As biographical graphic novels go, you’ve never read anything like The Incantations Of Daniel Johnston, a poetic, frenetic dive through the mind of the singer/songwriter, using it as a filter through which the larger strokes of his life are presented. What results is unstable, sympathetic, confused, and damned.
For those who don’t know, Johnson long walked a line that struggled to lead him beyond that precise point between outsider artist and eccentric professional. His career has been marked by various fits and starts, and the advocacy and adoration of other musicians who want to give him a boost by promoting him, or at least his music, in the face of his struggles.
And Johnston’s struggles are considerable. They all involve extreme mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, and the condition has sent him through stages of hospitalization and debilitation that have seen him combatting what to him were physical demons that were literally out to get him.
In this treatment of his life — Ricardo Cavolo’s wild, psychedelic art coupled with Scott McClanahan’s poetic, philosophical words — Johnston’s life is treated in several different ways. One is the actual, chronological life, told in actual, chronological order. But McClanahan takes it to multiple levels beyond that, acting as meta-commentary through the narration, as well as a devil’s advocate, and even an advisor. The twists and turns of Johnston’s life are cause for observations of larger truths, examinations of celebrity, society, culture, humanity. The book is about Johnston, but McClanahan uses this as a springboard to much larger questions, some of which are answered, others of which are tossed like a hot potato at the reader.
Cavolo, meanwhile, is able to take the rationality of what McClanahan offers and run it right through Johnston’s mind, making every panel and page a colorful burst of perception in a warped, not-quite-right representation of the world as Johnston perceived it. Populated by demons and superheroes alongside Johnston, with a child like quality that brings the illustration of the life right down to earth despite its fantastical aspect. This quality gives it the human tone it requires, and makes it seem so real despite the fantasy imagery and psychedelia at play.
As graphic novel biographies go, this one excels, using all the possibilities of its subject to shape the narrative execution, and to skillfully inform the meat of the text, and the themes that it addresses. It also makes Daniel Johnston come to vivid life for the reader.