WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a mentally ill artist? In the case of some artists, mental illness does seem to be linked to what we call, for want of a better word, genius. It can give them insight into some part of the human psyche or ways of seeing the world that most people only rarely brush up against. But it’s only easy to romanticize the conjunction of art and illness when you’re not a part of the artist’s life. Vincent van Gogh severing his ear seems like a symbol of the emotional intensity that drove his artistic innovation, but that’s because we didn’t have to drag him hemorrhaging to the hospital. Sylvia Plath’s suicide seems to confirm the immensity of her poetic talent, but only because we didn’t wake up motherless the next morning.
Is trading sanity for creativity worth it for the artist? For the people touched by his or her art? These are the kinds of questions that The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, a graphic biography drawn by Ricardo Cavolo and written by Scott McClanahan, addresses but, wisely, doesn’t try to answer definitively.
Cavolo and McClanahan’s book, even more than other nonfiction comics, merits the scare quotes that often apply to the second half of the term graphic “novel”: the book is not fiction, though it’s not entirely nonfiction either, in that the illustrations depict things that didn’t and couldn’t happen literally. Nor is it a typical biography, in the sense that although it tells the (more or less) true life story of a real person, it’s focused more on feelings and ideas than on journalistic facts.
This formal ambiguity is fitting given that the book’s subject is Daniel Johnston, whose so-called outsider art has always defied categorization in the fields of both music and visual art. Even if you’re not familiar with Johnston’s work, you may recognize the frog from the cover of his 1983 album Hi, How Are You, an image Kurt Cobain often wore on a T-shirt. Raised by devoutly Christian parents in West Virginia, Johnston gained a cult following for his one-of-a-kind musical style, a sort of pop-inflected folk as interpreted by someone with a knack for songwriting but zero formal training.
Photo courtesy of flickr user ID Number THX 1139 under a Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).
Part of the reason Johnston’s work is so one-of-a-kind is that he is mentally ill, with a form of bipolar disorder that includes hallucinations. It’s part of what makes his music (and drawings) so special. Like any other musician, he listens to music he likes (the Beatles are among his favorites), and those influences show up in his own work, filtered through his brain. But his brain is a more singular filter than most — more uninhibited, more obsessive, and more preoccupied with the battle between God and Satan that Johnston sometimes takes extremely literally — and so his music is more singular as well. But it’s still grounded enough in pop and folk music that it’s fairly accessible for the average listener, or at least the listener (Kurt Cobain, for example) who tends to enjoy music that’s a bit off the beaten path.
However, the same mental illness — and the same fixation on the devil — that enable Johnston to make such innovative music has also caused a lot of suffering for him and the people in his life. What started as problems not too out of the ordinary — conflict with his parents over chores, an unrequited romantic obsession with a schoolmate — eventually progressed to something much worse when, in his 20s, Johnston attacked his McDonald’s manager with a lead pipe. Other acts of mania-induced violence followed over the years, including, most notably, the time Johnston hallucinated that he was Casper the Friendly Ghost and intentionally crashed the small plane he was riding in with his father. (Both men miraculously escaped without serious injury.)
“So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art,” writes McClanahan in Incantations, “then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.” The mixture of mental illness and art is very real, but it’s not simple, charming, or easy to understand. It’s the truth, which is to say, it’s impossibly complicated.
Like many comics, Incantations is a collaboration between an artist and a writer. But it didn’t start out that way. The illustrator, Ricardo Cavolo, first published the book as a solo project in his native Spain a few years ago under the title El desorganismo de Daniel Johnston. As the title hints, Cavolo has chosen to “tell the story of Daniel’s life from his birth until the present day, inserting pages in which we’re put in his insides to see how one organ or another behaves according to what’s happening in his life.” (A note: All translations from Spanish are my own, and from here on I’ll refer to the real-life Daniel Johnston as “Johnston” but to the book character Daniel Johnston as “Daniel.”)
It’s a strange but effective approach that lets us see Daniel’s interiority as simultaneously ordinary (his body works like any other human’s) and fantastical (his organs are anthropomorphized and covered in doodled designs). In one two-page spread, his stomach jumps rope with his lungs, which are depicted as hulking, lumpy schoolgirls with hair in braided pigtails and little texture marks to hint at alveoli. It’s grotesque and adorable at the same time — you want to protect the innocence and joy of the organ children, even if you wouldn’t exactly want to hug them. That may be an apt metaphor for an outsider’s view of a mentally ill artist’s life. We value the vibrancy of the artist’s creations, but we don’t want to be the ones who have to deal with any intimate mess.
What’s most compelling about the book is that, unlike the large body of writing about Johnston that’s appeared over the years, it engages with Johnston’s art in a medium that Johnston actually works in: illustration. I’m not sure if Cavolo is directly influenced by Johnston or if he just arrived at a similar place by different means, but he makes use of many of the same visual motifs: busy scenes, bright colors, and eyeballs drawn all over everything.
The book features such other Johnston-appropriate recurring images as frogs, devils, and ghosts, but it’s the eyes that bring us into Daniel’s world best. They appear on people’s cheeks and in flames, on clouds and volcanoes and guitars. Sometimes they even pierce Daniel. Altogether, they form an imaginary landscape in which Daniel sees everything about the world and everything about the world sees him. The universe is a stream of human cognition in which nothing is distinguishable from anything else because all of it and none of it is art. Daniel = art = pain = creativity = insanity = God = Satan = Ricardo Cavolo = you, the reader.
