DENNIS O’NEIL: On The Road Again
Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road is 50 years old.
“And this has exactly what to do with comics?” demands the snotty guy in the corner. Well, actually, not much, but maybe if we stretch, a little something. Patience, please.
If you know people my age, or a bit younger, you may have heard On The Road stories. Mine is pretty banal: I was fairly unhappy at school (I was always fairly unhappy at schools, except when I was actively miserable) and I read and had my mind altered by Kerouac’s book which is, among other things, a paean to travel and the highway. So, one morning, I went down to breakfast, borrowed about forty bucks from my father and, blowing off university exam week, got on a bus for New Orleans.
Once there, I didn’t do much: checked into a Y, hung out, walked around, had a friendly lady on Bourbon Street offer to teach me everything about life for only five dollars. I kind of guessed what she was talking about and, being the Good Catholic Boy that I was, politely declined. Then I boarded another Greyhound and went home. No hitchhiking, not that trip, though there was plenty later. (And, by the way, don’t try this at home. Hitchhiking in the 50s and 60s was not without hazards, but not nearly as dangerous as it is now.)
“Did someone mention comic books? This column, this whole dern website, is supposed to be about comics.” The snotty guy in the corner again. Okay, be at peace, brother, and give me another paragraph or two.
Kerouac was, as I’m sure everyone except the guy in the corner knows, the most famous and visible member of a loose confederation of novelists, poets, and musicians that became known as The Beat Generation. I’ve never heard, or read, any of them even evidencing knowledge that comics existed. But they were contrarians that believed that most conventional wisdom was erroneous, that genuine American values involved peace and understanding and, incidentally, that maybe mainstream literary and critical folk – the Establishment – did not own the last word on artistic matters.
Jump ahead a few years to the mid-60s and here we are, on college campuses, and what are the bright rebels reading? Well, a few – those who still wear ties on Sunday – are still delving into Catcher In The Rye, and a few more are grokking Stranger In A Strange Land, but the real nonconformists, the bright ones, are into comics, particularly Marvel comics.
I can’t be sure of anything in the preceding set of assumptions because by the time comics began showing up on quadrangles, I was well beyond my university experience – was, in fact, working for the aforementioned Marvel Comics. So I base what I wrote on externals, hearsay, circumstantial evidence. Having made that leap, I’ll allow myself one more: the Beats helped create a moral and intellectual climate in which the embrace of a theretofore despised narrative form was not only possible, but seen as desirable. Rock musicians and some modern poets might also owe the Beats thanks. Oh, and fiction writers – maybe them, too. And people new to Buddhism – Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were the first writers to make some of us aware of what I will call, cringing only slightly, Eastern Spirituality.
They gave us a different way of regarding reality, the Beats did, showed us that we had options in how we related to the world. Nothing in the past 50 years has made liars of them.
The bad news? The Beat influence didn’t penetrate deeply enough into American life to make any political difference. If it had, the last six years wouldn’t have happened.
The guy in the corner? He voted for Bush.
RECOMMENDED READING: On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.