Daniel Johnston’s Amazing Life Is Now A Batshit Graphic Novel
A conversation with cult author Scott McClanahan and Spanish illustrator Ricardo Cavolo about The Incantations of Daniel Johnston.
Born in Salamanca, Spain, and now based in Barcelona, Ricardo Cavolo is an illustrator and muralist who has won international acclaim for his wild, psychedelic figurations of the human body. His work is steeped in myth and vernacular tradition, but also proudly committed to a vision that is singularly surreal and irreverent. His new book, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, is a graphic novel biography of the titular musician with accompanying text by the West Virginia fiction writer Scott McClanahan, cult author of the books Crapalachia, Hill William, and The Sarah Book.
Writing in the New York Times, Alison Glock has described McClanahan's prose as "A rushing river of words that reflects the chaos and humanity of the place from which he hails," and it's this quality that makes him the ideal collaborator for Cavolo's deranged, absorbing and uncomfortably personal book. Like McClanahan, Johnston is originally from West Virginia, and his story — which veers from McDonald’s to MTV to mental institutions — is one that perfectly accommodates McClanahan’s unique blend of the unbalanced and the painfully candid.
Cavolo began work on the project in 2013. "It wasn’t painstaking," he told me, "but it was my first comic book, and 100 pages it is not a joke." He shared the book with Eric Obenauf, co-founder and editorial director of the critically celebrated small press Two Dollar Radio, who says he was “blown away" and immediately thought of approaching McClanahan to "remix" Cavolo's story. The result is something wholly unexpected, grotesque, and poignant — a deeply idiosyncratic biographical project that is less interested in chronology and reported details than in the attendant horrors and anxieties of childhood, mental health, and creativity. I recently spoke to Cavolo and McClanahan, who have never met.
How did you both first come to Daniel Johnston's music, and what did you think about it?
RICARDO CAVOLO: I have to say — I love his music, it is so special, but I really fell in love with his drawings. I’m obsessed with outsider art, and I’m always looking for artists and artworks under that tag. That’s how I found him. I liked his art so much that I started looking for more information about him and found his music career. Then, I found the  biographical documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and fell totally in love with Daniel’s universe.
SCOTT MCCLANAHAN: I never really cared about Daniel Johnston when I first heard him. I know that’s a horrible thing to admit after writing a whole book. Of course, this was pre-internet and pre-Amazon so I’d really only heard “Speeding Motorcycle” and “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” Even now, if I’m just hanging around the house and cleaning the toilets, I don’t think I’d ever say, “Hey, you know what this toilet cleaning session needs? It needs some Daniel Johnston.” Bring in the bleach. Bring in the Daniel.
My friend Willie always liked him though. Willie had a prosthetic eye and we called him One Eyed Willie. We used to go to parties and Willie would always play this joke where you would be standing around with a drink in your hand and then you’d look down and an eye would be floating in your drink. You’d look up and Willie would be laughing with an empty eye socket. I guess I kept liking it because he liked it. But isn’t that the case with everything? We like something because someone else liked it.
But then of course the film happened and the internet happened and everything clicked. But that’s culture, right? I started liking Daniel Johnston because of a film. But only cool people care about the origin stories of why they like something, and I’m not cool. I like Daniel because I rented a movie at Blockbuster video. And then I discovered the albums that he did with Kramer at Shimmy Disc. I discovered his pictures and I realized he was like an internet artist before the internet. He was making this stuff in his bedroom, which is what we do now. Thank god.
This is a very unusual approach to biography. How did you both settle on the tone, or decide to engage with the material in the ways that you did?
RC: That’s my style. My work is based on that way of doing things, and I didn’t want to change my style for this. I just wanted to explain this story through my drawings and my way of explaining things. And at the same time I thought it could be a good mix, Daniel’s universe and mine.
SM: It’s like how my dad describes my uncle. He says my uncle would rob somebody to give you the shirt off his back. That’s pretty much like this book. Cavolo on the surface is all bright and colors that pop, but there’s something sinister beneath it all. And I liked that.
I think every other line in that book is stolen from somewhere. “Hope and pray.” That’s stolen from Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. And the “hoping machine” bit is stolen from an old Woody Guthrie letter. My definition of bipolar disorder in the book is from a Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings album called Wanted: The Outlaws: “Sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell.” The whole curse at the end I place on the reader is just a good, old-fashioned Satanic curse and everybody loves one of those.
