If you were going to tell the story of outsider artist and musician Daniel Johnston, a story that includes madness, mental hospitals and MTV, a story of psychotic breakdowns, demonic obsessions and an improbable rise to fame, you'd probably take a conservative, clear-eyed approach.
That's the path that Jeff Feuerzeig followed in his award-winning documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. In The Incantation of Daniel Johnston, the graphic novel by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan, they take a decidedly different approach.
Cavolo, a visual artist who got his start as a tattooer in Spain, mapped out the story. Cavolo's bold, black outlines put Daniel Johnston at the forefront of his illustrations. Using the lexicon of tattooing, Cavolo's figures are covered in symbols drenched in hyper-bright colors that are almost lurid. He covers his avatars with images of ghosts, guitars, and an endless series of eyeballs and thrusts them into a hallucinatory dreamscape obsessed with the body. Cavolo doesn't just want us tell a story, he wants the reader to imagine what it's like to be Daniel Johnston.
McClanahan follows the impulse to explore Johnston's interior life and then doubles down with a dose of hardscrabble truth.
In his autobiographical stories and novels, McClanahan describes what it's like to grow up in southern West Virginia without the resources or safety net afforded to many artists, and that worldview informs every illustration.
"Carpenters are bipolar too, but it doesn't help them build better houses."
Despite the resurgence of Daniel Johnston's career due to praise the documentary received, there's no triumph over mental illness like it's a bully in an after school special. One doesn't "beat" mental illness anymore than those battling addiction or dealing with disabilities ever "beat" their demons or afflictions. People with mental health issues deal with it every day, a fact the Appalachian author drives home:
"So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art—then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe."
Even if you're familiar with the earnest yet offbeat work of Johnston, Cavolo and McClanahan, there's no way to prepare yourself for the visions you'll find between the covers of The Incantations of Daniel Johnston.