Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.
To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.
Daniel starts producing a lot of music and art in an attempt to deal with paranoia and depression. As McClanahan writes, “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” He goes to work in a carnival, where McClanahan and Cavolo imagine him selling corn dogs in front of a poster reading, “Come in and see the incredible manic-depressive singer and artist selling corn dogs alive!” Then he starts working at McDonald’s, all the while making individual copies of his music by re-recording the album every time on a tape recorder. He played with a band called Glass Eye, and then his dream comes true when he gets on MTV. Cavalo draws Johnston on stage covered in flames, singing to an audience that is a sea of eyes dripping with tears. This high is short-lived though; by the next page Daniel physically assaults his manager while tripping on LSD. “So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art,” McClanahan writes, “then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.”
What follows from there is a series of little highs and despairing lows. Daniel meets and collaborates with artists in the underground scene such as Sonic Youth and Jad Fair who appreciate him. Kurt Cobain is photographed wearing a T-shirt with Daniel’s design on it. Johnston’s gigs are incredible performances, but he stops taking his medicine before shows so he can fully connect with the music. This sometimes leads to horrific moments as when Daniel ran into an old woman’s apartment because he thought he saw Satan inside, frightening the woman into jumping out of a second-story window and breaking her bones. There are other similarly troubling incidents. While in the passenger seat of his father’s airplane, he took the key out of the ignition and threw it out the window. After his father successfully crash-landed the plane, “Daniel threw his arms in the air and celebrated how much fun it was.” After each of these episodes, Daniel is put into a mental hospital. Cavolo draws him physically constrained. On one page Johnston is inside a birdcage with a python wrapped around him. On another, he is tied up in a straight jacket with a sword piercing through him, his brain a pill bottle.
Cavolo and McClanahan’s portrait of Daniel becomes so intimate that at one point Cavolo draws us inside Johnston’s organs, examining the path of his inner demons. McClanahan throughout captures the voices in Daniel’s head, bringing them to the fore. “You’re a piece of shit, Daniel,” he writes, “and you’re a piece of shit too, reader.” There are flush white pages that only say, “I hate being nervous.” Halfway through the book, McClanahan switches to second-person; “Guess what? You have lost your mind. You’re becoming Daniel.” As we transition into Daniel, we view ourselves, view his audience through Johnston’s eyes. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the book. “He knew the world was about making you normal,” McClanahan writes, and we can’t help but feel Johnston’s plight as he performs for audiences that want to marvel at his spectacle while existing in a world so reliant on normalcy.
Perhaps the most generous gift Cavolo and McClanahan give to Daniel Johnston is re-imagining a happy ending for him, one free from ill mental health. “So let’s tell a happy story with happy story with happy pictures about how Daniel fought his devil and won.” Daniel is depicted wearing boxing gloves and a crown.