There are points in the text, Scott, at which you seem to call into question the whole biographical enterprise. It's very self-reflexive, constantly calling attention to the fact that this isn’t objective, it’s a graphic novel by two artists named Ricardo and Scott.
SM: Yeah isn’t that what we do now? We can’t just go to the beach to go to the beach. We got to the beach and take a picture of it and say, Hey, everybody, I’m at the beach! Then we sit at the beach watching the number of likes we get \on Instagram for being at the beach. Who goes to the beach now and just enjoys themselves anymore?
I don’t think anybody does anything anymore without commenting on why they’re doing it or making fun of it as they’re doing it. I mean years ago my wife got so tired of pick-up lines at bars that she started doing some of her own. “Hey, are you from Arizona ‘cause my pussy is as dry and dusty as the desert?” or “Hey, who in here has low self-esteem and wants to fuck?” or “Hey, are you from Arkansas because I got a Little Rock in my pocket.” I’ve never understood this last one. Geography mistake jokes, I guess. Also, you have to kind of shout the “Hey” if you’re trying to do these pick up lines later. So even in that case, the dumb joke is commenting upon something else. It’s the same with books.
The book is very visceral — the human body is a constant. The brain and the stomach and other organs are highlighted and distorted and often stand in for Johnston. Why do you think this makes sense in the context of his story?
RC: It is about guts. I think Daniel creates, whether music or drawings, from his guts, in a sincere and organic way. So I wanted to show his interior, where all those things he speaks about through his art are actually happening.
SM: I’m sure we’re going to find out one day that the brain is as worthless as the appendix. I think a pretty good modus operandi is to believe that everything we know is wrong. The stomach will be the key to depression or consciousness or we’ll realize ants are smarter than people.
Everybody is so sure about everything these days. Just look at your horrible Facebook feed on the most recent tragedy that people are commenting on. “I think the guy did it because of this reason.” “No, I think the guy did it because of this reason.” Blah blah blah. Everybody is so goddamn sure of themselves, it just makes you realize this is the curse of the modern world.
The only hope we have are our bodies. We’re all trapped in them and we all hate them, and it’s this reason why we’re comic and not tragic. Most of the answers to the world could be answered with our bodies. It makes me think of my friend Kendra who was getting catcalled on the subway one day and she’d had enough. Luckily she realized something. The guy said his 'Hey, baby' stuff and Kendra just closed her eyes and and ripped the most aesthetically perfect fart in the history of the world. The guy shut up.
Daniel knows all this stuff. We’re all just meat and farts.
The reception of Johnston's music has been complicated over the years. He's often called an outsider artist (which comes with its own set of ethical complexities), and there have been suggestions of exploitation (on the part of his collaborators, his champions, his listeners, etc.). What do you think about these issues?
RC: I think he really is pure. And that’s beautiful, but it’s dangerous at the same time. I’ve seen people going to his concerts just hoping to see something creepy or awkward, like looking for a new experience. And I hate that, there is no respect at all for his art in that, just the morbidity. And of course that can be a source of money. I think he has found some greedy mouths in his way, various people benefiting from his life and work, but it hasn’t been that bad. For instance, when Jeff Tartakov was his manager, I think he was some kind of guardian angel for Daniel.
But I’m interested in outsider artists. Something I love about this kind of artist is that they work in a state of total honesty. They are not mainly thinking of money or becoming famous. And Daniel’s history is a perfect example to show people what it is to be an outsider artist.
SM: I think all good art is outsider art. It’s the story of degenerates and weirdos who no one can handle and then every now and then one slips through and we find out about them. There’s always tons of crap music people are trying to sell us — [it's] the same way with publishers and galleries. The jury’s always rigged in the world of making things, but the people know. I keep hearing about inclusivity in publishing and my first thought is why in the fuck would you want to be included by these people? These people are just stockbrokers who make less money.
The whole exploitation thing is funny, too. Exploitation is the nature of the world, isn’t it? Besides that, we’re artists. We cry out to be exploited on some level. Write a dissertation on my work. Write a biography about me. Even this conversation right now is exploitation. I want to be in The FADER and promote Cavolo’s book and you’re on a deadline and need a little bread. And don’t you think Daniel dreamed of this moment sitting in his bedroom as a little boy?
