Beware: I don’t think you should read this. I’m warning you.
No, those aren’t my words. That isn’t the opening statement for my review. Rather, it’s the sole text of the first page to the graphic novel The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, illustrated by Ricardo Cavolo and written by Scott McClanahan. The black text, pseudo-centered on the stark white page, sets the tone for the entire work: a self-proclaimed cursed book dedicated to the life and art of the sentimental, yet troubled poster child of indie music’s lo-fi genre, Daniel Johnston.
The book charts the unlikely trajectory to fame for the introverted musician/artist. It begins at Johnston’s birth in West Virginia to a rigidly devout Christian household, all the way to the present day humbled individual who is experiencing a resurgence of interest, despite it being a mere 101 pages.
McClanahan’s prose asks just as many questions about Johnston’s life as it does provide the reader with information; from the onset we understand that we are in a shared experience with the author as he tries to make sense of the path that is Johnston’s life. The book is as much a philosophical and metaphorical investigation as it is biography.
Beginning with remarks on his religious background as a member (by way of his upbringing) of the Church of Christ, we are grounded in a work that will continually be connected to monotheistic traditional symbolism, in the artwork and in the questions McClanahan raises. And it makes sense – Johnston, steeped in those values from the get-go, was constantly weighing his own actions/wants/desires against the unbending dichotomy of good and evil.
Ricardo Cavolo loads each page with religious iconography as well as particular images that became important to Johnston in his own spiritually reminiscent making-sense-of-the-world. For example, eyeballs are often scattered throughout the panels; after all, “He [Johnston] knew there were a million eyes watching him and already watching us all.” Here, we get the sense that we are not only viewing the pages, but that the pages are observing us as well. The book goes further and asks, “Are you paranoid?” Not many texts are willing to question the reader’s own sanity, but McClanahan is not shy in confronting the difficult.
Cavolo’s vivid illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to McClanahan’s shifting narrative. His art is noisy and crowded, and is saturated with bright color that often spills over the bold, black outlines. The drawings straddle the line between childlike wonder and a mentally ill mind, much like Johnston himself. “He believed he could save himself by making things, but he was wrong . . . He was really wrong.” These words, heartbreaking and resonant for anyone who considers themselves an artist, mark the first time in the narrative when the reader comes face-to-face with Johnston’s bipolar disorder, revealed in the following page. Those familiar with Johnston’s work and life might have been waiting for this moment, while those unfamiliar might be having an “ah-ha!” moment that illuminates the journey they’ve taken thus far. McClanahan centers the diagnosis within the religious themes once again: “S
ometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell.”
One of the most interesting things that McClanahan does to further complicate the story line is immerse himself in the idea of the unreliable narrator – a strange thing to do in a work that is supposed to be biographical. Here, it’s almost as if the reader is supposed to step into the mind of Daniel Johnston. It is a mind that has a hard (sometimes impossible) time of distinguishing reality from fantasy. McClanahan: “But did he really buy a speeding motorcycle?”
And then again: “Who cares?”
There are moments in the novel that are self-reflexive (“But then the Daniel on page 37 had forgotten about the little boy Daniel on page 7 who learned . . .”) and other moments where the author seems to be pleading with Daniel Johnston to change the narrative of his life, despite the events having already taken place. These techniques of blurring the boundaries between past and present, reflecting on Johnston’s insecurities and making them our own, and directly communicating to both Johnston and the audience, are all part of the aesthetic. When McClanahan says, “You’re a piece of shit, Daniel, and you’re a piece of shit too, reader,” we are not surprised or even offended. We are all (Johnston, McClanahan, Cavolo, and the reader) in this together, for better or worse.
The book has no qualms with bringing up the darker sides of Johnston and his mental illness (the story of Johnston beating his McDonald’s manager with a lead pipe comes to mind) and in this way it avoids falling into the trap of becoming simply a love letter to a musician, the way many of these sorts of projects often do. The novel deals with themes of violence, art, suicidal thought, love, religion, institutionalization, sensitivity, creation, and mental illness in a thought-provoking and honest way that pushes the mediums of both rock-biography and graphic novel, simultaneously.
Though by the end of the work, we as readers are left with many unanswered questions and glossed-over scenes, and though it implores you to stop reading at many points along the way, AND even though McClanahan sort of sarcastically remarks, “no one thinks that someone is cool unless someone else tells them so,” I’m officially saying that Cavolo and McClanahan are both cool and have created a cool work of art. It’s definitely worth the curse.
The Incantations of Daniel Johnston
By: Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan
Published by: Two Dollar Radio Press (2016)
To purchase (and for more information about Two Dollar Radio) please visit: http://twodollarradio.com/
*Photo of Scott McClanahan found at http://airshipdaily.com/
*Photo of Ricardo Cavolo by Magali Crevier