Wayfinding with Malcolm Mc Neill and William S. Burroughs

44bHART-TRAIN02(1)Image © Malcolm Mc Neill (LAAP, 91)

Ah Pook is still here

Over a year ago, I wrote an online comment on The Comics Journal website. It was underneath Rudy Rucker’s review of Malcolm  Mc Neill’s The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here and Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me.  The books detail the never completed artist-writer collaboration between Mc Neill, a painter and illustrator, and writer William S. Burroughs. Observed While Falling is a memoir of Mc Neill’s time working with Burroughs, as well as the unusual legacy of the project in the artist’s later life. The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here is a visual record of the project’s progression, and an archive of additional published artwork by Mc Neill that accompanied other writings composed by Burroughs.

This was my comment:

I just finished reading “Observed While Falling”, and am happy to report that I can’t remember the last time a book fucked me up so much–in the best sense of the expression. I bought a copy after reading this review. Without knowing any more about it, I ended up reading the bulk of the book on Dec. 21…read it and you’ll understand.


I’m imagining someone out there scanning the complete text of Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts as I write this post, in the interests of disseminating a copy freely and widely. Copyright and the Burroughs Estate be damned.


I think Bill would approve.

I never found that free copy of the text, but I did cave and buy a copy for $50 online. The last time I looked online, there were two copies on sale through Amazon for $12,974.98—but it’s possible that the value of the book has been slightly inflated by the vendor. Though reading Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts has brought a modicum of clarity to Observed While Falling (OWF) and The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here (LAAP), the latter works stand on their own as artefacts of great interest and inquiry into the nature of reality itself.

As soon as I finished reading Observed While Falling for the first time, I started reading it again. I took notes, transcribing whole passages from the book in an attempt to unearth some deeper understanding of Burroughs’ cosmology, and why Mc Neill’s books resonated so strongly with me. Burroughs’ writing is at times almost impossible to comprehend without a guide. By contrast, Mc Neill’s account of his time with Burroughs and beyond is challenging, yet succinct and digestible—with unflinchingly honest observations thrown into the mix.

As my wife and kids are wont to do when I am compiling notes, they openly criticized the compulsiveness with which I was typing out the passages from Observed While Falling. I couldn’t explain the obsession…then one day, I came home from work and a letter had arrived…from Malcolm Mc Neill.

“What the…”  I couldn’t believe it. A letter, no less! On the basis of my comment on the Comics Journal website, Mc Neill had tracked down my address and sent me a letter, since I had neglected to include a contact email address on my blog. The letter was supportive: “A book that fucks someone up in the best way is truly an encouragement.” Mc Neill mentioned that when he was growing up, he used to watch a how-to-draw television program by the artist Adrian Hill, which is what led him to noticing and reading my comment. Quelle coincidence! I was drawn in: Mc Neill inspired me to continue reading and writing. This is the culmination of that work.

Burroughs’ aesthetic “philosophy” extends beyond comics, to the relationship between words and pictures in general—their contribution to how we perceive the world, and how equally we are limited by those perceptions. What is most remarkable about Burroughs’ insights, and Mc Neill’s ability to describe and render them explicit through his art, is that these explorations were conducted over thirty years ago. Ah Pook is Here—as it was originally conceived—constitutes an early predecessor of the “graphic novel” format, and is only now being fully brought to light. Even by today’s standards, Malcolm Mc Neill’s half of the Ah Pook equation constitutes a boundary-blurring experiment in extended graphic narrative…

*      *     *

This is the beginning of an as-yet unpublished essay I wrote on Mc Neill’s Observed While Falling, The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here, and Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts.

Mc Neill’s books are currently on sale at the Fantagraphics Books website, as part of the current Burroughs @ 100 centennial celebration. I strongly recommend them.

Sample excerpts from each book provided by Fantagraphics can be found below:

The Zen of “The Zen of Steve Jobs”

The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself (26).

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

I read Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs with one end in mind, really. I wanted to see how the influence of Zen on Jobs’ thinking was portrayed in the book. And the main reason I wanted to do that is because I wanted to write about the graphic narrative, The Zen of Steve Jobs, sponsored by Forbes and produced by the creative agency Jess3. But I felt that I needed a bit more background in order to do so.

The Zen of Steve Jobs is a “reimagining” of the friendship between Jobs and Kobun Chino Otogawa, a Zen priest and close friend and teacher to Jobs for many years. Our story begins with Jobs seeking out Otogawa after his departure from Apple in 1985, and after a ten-year absence from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He arrives at Tassajara with the intent of learning about ma, one of the underlying principles informing Zen aesthetics. He explains to Otogawa that the computers he’ll be creating at his new company, NeXT, will be superior products not just because of their technological features, but also because of their perfected design—and asks Otogawa to help him understand in greater depth the relationship between objects and the complementary space they inhabit. Otogawa responds, “I cannot. You must experience ma.” He then proceeds to teach Jobs kinhin, or walking meditation. Continue reading ‘The Zen of “The Zen of Steve Jobs”’

Hignite strikes again: The Art of Jaime Hernandez

The intimacy of Todd Hignite’s In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists (Yale University Press, 2006) blew my mind when I first read it. Profiled within its pages are commentary by Hignite and accompanying passages from interviews with Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Jaime Hernandez, Gary Panter, Seth, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware.