I was reading this Harry Crew bio a few weeks back and it talked about Crews showing up to parties with a hawk on his arm. He’d pull up driving his car with one arm and holding his right arm out with the hawk on it inside the car. He’d come inside the party with the hawk on his arm and drink and eat and then leave. And when the wine was gone, people just watched him drive away with his left arm on the wheel and his right arm held out and with a hawk on it inside the car.
A guy like that will never be accepted by the rest of the world. It’s the same for Johnston. They’re too dangerous. You couldn't include them in your cocktail party if you tried.
Why do you think his music has connected with so many people?
RC: Because it is true. It is made just because he felt in love with a girl. And it was beautiful, but at the same time also sad and tragic. And he had the chance to make it in a standard way, but he sings and play the keyboards from his guts, no filter, just honesty, pain, love and ideas flying in his head. And people can tell when something is done in a sincere way, and it is something not so common, sadly, so we appreciate that. All of us also have guts, so it is a straight connection, from gut to gut. Pure.
SM: I think Daniel connects because he writes amazing songs. That’s all and he ties into all of our cultural myths about the role of the artist. In a world where everything is bought and sold, Daniel still has the air of artistic authenticity about him. He was writing those songs for himself. For his soul. And that’s what makes them beautiful. It wasn’t for a dumb TV show, or to fulfill some dumb contract.
His songs tie into the oldest idea that we have and that even the cave people must have felt and that’s: “You’ll always be a loser.” And it isn’t sad or negative or 'oh, those poor folks.' It’s celebratory. Your art is right in front of you. You don’t need a $2 million dollar bullshit book deal or you don’t need to grow your chin beard in Brooklyn and look like a Civil War soldier to make music. That’s just fashion. And fashion costs money, but songs are free. You can write them for free and you can sing them for free and they can infect those around you or the people from the future and they can sing them for free too. You can write songs about your comic books and the girl or boy you sort of know and your mom and dad and it’s all right there in front of you.
We’re all just Dorothy’s who's come back from Oz, saying, “And you were there. And you were there. And it wasn’t a dream. It was all here.”
Scott, you and Johnston have West Virginia in common. Do you see anything especially West Virginian about his work? Where do you locate the regional influence?
SM: Yeah, he’s a West Virginia artist. He’s not an Austin artist. New York and Austin just exist so that kids from West Virginia and other places can go to them. It’s one of our oldest stories — Balzac and Stendhal all that shit. Fellini is a just a province kid. Rome exists for Fellini, not the other way around. New York exists for me. Not me for it.
I think Johnston’s work feels like this place. I hate the whole concept of the regional or the dumb as shit “real” West Virginia. Usually those people are just folks who went to live outside of the state, or went to a private school in Virginia and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and tell you that the “real” West Virginia is in some dumb historical novel about sawmills (even though they have no fucking clue about sawmills). But if there’s one thing that West Virginia teaches you, it’s this. It teaches you the most political and spiritual and life-affirming phrase in the history of the world: FUCK YOU. Daniel sings in his own voice because it’s the only voice he has. Wild and wonderful.
This is West Virginia. This is Daniel to me:
If you were going to do another biographical project, who would you focus on and why?
RC: Johnny Cash, no doubt, he is my man. And I will do it, for sure.
SM: I would like to see a Hasil Adkins one (another homemade musician from West Virginia). His life cries out for one. He got run over by a 4 wheeler in his front yard. I can’t think of a better way to go. It might be neat to see Danny Fields, too. Danny Fields is like the Rosetta Stone of the second half of the 20th century.
Ricardo, you mentioned over email that you got the chance to meet Daniel and give him the book. How did that go?
RC: Daniel Johnston came to play a concert in Barcelona, and I was able to give the comic to one person in his band, so he could give it to Daniel backstage. The next day someone called me because Daniel was obsessed with the comic, and he wanted to meet and talk. So we met at his hotel and we talked for an hour about it, and about his art and my work. He told me he would love to work on some pages of my next comic book in some kind of collaboration, so it was like a dream. It was the perfect epilogue.