Daniel Johnston gets the graphic novel treatment
OPINION: Daniel Johnston gets mentioned as a "cult artist" most often, people know him now due to the incredible documentary from a decade or so ago. Long before that – and even after that – there is the music.
We were even lucky to have him in New Zealand for the first Laneway Festival, he struggled against the bleed of noise from the second stage.
There he was scraping away at a guitar, while a full band played behind him on another stage, its noise wafting out over his.
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It seemed strangely fitting – Johnston's music goes arm and arm with battle, with struggle, he's written some mighty fine songs but paid a hell of price to do so.
His music won't be for everyone – part of the great joy in hearing it, I think, is deciding if it's for you, in deciding what part of it you value, through an acquired-taste voice and some at-times rudimentary playing, and certainly some excruciatingly lo-fi recording circumstances there shines a melody and/or a unique lyric juts out.
It might be that you prefer to hear his songs covered by others – and the tribute album works as a very good introduction in that regard, offering the originals as well as covers by hip, cool, interesting indie folk. You can like both versions of a song, or maybe just the interpretation (or maybe it's the originals for you).
I wrote most of what I wanted to say about Daniel Johnston a few years ago right here. And I think most of that still stands.
I'm still journeying through his earliest recordings as well as hoping to one day own some of his artwork, to hear more music from him too – to see him perform again maybe. I don't imagine he'll travel out here again actually…
But you know – we don't stop being a fan and having fan-demands.
What I wanted to do here really is mention an amazing new graphic novel/non-fiction which not only gets the major plot-points of Johnston's life but speaks candidly, wisely, intuitively about mental illness, about the horrors of pigeonholing a musician in the quirky/cult/interesting categories and applauding the channelling of mental illness through their work, as if a doomed-to-create scenario is just such a treat.
The writer and artist of this brand new book were paired up by the publisher, which is all the more remarkable because it feels like a perfect, intuitive blend of fellow fanatics with perspective.
Both the writing and the artwork shine – in the way of the very best graphic novels, the text and illustrations bounce of one another, take turns in telling the story, provide comment on each other, complement (and compliment) the other vestige.
Daniel Johnston's artwork, mental illness and music are all separate things and yet all interdependent, all entwined.
Scott McClanahan (words) and Ricardo Cavolo (illustrations) seem to have that so very well sussed with their book, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston – making it a must for fans. Also of course for fans of graphic novels it might just be an introduction to the world of Daniel Johnston's artwork and music (and life).