To “hear” all of these artists’ voices between two covers was a revelation in comics form and function, with generous and glorious full colour reproduction of many samples of the artists’ work, as well as work that influenced them.

Hignite has more recently built upon his initial treatment of Jaime Hernandez in In the Studio, and has developed a full volume consecrated to Hernandez’ art. The Art of Jaime Hernandez: the Secrets of Life and Death (Abrams, 2011) is not only exquisite because of Hernandez’ contributions, but also because it is infused with Hignite’s poetic prose. Listen to this: can you hear the music?

Hernandez’s titles are always both iconic and insinuatingly evocative. “Wigwam Bam” is taken from a 1970s pop hit by the Sweet and provides a pop culture springboard that magically evokes a deeply personal flashback. The centrepiece is an entry in Maggie’s diary that Izzy reads while searching for her—to the young Maggie and her friend Letty, the song was a metaphor regarding cultural difference and identity, and in particular the mythic proportions that such childhood experiences take on later in life, themes that Maggie will continue to question throughout her stories. While abundantly engaging, as only the most complex art can be, Hernandez’s comics are also great entertainment. His formal virtuosity is in the service of characterization, altering one’s perception of the world while the full range of humanity dances on and below the surface of the page. Continue reading ‘Hignite strikes again: The Art of Jaime Hernandez’

Holmes on Homesteading

The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics Books, 2010)

Given that Lucky’s Comics recently hosted an exhibition of Holmes’ work as part of a book launch for The Artist HImself, and that the artist spent much of his life in familiar territory, I was curious. Before listening to the Inkstuds interview with Patrick Rosenkranz (Holmes’ authorized biographer), I knew nothing about Rand Holmes’ life or his comics. I thought I was going to read the biography of an underground cartoonist. Instead, I read an epic exploration of a complex human being, who just happened to be an underground cartoonist.

Top Quality Shit

When I walk into Legends Comics and Books in Victoria, co-owner Gareth Gaudin (with Lloyd Chesley) is reading Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die: The Ultimate Guide to Comics, Graphic Novels and Manga (Universe, 2011) at the cash.

“Is it good?”

“It’s pretty good…there’s only one comic so far that I think should have been included in here that isn’t.”

“What’s that?”

“Harold Hedd #2.” It’s hard to find nowadays, but all of the Harold Hedd comics have been reprinted in here.” Gareth hands me a copy of The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics, 2010). “Look at this…” He flips to page 115. “Look at this! Where else will you find an authentic drawing of a BC transit bus in Vancouver, circa the 1970s?”

“Oh! Remember The Buzzer?” Continue reading ‘Holmes on Homesteading’

Comparing Covers

I was looking at the cover of Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Midnight Giant (Nobrow Press, 2012) and was struck by how much the layout resembles that of Charles Burns’ X’ed Out (Pantheon, 2010).

Central figure, similar scale and depth of foreground and background, sloping terrain from right to left, tall object jutting out in top left corner.

Paintings by Johanne Hemond @ CACGV Gallery, Feb. 19-28

What are these works? First and foremost, they are “scapes.” Not only landscapes, but also configurations of Johanne Hémond’s interior world. To enter into her paintings is to explore a realm inspired by equal parts emotional resonance and site-specific geographies and geometries.

Nearly the entirety of two walls of Hémond’s most recent exhibit at the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria (CACGV) gallery are consecrated to scenes inspired the natural world. The third wall extends beyond the physical to an environment inhabited uniquely by mood. In total, a remarkable 27 paintings are displayed.

Hémond’s paintings are a logical extension of her earlier photographic work. Just around the corner from the gallery space featuring her paintings, one wall of a long corridor with a ramp descending to tennis and squash courts is adorned with highly fluid and dynamic photographs of tennis, squash and badminton players from various tournaments at the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre. Continue reading ‘Paintings by Johanne Hemond @ CACGV Gallery, Feb. 19-28′

Getting Sketchy with Gary Panter


The opening pages of Gary Panter’s Satiroplastic (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005) include sketches made while Panter was in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the introduction to the book Panter explains how the sketches are not chronologically ordered. Each time he did a drawing, he opened the book up haphazardly to a page and began drawing; further evidence of Panter’s random-abstract brilliance.

The sketches in Satiroplastic are in many ways more accessible than Panter’s most popularized classic comics, Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo’s Inferno. In fact, his loose line and highly impressionistic responses to his surroundings are an inspiration—they “give permission” to stop worrying and just draw. Compared with other cartoonist-artists who have published work from their sketchbooks (in no particular order, Adrian Tomine, Peter Kuper, Seth, R. Crumb, Chris Ware, Hernandez Brothers), Panter’s sketches are on the whole far less refined—in the best sense of the expression. But then, Panter is…different. And the raw reflections of Panter’s inner world are a welcome change from the more stiff and fastidious approaches of other artists. Continue reading ‘Getting Sketchy with Gary Panter’

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