If you grew up in the ’80s and had any interest in punk or alternative music, you would’ve heard the songs of Daniel Johnston. They came on cassettes decorated with odd line drawings of frogs, eyeballs, and superheroes, with titles like “Hi, How Are You?” and “Yip Jump Music”. Bands like Yo La Tengo covered his songs and many others, like Kurt Cobain, became ardent fans. But what were we all so captivated by?
The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is a graphic novel with art by Ricardo Cavalo and words by Scott McClanahan which attempts a personal and idiosyncratic explanation. In his introduction, Cavalo writes that he admires Johnston’s ability to fight, as well as the sincerity and innocence in his work, and considers him a personal hero. Johnston’s fight is primarily with himself and his own demons so Cavalo’s brightly colored illustrations are full of people who appear to be turning themselves inside out. Eyeballs are a signature part of Johnston’s iconography, so there are eyes all over every page of this book. The effect is of a pulsing, overheated consciousness, always aware of the viewer’s presence, always trying desperately to hold it together.
In the original, Spanish version of this book, called El desorganismo de Daniel Johnston, Cavalo provided his own mostly straight-ahead biographical text. What the writer Scott McClanahan has provided for the new edition is a kind of prose poem on mental illness, fame, and the battle between good and evil. Rather than regurgitating the facts of Johnston’s life, McClanahan takes the man’s struggle and makes it his own.“Daniel went to the mental hospital and there wasn’t anything fun about it. It was just another prison like our minds.”
There’s always a danger when people glorify mental illness. When Daniel Johnston was embraced by the rock underground back in the ’80s, what they loved about him was his innocence and unvarnished honesty. But those raw, open emotions came with a psychic toll which wasn’t always acknowledged by his admirers. Johnston often went off his meds in order to be able to sing, but he would sometimes become violent afterwords. One of the strengths of Cavalo and McClanahan’s book is that it acknowledges the complicated and likely unresolvable relationship between genius and insanity.
As the book tracks the many ups and downs of Johnston’s life, the authors’ affection for the man is evident, but so is their knowledge that romanticizing his treacherous journey will lead to a false picture of a unique artist, who deserves his due, but not through rose-colored glasses. “It’s all a lie. There will be no happy endings waiting for any of us. There are only the stories we tell ourselves about shooting stars in the sky.”
But wait! I also wrote a review of Martin Seay’s great debut novel which takes place in three different Venices…Needless to say, I highly recommend you buy multiple copies of that and the Daniel Johnston book immediately!