Fantagraphics has just announced via PR the publication of a long-lost but much alluded to comic strip by William S. Burroughs and British artist Malcolm McNeill called Ah Pook Is Here. The strip ran in the English magazine Cyclops as “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” until the magazine folded, at which time the two hoped to expand into a far-ahead-of-its-time “word/picture” foldout book consisting of 120 pages of interacting words and pictures. The deluxe Fantagraphics presentation, set to appear in 2011, preserves the original idea and adds another volume reprinting Observed With Feeling, a memoir by McNeill covering the project.
Full PR below:
Fantagraphics Books is proud to announce the acquisition of the only graphic novel written by — and possibly the last unseen work of his to be published — the innovative Beat writer and Naked Lunch author, William S. Burroughs. This lost masterpiece, Ah Pook Is Here, created in collaboration with artist Malcolm McNeill in the 1970s, will be published in the summer of 2011 as a spectacularly packaged two-volume, hinged set, along with Observed While Falling, McNeill’s memoir documenting his collaboration with one of America’s most iconic authors.
Ah Pook Is Here first appeared in 1970 under the title The Unspeakable Mr. Hart as a monthly comic strip written by Burroughs and drawn by the British cartoonist and painter Malcolm McNeil in the English magazine Cyclops. When the publication folded, Burroughs and McNeill decided to develop the project into a full-length, Word/Image novel (the term ‘graphic novel’ had not yet been coined). Burroughs was 56 at the time, McNeill 23.
The book was conceived as a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative. It was conceived as 120 continuous pages that would ‘fold out.’ Such a book was, at the time, unprecedented, and no publisher was willing to take a chance and publish a ‘graphic novel.’ Burroughs and McNeill finally abandoned the project after collaborating on it for 7 years.
“It is singularly appropriate that after championing literate comics and the graphic novel form for over 30 years, Fantagraphics Books should bring a literary collaboration between one of America’s most distinctive writers and his exemplary hand-chosen artist to light,” says Fantagraphics Publisher and acquiring editor Gary Groth.
Ah Pook Is Here is a consideration of time with respect to the differing perceptions of the ancient Maya and that of the current Western mindset. It was Burroughs’ contention that both of these views result in systems of control in which the elite perpetuate its agendas at the expense of the people. They make time for themselves and through increasing measures of Control attempt to prolong the process indefinitely.
John Stanley Hart is the “Ugly American” or “Instrument of Control” — a billionaire newspaper tycoon obsessed with discovering the means for achieving immortality. Based on the formulae contained in rediscovered Mayan books he attempts to create a Media Control Machine using the images of Fear and Death. By increasing Control, however, he devalues time and invokes an implacable enemy: Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God. Young mutant heroes using the same Mayan formulae travel through time bringing biologic plagues from the remote past to destroy Hart and his Judeo/Christian temporal reality.
Ah Pook Is Here was an experiment, not just in terms of the form in which the idea was expressed but the possible effects the form might produce. Burroughs was preoccupied throughout his career with the fundamental nature of words and images, particularly with regard to their ability to transcend time. In the case of Ah Pook Is Here, the rapport between artist and writer produced results that confirmed that contention. Ah Pook is the kind of extrapolative, futuristic feat of imagination that a reader would expect from the author of Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded — a mind-boggling tour de force, dramatizing outré theories with a science fiction patina.
The second book in the set is Observed While Falling, written by Malcolm McNeill, an account of the personal and creative interaction that defined the collaboration between the writer and the artist, the events surrounding it, and the reasons for its ultimate demise. McNeill describes his growing friendship with Burroughs and how their personal relationship affected their creative partnership. The book is written with insight and humor, and liberally sprinkled with the kind of the hilarious anecdotes one would expect working with a writer as original and eccentric as William S. Burroughs. It confirms the prescience of Ah Pook Is Here with respect to the contemporary graphic novel; Burroughs’ exploration of the artistic potential of combining words and images was a revelation to the artist. The book offers new insights into Burroughs’ working methods as well as how the two explored the possibilities of words and images working together to form the ambitious literary hybrid that they didn’t know, at the time, was a harbinger of the 21st century’s “graphic novel.”
“Fantagraphics is honored to bring this major work into print and to publish what is quite possibly the last great work from one of America’s most original prose stylists,” added Groth. “Burroughs once said that ‘The purpose of writing is to make it happen.’ We are proud to make Ah Pook Is Here finally happen.”
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.