Imagine Daniel Johnston Beating Your Ass with a Lead Pipe

Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo have concocted a narrative of incredible depth and artistic insight

Over-glorifying creative genius is dangerous. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Ernest Hemingway all killed themselves. Mark Rothko cut his wrists open, and Vincent van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field. Elliot Smith stabbed himself in the chest, Nick Drake overdosed on antidepressants in his childhood bedroom, and Kurt Cobain, well — maybe these particulars are overly morbid.

When it comes to creation, beauty and terror tend to go hand-in-hand — not just in the tension in the work, but typically in the lives of the artists themselves.

Songwriter Daniel Johnston tragically embodies the artistic relationship between the light and the dark. “Daniel had bi-polar disorder,” Scott McClanahan writes in The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (the new graphic novel illustrated by Ricardo Cavolo). “Sometimes it’s heaven, and sometimes it’s hell. And sometimes you don’t even know.”

In the novel, Cavolo animates his paintings with madness — tears of fire, eight-eyed frogs and devils, superheroes and Caspar the Ghost. Almost every page in the novel blazes with flames, conveying the thrilling energy of Johnston’s impulses, as well as their danger. Johnston wrote and performed songs that were frightening in their level of tenderness — in their simultaneously amateurish quality, and their unprecedented brand of naive genius.

In The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, McClanahan describes how Johnston performed a 15-minute set at South by Southwest, “cast his spell,” and became the most famous McDonald’s employee in Austin. Getting on MTV was Johnston’s lifelong dream, and he even achieved that.

But as McClanahan writes, “Lay not up your treasures in MTV. I repeat. Lay not up your treasures in MTV. The things we hope and pray and wish for sometimes… Destroy us. Dreams are dangerous things.” Johnston went to New York City, and was arrested for painting a Jesus Fish on the Statue of Liberty. He was kicked out of CBGB for talking too much about God and devils. He stopped taking his medication, and started taking LSD. One night, he assaulted his manager with a lead pipe. “If you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art,” writes McClanahan, “then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.”

Among other brilliant and tragic elements of The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, McClanahan and Cavolo inspect what we — as an audience — do to an artist like Johnston with our fascination. Is there just sincere appreciation in our attention, or is there also something exploitative? On MTV, Johnston held his tape up for the camera and said, “I recorded this while I was having a nervous breakdown,” and everybody laughed. There seems to be good and bad, light and dark, in the attention we pay to an artist like Johnston. Like the relationship great artists have toward their work, it’s complicated.

McClanahan writes, “Daniel found out that half of all people with his condition will attempt suicide and half of those will succeed.” McClanahan is referring to bi-polar disorder, not Johnston’s role as a creative genius, but the two share dangerous things in common. Both feature such bright light, and such profound darkness. “Daniel knew only this,” McClanahan writes, “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Unlike some of his creative forefathers, Daniel Johnston — at 55-years-old — is still alive, and still singing. For the sake artists and audiences everywhere, let’s hope he makes it safely to his natural end.

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