Pictures and Music in Heaven and Hell: On The Incantations of Daniel Johnston

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A confession: I often listen to music while I read comics. The music is not casually thrown on, but rather, considered – a soundtrack of sorts. The music is meant to compliment the text and images, not overwhelm them. This leads to my listening to mostly instrumental music as I read. For instance, I paired the music of John Fahey (specifically his album Death Chants, Break Downs, and Military Waltzes) with my reading of Harrow County a few weeks back. Companion to my reading of Descender was the music of electronic duo 2814 (both their most recent record, Rain Temple, and an earlier record, the title of which translates roughly to The Birth of a New Day).

So it is strange that, while reading a graphic novel that takes as its inspiration and subject a particular musician, I found it so evocative of the music and of the man behind it that I did not feel inclined to soundtrack my reading (though, to be sure, I listened to Daniel Johnston for hours on end after reading). Such is the power of The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan.

To understand the excellence of the book, a word or two on Daniel Johnston. He is an artist and musician who emerged from the Austin, Texas music scene of the early 90s, though he was recording much earlier than that. Some would affix the word “outsider” before the words artist and musician in my previous sentence, but such labels are limiting and reductive for the artists behind them. However, the point is that Daniel Johnston (and other “outsider” artists and musicians) comes from a long tradition of unconventional and untrained artists who work almost entirely outside the commercial system. The limits of Johnston’s instrumental abilities are more than made up for by the simplicity, sincerity, soul of his compositions, which he would record on cheap cassettes and give out at his job at McDonald’s. One is tempted to describe his work as child-like, but it contains too many layers of cosmology, paranoia, anxiety, jubilation, heartbreak, and wisdom to have come from any child in this world. Listening to any given album by Daniel Johnston (my favorite is either Yip/Jump Music or 1990), is akin to feeling every emotion at once. The sounds, despite their simplicity, are often overwhelming.

But Daniel Johnston is troubled. He has been plagued by mental illness his entire life. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston does not shy away from this, but more importantly, it does not valorize or romanticize it either. It is no coincidence that Kurt Cobain, another over-romanticized, tragic figure of 90s alternative music, was often seen in a t-shirt emblazoned with Johnston’s art. To listen to Daniel Johnston’s music is to take part, in some small way, in his particular, fantastic, terrifying world – even if the spell only lasts the length of a pop song. And so it is with The Incantations of Daniel Johnston. The book presents itself as a spell of possession. A spell which allows you, like the music, to enter Daniel’s world, and to have his ghost dwell in you. It is a friendly haunting (like Casper), but a haunting nonetheless.

The art, much like Daniel Johnston’s music, is ecstatic and bright and grotesque all at once. The lines are simple, mirroring Johnston’s artwork without outright imitating it. The images pop and the colors sometimes bleed together. Everything is on fire. Everything is alive, with a beating heart, with throbbing lungs, with undulating intestines. There are king frogs, monsters, clouds with eyes in this fantasyland. But like any fantasyland, it has dark corners. Again, the book does not try to hide the darkness. Like the time Daniel pulls the keys out of an airplane in mid-flight. Like the time he fired his friend and manager Jeff. Like the times he enters mental institutions.

It is true though. It is sincere. In keeping with the music and spirit of Daniel Johnston the book is scattered, confused, funny, and heartbreaking. But the sadness never overwhelms – not completely. And though the darkness advances, though terrible things await – the book begs us to run, to lose hope – and though it promises that happy endings are just stories, lightness prevails. Because everything is just a story we tell ourselves, in a way. And if we can bear it, if we can take the curse upon ourselves, if we can be possessed by Daniel Johnston – a brilliant, sincere, sad, funny, troubled man, full of love – and take that possession out into the world, we can carry forth the lightness. Because, for all of the demons in his head, Daniel Johnston was still able to sing this:

Maybe we can too.

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan is available now from Two Dollar Radio (you should check out their other books as well, they’re great).

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