand to the artist-scriptwriter, often something in between. We tried to capture the long view in a way that would entice readers, especially young readers, but also [we wanted] to seize the opportunity for a fresh artistic adventure into the lives of the famed (or forgotten) Bohemians.
You have produced works on Bohemians, Jesus, and Marxism. What project or projects are you working on next?
This year, I have also been working on Abraham Lincoln for Beginners, with artist Sharon Rudahl; Rosa Luxemburg, with artist Kate Evans, a project supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation; Thelonious Monk, based on Robin D.G. Kelley’s prize-winning biography, with artist Lance Tooks; and, finally, C.L.R. James, based in part on my own authorized biography, with artist Milton Knight.—Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Lib., Wisconsin Rapids