The Incantations of Daniel Johnston
A Graphic Novel by Ricardo Cavolo
Written by Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio
July 5, 2016
A Trade Paperback Original: $16.99 U.S.
Reviewed by William Grabowski
Though I can’t recall what came first—reading about Scott McClanahan, or reading one of his books—I can without hesitation say the emotional resonance induced by this collaboration with Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo brought to mind a quote from Kate Braverman’s The Incantation of Frida K.: “This knowledge is an illumination that burns. It is the essence of genius and affliction.”
Call it synchronicity, or the cries of souls in torment drowning in the myth pool. As stated on Salon.com by McClanahan (author of The Sarah Book, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Hill William and others), with The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, he “…wanted to make it my Daniel Johnston. At the end of the day, that’s me. You have friends that are probably versions of your own self that you accept into your own life and psyche. They’re probably much different with someone else and if you saw them with their other group of friends, you wouldn’t know them. I think the book’s kind of about that—the mysteries of who we are and the way people label us or construct us or create us.”
While it does dramatize some actual events, the book is not a blow-by-blow chronicle of the schizophrenic “outsider” artist/musician’s life, but expands into the fantastical everywhen several decades’ experience of a (mostly) innocent man and, depending on your latent empathy and/or chronic emotional state, renders him into a Candide-like character. Whether or not you know anything about Daniel Johnston, this dazzling graphic novel will beseige your consciousness with colors so vivid they threaten—at any moment—to dribble from the page in warm spats like blood. And here there is blood, spilled by accident or intention. I get the comparisons to Frida Kahlo, but I’m not sure they’re fair to Cavolo’s unrestrained bursts of hallucinatory eyes, flames, lightning, frogs, hearts, skulls, volcanoes, pills, and idealized depictions of Johnston in various moments of pain, joy, insanity, and creative acts like songwriting and drawing. Plus, some of Cavolo’s illustrations recall voodoo art, with veve-like symbols emotionally charged by McClanahan’s clear prose. Neither the artist nor writer wanted to romanticize Johnston’s mental illness, and the work is all the more potent for it.
As in all his books and short pieces, McClanahan’s stark raving sanity hits the reader directly—heartbreaking, joyful, terrifying, and stoic without cynicism. He frequently is hilarious. If his words sometimes hurt, it’s only because they remind you of what you already know: “We are alone. We are all so all alone. Always.”
The antidote, or at least some way to cope, is to tell ourselves that, “We only know this. You’ll never be as young as you are right now or the people you know.”