January 22, 2017

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Books

Musical salvation

Graphic novel portrays songwriter Johnston's life as spellbinding, contemporary fable

SUPPLIED PHOTO</p><p>Musician Daniel Johnston.</p></p>

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Musician Daniel Johnston.

Incantations are words imbued with magical powers, often used to summon a deity.

For Spanish-born artist Ricardo Cavolo and author Scott McClanahan, these incantations take the form of a graphic novel that conjures the life of lo-fi outsider musician/artist and cult figure Daniel Johnston. Beautifully rendered in kaleidoscopic detail, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston illuminates the Austin, Texas-based Johnston’s conservative Christian upbringing and subsequent rise to fame, as well as his ongoing struggles with mental health.

McClanahan, who hails from West Virginia, where Johnston grew up, uses words to engage the reader in a manner similar to Johnston’s own songwriting, often talking directly to the audience to implicate us in the narrative. The author’s use of second-person narrative also exposes the complicity of many in lionizing mental illness in creative figures. While relating an altercation between Johnston and a former manager, McClanahan tells us: "If you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art — then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe."

As Incantations humanizes Johnston — even in unpleasant ways — the question the text asks is rooted in the same mythology that biographic narratives often seek to uncover: where is the line between musician and folk hero, between singer and saint?

Cavolo’s art in particular plays with the idea of sainthood, as his frenetic, psychedelic sprawls blend Christian iconography with the eyeballs, demons and frogs iconographic of Johnson’s own drawings. The prominence of frogs also anoints Johnston’s amphibious creation, Jeremiah the Innocent, with the type of sainthood usually attributed to the musician himself. Originally a bug-eyed scrawl on the cover of Johnston’s most iconic albums, Hi, How Are You, Jeremiah’s constant presence also exposes the temptation to infantilize the musician, owing to the childlike innocence of his oeuvre, but also because of his debilitating illness.

Instead of keeping Johnston on a pedestal by way of hipster hagiography, Cavolo establishes the musician not just as a Christ figure who saves others through his art, but as one who also needs saving from his own demons. Themes of biblical duality in Johnston’s work have been explored before (see Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston), and Incantations also draws on these ideas; to flesh out McClanahan’s narration, Cavolo illustrates horned demons and ghastly spirits haunting Johnston’s anatomy, along with haloed faces, crucifixes, sacred hearts, and always Jeremiah, Johnston’s self-created patron saint.

Cavolo’s dichotomous visuals are especially effective alongside McClanahan’s direct engagement with Johnston’s mental illness; as the author notes, "Daniel had bipolar disorder. The definition: sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell. And sometimes you don’t even know."

Embracing this ambivalence, McClanahan and Cavolo write around, over top and inside Johnston’s life events, creating not a traditional, fact-based biography, but a whimsical origin story befitting of a superhero (or a folk hero). In large part due to Cavolo’s fantastical art, Incantations essentially presents Johnston’s life as a contemporary fable. As such, its moral urges us to examine our own relationship to (and consumption of) celebrity culture, the disembodied eyeballs on every page not just emblematic of Johnston’s paranoia, but also reflecting our own ravenous, scrutinizing gaze.

Vivid and spellbinding, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is truly something to set your own eyes upon. However, as McClanahan is careful to warn us, an incantation is also a curse. Though this work has indeed captured an idea of the musician, the curse buried here has clearly denied the book (or any book) the power to make its subject fully known.

Instead, as Cavolo and McClanahan’s treatment suggests, the true incantations of Daniel Johnston — his songs — have helped misfit fans to know themselves, to see their enchanted reflections in the mirror and to say, "Hi, how are you?"

Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in comics and music.

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