“Biography With One Foot in the Fantastic”: A Review of “The Incantations of Daniel Johnston”


The fist time I read The Incantations of Daniel Johnston I was stuck at San Diego International Airport on my way to LA. Airports are great places to read because they give you time, but they’re also awful places to read because you’re briefly uprooted and thus vulnerable; you’re in a non-space where people come and go at an accelerated speed and where you momentarily embody a floating signifier. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston struck me as a perfect read because graphic novel is usually easily digestible while on the move. I was wrong. Scott McClanahan’s words were as unfiltered and powerful as a Johnston song. They hit me with the strength of a visionary’s screams hurled at midnight over a roaring fire in the middle of a primeval forest. Ricardo Cavolo’s art filled my brain with hearts, fire, music, and demons. His images showed me what Johnston had to deal with and the perennially shifting universes inside the cult figure whose music and art are still a huge influence. In short, the graphic memoir/folktale/retelling of the artist’s live was too much to process and I decided to wait until I was back home and then read it again.

The second time I read the book while sitting at home, exactly 3.4 miles from Jeremiah The Innocent, better known as the “Hi, How Are You?” frog, which Johnston painted in 1993 after it first appeared on the cover of his cult classic 1983 release, Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album. To my surprise, the narrative and images had as much of an impact the second time around. What McClanahan and Cavolo accomplished can only be called magic and holds the same bizarre power as Johnston’s voice, scrunched face, and shaky hands whenever he’s not holding a guitar.

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is an exploration/celebration that follows the musician from his early life as a kid obsessed with comics to his beginnings as a carnival employee to his time as an up-and-coming folk musician in Austin and then on to his rise as a popular figure and his time spent with big names in the music industry and subsequent drama. It also deals with Johnston’s recurring mental health issues, the way meds affected his artistic output, and the plethora of ways in which the demons that haunted him throughout his life shaped a unique human with an equally inimitable career. McClanahan boils down the narrative of the man and the magic of the myth and offers a stripped-down retelling that occupies an interstitial space between the biography of a living legend and a modern fable told with biblical language. His sharp prose constantly breaks the fourth wall and immerses readers in a world where devils and dreams and everyday actions collide. Dancing with those words is Cavolo’s art, which has become eminently recognizable since the release of 101 Artists To Listen To Before You Die. Cavolo creates worlds inside and outside of Johnston and packs each illustration with an incredible depth, detail, and enough visual metaphors to demand time and attention. In fact, this book demands multiple readings because text and images work together perfectly, but they each deserve undivided attention.

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is biography with one foot in the fantastic and the other in a special kind of magic realism that only McClanahan and Cavolo could have concocted, and in doing so, their raw essence ended up being an important, undeniable part of the story. Yes, this is a biography of a man that’s also about the two men telling it. It is also a self-referential text that is about Johnston as much as it is about us, struggling with mental health, music, and the way society constructs its stars. Perhaps most important of all, this graphic biography is a weird, heartbreaking, deeply personal piece of art that will hopefully become as much a part of Daniel Johnston’s story as the iconic mural he left in Austin.


The Incantations of Daniel Johnston
art by Ricardo Cavolo, text by Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio; 136 p.

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