But whereas Cavolo’s art draws the reader into this cosmic mind meld so effectively, his original text was not particularly interesting and was often somewhat condescending, judging by sample pages available online. For instance he describes a severe manic episode as a “very altered state,” which seems a bit pat. And elsewhere, he characterizes Johnston’s mind as “weak and tormented.” Tormented? Sometimes, sure. But weak? Continuing to make art throughout a lifetime of hallucinations, major conflicts with loved ones, and risk of physical harm or death seems like the opposite of weak.
Plotwise, Cavolo more or less just rehashed the events portrayed in Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an approach that limited the project’s potential. Desorganismo simply can’t tell the story it has chosen as well as the documentary can. The book’s art, as described above, is fantastic, but so is the film. And as a film, it lets you hear Johnston’s music, see his drawings, and view actual footage of him doing and saying actual things.
What makes this newly published version of the book more than a compelling but ultimately unnecessary supplement to the Feuerzeig documentary is that its American publisher, Two Dollar Radio, didn’t simply translate it into English. Instead, they had author Scott McClanahan (who at first thought that the publisher’s request that he do “something graphic” meant “porn”) write entirely new words for the project. McClanahan, like Johnston, is from West Virginia, and like Johnston, his writing style is simple and conversational but well crafted and powerful. He understands Johnston’s milieu in a way Cavolo simply can’t; he speaks Johnston’s language better than Cavolo does, both literally and figuratively.
Stripping out all but the most basic frame of the plot, McClanahan does for Incantations’s words what Cavolo does for its illustrations: he makes creative, nonnarrative art inspired by and responding to Johnston’s art. For example: A line that started in Spanish as “His head filled with conflicts between good and evil, God and the devil” becomes, in McClanahan’s hands, “Lay not up your treasures in MTV. I repeat, lay not up your treasures in MTV.” What was generic plot summary is now a seamless combination of Bible verse and pop culture, an interaction with the two things that matter most to Daniel: religion and art. McClanahan’s writing is what makes Incantations great instead of merely good.
A basic narrative does remain, but Incantations is strongest when McClanahan is interrogating the aforementioned “cute mixture of art and mental illness” that he knows so many people see when they look at Johnston (and van Gogh and Plath and so on and so forth). People with bipolar disorder often “kill themselves … and there’s nothing romantic about it,” McClanahan writes over a picture of Daniel’s face, crowned by a volcano, with two cosmic, multi-eyed frogs spitting prescription pills over him. “Carpenters are bipolar too, but it doesn’t help them build better houses.” This is true. We don’t think it’s glamorous when people in non-artistic professions are mentally ill.
But is art different from building houses? This is a complicated question that raises multiple issues. You could argue that houses are more important, that people die without shelter. Alternately, you could argue that art is more important, that it’s one of the things that makes humans human. “There’s nothing romantic about it” seems to answer the question by refusing this dichotomy, asserting that art is not different from building houses. They are both jobs that people work at, and that’s that.
But McClanahan seems to reverse that assertion by writing, at the point in the narrative at which Daniel is institutionalized and asks his manager to sign the Beatles up as his backing band, that “Daniel knew that all great ideas were crazy once.” This is also true, in a sense. Heliocentrism, evolution, germ theory, cubism, the internet — all would at one time have seemed like madness to sensible people. And several pages later McClanahan writes, “much madness is divinest sense,” quoting Emily Dickinson, herself a poet who likely had agoraphobia or a similar condition. So maybe art is different from building houses. Maybe it’s “great,” “divine” — “divinest,” even.
But then another reversal: Over an idyllic scene of Daniel and artist Ron English sprinkling drawings like confetti over a blue-skied, green-grassed, pentagon-housed landscape, McClanahan asks if “spread[ing] Daniel’s drawings throughout the world” is “any more important than anything else […] Was it any more important than what Daniel’s favorite breakfast cereal was when he was a little boy?” Here we find ourselves weighing the competing demands of art and life, once again unsure how the success of Daniel’s art stacks up against the idea of an ordinary life eating breakfast in comfort.
To symbolize the effect that medication has had on Daniel’s creativity, Cavolo places a drawing of his head, but where there is usually a flame or a raucous brain, we now see a blank white circle containing only a pill and the words “no lyrics.” This image raises the questions at the very heart of the dilemma: Would it be better if Daniel’s brain had always been a “no lyrics” circle, if he were sane but had never created art? What if he were stabilized on medications — not truly happy, but not crashing planes? Would it be better if he created great art that was meaningful to lots of people but died tragically young, or if he lived a long life creating great art but suffered terribly throughout it?
Whatever conclusions we arrive at, “it’s all a lie,” the book tells us as it draws to a close. “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.” If no one gets a happy ending and all we have are stories, then maybe art, in the end, does prove to be the most important thing. Or maybe it can be the most important thing without being romanticized.
Of course, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston can’t answer that question conclusively — no one can. And as a comic book, it can’t tell Johnston’s story as effectively as Feuerzeig’s documentary does. But the comic book is the perfect medium — collaborative, visual, and verbal — to explore the power of art to connect people in spite / because of extenuating circumstances like mental illness. It’s magical to see Johnston’s art reverberate between Cavolo and McClanahan as they wrestle with these questions like (to choose a metaphor Johnston might appreciate) Jacob wrestling with God.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.