Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Books: Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson


Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson
Written by Will Bingly
Art by Anthony Hope-Smith

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Nope. I just don't think that I get the point of biographies. Every time I pick one there's a voice at the of my head that just screams out to me: "Why?" I mean - if I like an author, or artist, or musician, or director or whatever - then it's because of the work that they do: something they've created that they've then sent out into the world - and that something (whatever it is) is the thing that has all the goodness inside it - and that goodness isn't going to be any better if I find out that whoever it was who made eats their cornflakes in a strange way or used to be a crack-baby or whatever whatever. All that real life stuff - who said what, who kissed who, who got lucky how: that stuff all just seems besides the point. And the only real consequence that it would seem like it would ever have would be leaving you feeling disillusioned. I mean: the person who makes the stuff you really like is a nice person = yay! - but that doesn't really change anything. The only real change (well - the only big one) would be if you found out that the person who makes the stuff you really like  is actually a Neo-Nazi [1] and then you're like - oh. So now I have to throw all my CDs away. 

In comic circles I guess Hunter S. Thompson (from here on in let's just go with "HST") is best known as that guy that Warren Ellis stole his act from and (even more so) the guy that Spider Jerusalem is based on [2]. But before all that HST was best known as a crazy journalist who pretty much single-handedly invented "gonzo journalism" (from wikipedia: "a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative." - or - when you read a report of something factual but the author can't shut up giving their own point of view: which is basically what I've kinda mutated into doing this blog albeit in a much much more sloppy and unfocused way - which (damn) is reallt saying something) - not that you would really work that out from reading this... You see - there was once a point in my life when I didn't just read comic books all day - which means that - yes - I've read both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (yes - that's the one with the film with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro and "we can't stop here - this is bat country" and "the wave speech" which - yes - is actually pretty good [3]) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (that's the one where he follows around the Democratic Party's primaries and gets into all the stuff around George McGovern who - no joke - was kinda the Obama of his day only a bit more of a hippy - he got tagged with the label: "amnesty, abortion and acid" which should give you some idea of what he was about): not that I was that much of fan - both books seemed like things that I should read rather than something that I could enjoy reading - and - yeah - they were both pretty major struggles that felt more like work than entertainment: oh well. My thoughts then is that when it comes to HST is that it's best to take him in small doses and a whole book is pushing it too far.

But - I'm not exaggerating that much when I say that you will probably learn more about HST reading the drivel I've written above (or is "drivel" too harsh? No? oh - ok then) than you can from reading this "Graphic Biography" (urg - I mean - I realise that it doesn't count as a "graphic novel" because it's non-fiction - but still - maybe they should have just left off giving it a subtitle altogether?). A bit like The Beats comic book history thing (some of whose characters briefly cross-over with Gonzo: only not in a Batman/Superman cross-over kinda way (which means that they don't have a fight in which no one wins - which is a shame - but that would have been cool)) this is a biography that kinda relies upon you already knowing the lifestory (and all the insa and outs) of HST's life before you can actually appreciate it - which if you ask me seems a little bit like putting the cart before the horse - but what do I know? Like (let me show you what I mean) - the best bit of the book is the introduction by HST's long-suffering editor Alan Rinzler who explains that the legend was a lot more fun than the reality (there's a bit where he says that HST used to come out with loads of anti-semitic volleys - which you can take both ways - ok: maybe it was all in jest and everything and the kinda joking you can only get away with when you have someone who's a close friend - but the way it comes across it seems more like the second thing - which is that HST was probably just a little bit of douchbag - sorry to say it - but we all probably knew that anyway - right?) and he goes into a little bit of detail about what kind of person HST was and the kinda stuff he got up to - including the fact that he retyped entirely of The Great Gatsby just so he could get the feeling what what it would be like to write a great novel (which - ok - is strange - but also kinda makes a certain sort of sense). Then - in the comic itself - there's a panel where you see a two copies of The Great Gatsby sitting next to other - but with no further explanation - so if you already know (me - from reading the introduction) you can go "ah! Of course!" - but if not - it's just a "well - what the hell does that mean?" and - brace yourself because this is my entire point - apart from those little mini-splotches of insight - the whole comic is just: "well - what the hell does that mean?"

So - one for hardcore HST fans only I think [4]. For the rest of us - well - go check out Transmetropolitan.

[1] This is kinda why I don't understand why anyone could be a Smashing Pumpkins fan. Not that I think that Billy Corgan is a Neo-Nazi - but he is a massive douchebag (I would link here to an appropriate article - but damn it - there's just too many to choose from: so maybe just google "billy corgan douchebag" and find out for yourself). Also: I can't stand his nasally/whiny singing voice. So in conclusion: shut up Billy Corgan.

[2] Spider Jerusalem = the star of a comic book series called Transmetropolitan. And - as mean as this may sound to say: if you want to read a comic that tells you what HST was like - then you'd be much better off reading that than you would be reading Gonzo. In fact if you google (yes google again): "gonzo Hunter S. Thompson comic" the second thing that comes up is Transmetropolitan which just proves my point I think.

[3] It even has it's own section on the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wikipedia page. If you're struggling to recall it's the bit that starts: "Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…" 

[4] Oh (and with thanks to Tam - thanks Tam!): if you're looking for the modern heirs to HST's legacy of taking loads of drugs, acting outrageously and gonzo journalism blah blah blah then you may want to check out Matt Taibbi (who wrote a article called The 52 Funniest Things About The Upcoming Death of The Pope about a month before Pope John Paul II died) and Mark Ames (who when David Foster Wallace died (and I got this from my literary flatmate - thanks literary flatmate!) said: "I never read DFW — took one look at Infinite Jest, and got turned off by all those telegraphed literary allusions and zany typefaces — gave me a nauseous feeling, like reading it would take me back to some awful Comparative Lit class, and I was going to have to pin the allusion on the reference. I hate Pynchon and never liked Joyce, so there was nothing for me. That said, now that he’s killed himself, I can’t help but have a little respect for him."). Both of whom were responsible from an infamous Moscow-based English-language biweekly free tabloid newspaper called The eXile (whose editorial policy was summed up as "We shit on everybody equally."). If you'd like to know more I'd suggest this excellent Vanity Fair article which doesn't skimp on all the sordid details ("The pie was made with fresh vanilla cream, hand-puréed strawberry, and five ounces of horse semen."): happy reading! 

Links: Shiny Shelf Review, Don't Panic Interview

Further reading: The Beats: A Graphic History, Transmetropolitan, Doktor Sleepless.

All comments welcome.

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