By Daniel Johnston. Boom! Town, 96 pp, hardcover
Outsider art is an uncomfortable realm from the git-go, but especially so in the case of Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. His songs have undeniable power (check out any YouTube clip of “True Love Will Find You in the End”), but to see him on-stage—poorly dressed, obese, toothless, and shaky—requires all but the most insensitive hipster to perform a complicity check, since Johnston’s desire for fame seems key to whatever is wrong with him, and has apparently caused him, and those around him, some harm.
What to make, then, of Johnston’s first published venture into comic-book form, Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic of Musical Greatness?
First, outsider “sincerity” be damn-ed: there’s a level of craft that gives lie to the simplicity of the drawings. There’s a repetition of icons of the Daniel Johnston “brand”, from the Hi, How Are You “frog” peeking from a crater on the cover to textual references to Johnston’s musical catalogue—as when a space duck, having gunned down minions of Satan as part of a galactic war, says, “Wow that was fun, not the album,” referencing Johnston’s 1994 major-label debut. Johnston’s name appears frequently, where he has signed individual panels (once as “Dali Johnston”); the penultimate page has Satan declaiming, “And Daniel Johnston’s gonna die!” It’s just self-conscious enough that Space Ducks seems less something of interest to general comics fans, and more a means of extending Johnston’s unique “cult of celebrity” onto another platform.
More than one, actually: the book ends in a pagelong advertisement for the Space Ducks album and iPad app. Tellingly, the spelling mistakes that dog the book—as when naked female prisoners of Satan, with “boobs too big to be ignored”, are freed by the duck heroes and say things like “we’ve xcapted!”—disappear completely in the ad.
Still, Johnston’s art is not without its charms—including a tangible love of comic books—and there is stuff to chew on here. The duck heroes seem almost readable as a satire of American pop culture’s vapidity (and maybe even American militarism): they all look exactly alike, their space suits are emblazoned with a logo that reads “NADA” instead of “NASA”, and, among other character flaws, they tend to gloat in victory (“Woe to you dumb idiots!”). As a bound Satan trembles in fear while his duck captors laughingly prepare to eat his brain, you can’t help feeling there’s a degree of sympathy for the devil creeping into Johnston’s work. It’s kind of strange, coming from a man who allegedly refused a contract with Elektra because he believed Metallica, on the label, was possessed.