Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beatniks in Comics: A Sampler, Part 1

I have always enjoyed finding references to beatniks in comics, perhaps because they are usually in a humorous context. I don't recall seeing beatniks around in England when I was a kid - mods and rockers, yes, but I don't remember a beatnik, and I was certainly looking out for them. Maybe I didn't used to hang out in the right neighborhoods, or maybe it was more of an American thing, I'm not sure. Maybe they were all 'gone' by the time I was old enough to notice. Anyway, I've put together a selection of bits and pieces here from early 1960s comics that give a little taste of what I'm talking about, and at the end let's see what this collection of snippets from comics of that period tells us about the beatnik phenomenon, as if we were future archaeologists who'd dug up a pile of comic books and were seeking information about the society that produced them.

From the subscription coupon from Mad 67 (Dec 1961), we're already getting a glimpse of what constitutes a beatnik. There seems to be a connection with music. The beatnik wears a certain type of head gear, and has his facial hair trimmed into a beard that is restricted to his chin. He appears to be clicking his fingers, and perhaps this is a behavior associated with beatniks. He's wearing a loose fitting shirt. Certain words or phrases also appear associated with the language of the beatnik - "way out!", "real gone!", "sends me", "pad", "man", and "like". After a bit of research I came across an actual one page beatnik feature that was included in some of the DC funnies in the early 1960s. It was called... 'Beat Nick', and consisted of a collection of gag cartoons featuring this male beatnik character, drawn by Mort Drucker. Here's three, from The Adventures of Jerry Lewis 58, 59, and 62, respectively (May/June 1960, July/Aug 1960, and Jan/Feb 1961).

What these cartoons suggest is that beatniks are unconventional. They are sensitive to the cause of the oppressed, and have a fairly pessimistic view on the state of the world. They are supposedly angry young men. They tend to wear certain types of clothing, that includes baggy sweaters, tight fitting pants, and specific kinds of footwear. Female beatniks seem to wear their hair long, and dress in a similar fashion to the males. The bongo drum seems to be an instrument associated with beatniks, as do cafes with bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. More vocabulary - "dig", "crazy", and "chick".

A couple of DC titles of the period actually featured beatnik support characters. One such was A Date With Judy, nearing the end of its run. Judy's boyfriend Oogie's friend, Nervous, was clearly a beatnik. In this short story from A Date With Judy 78 (Aug/Sept 1960), Nervous is trying to land a job in the band of a jazz singer:

The association with bongo drums seems to be confirmed here. Lots more linguistics - "bread", "dad" or "daddio", "the craziest", "the most", "into orbit", and "cool cat". In the next Out Of This World post we'll look at another DC comic that had a beatnik as the buddy of the lead male character, plus when Bob Hope got mistaken for a beatnik.


  1. KB, this's a really good, really original theme!

    Whenever I think of beatniks, the Tony Hancock film, The Rebel, comes to mind. Some people don't rate it, but every time I've watched it over the years I've always found it hilarious.

    The title of the film, I feel, encapsulates most people's perception of what beatniks were all about - people who "just had to be different" or, in the eyes of the more sympathetic, "different drummers".

    To me they often seemed to be the intellectual world's response to Johnny in The Wild One being asked the question, "What y'rebellin' against?" and him replying, "Wh't y'got?" only without the overt or implied thuggery.

    When I was seven I had a teacher, Miss Stirk, who dressed exactly like the fiercely unfeminine, reefer smoking, jazz loving, Satre quoting type, right down to the self cropped deliberately 'casual' mattress bed hair style, the long dark skirt-length droopy pullover and the extra chunky, black framed Michael Caine style glasses - that was in 1966, and I've never forgotten her.

  2. borky: thanks for the detailed comment. I'll have to take a look at The Rebel - I haven't seen that since I don't know when.

    I think the only real beatnik I've ever actually encountered was years after the whole beat thing was over as a sub-culture. A few years ago I was lucky enough to be able to go and see Donovan do a concert, and as he sang "Barabajagal", which wasn't one of his earliest songs, I realized that this guy, although known as a hippie, was actually a beatnik - that poem that comes in the middle of the song is totally beatnik. And his recent album Beat Cafe (2004) goes back to his beat roots (accidental pun there).

    I think I would have enjoyed having Miss Stirk as a teacher when I was a kid!

  3. Audrey Hepburn visits a beatnik cafe and attends a poetry reading ( with bongos ) in a film titled " Funny Face ".. Then she does a little free style expressive dance to accompany the poet's recital..