In 1970, William S. Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill began a small collaborative project on a comic entitled The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, which appeared in the first four issues of Cyclops, England’s first comics magazine for an adult readership. Soon after, Burroughs and McNeill agreed to collaborate on a book-length meditation on time, power, control, and corruption that evoked the Mayan codices and specifically, the Mayan god of death, Ah Pook. Ah Pook Is Here was to include their character Mr. Hart, but stray from the conventional comics form to explore different juxtapositions of images and words.
Ah Pook was never finished in its intended form. In a 1979 prose collection that included only the words from the collaboration, Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts (Calder, 1979), Burroughs explains in the preface that they envisioned the work to be “one that falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book nor that of a comix publication.” Rather, the work was to include “about a hundred pages of artwork with text (thirty in full-color) and about fifty pages of text alone.” The book was conceived as a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative. It was conceived as 120 continuous pages that would "fold out." Such a book was, at the time, unprecedented, and no publisher was willing to take a chance and publish a “graphic novel.”
However, Malcolm McNeill created nearly a hundred paintings, illustrations, and sketches for the book, and these, finally, are seeing the light of day in The Lost Art of Ah Pook. (Burroughs’ text will not be included.) McNeill himself is an exemplary craftsman and visionary painter whose images have languished for over 30 years, unseen. Even in a context divorced from the words, they represent a stunning precursor to the graphic novel form to come.
Sara J. Van Ness contributes an historical essay chronicling the long history of Burroughs’ and McNeill’s work together, including its incomplete publishing history with Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press, the excerpt that ran in Rush magazine, and the text that was published without pictures.
Observed While Falling is an account of the personal and creative interaction that defined the collaboration between the writer William S. Burroughs and the artist Malcolm McNeill on the graphic novel Ah Pook Is Here. The memoir chronicles the events that surrounded it, the reasons it was abandoned and the unusual circumstances that brought it back to life. McNeill describes his growing friendship with Burroughs and how their personal relationship affected their creative partnership. The book is written with insight and humor, and is liberally sprinkled with the kind of outré anecdotes one would expect working with a writer as original and eccentric as Burroughs. It confirms Burroughs’ and McNeill’s prescience, the place of Ah Pook in relation to the contemporary graphic novel, and its anticipation of the events surrounding 2012. The book offers new insights into Burroughs’ working methods as well as how the two explored the possibilities of words and images working together to form the ambitious literary hybrid that they didn’t know, at the time, was a harbinger of the 21st century “graphic novel.” McNeill expounds on the lessons of that experience to bring Ah Pook into present time. In light of current events, Ah Pook is unquestionably Here now.
Observed While Falling presents a unique view of the creative process that will be of interest to artists, writers and general readers alike. A perspective evoked by a literary experiment that has endured for forty years and still continues to “happen.”
• Review: "And indeed, [Carl Barks's] work of c. 1948–54 ranks amongst the most consistently inspired, inventive, touching, and plain fun in the history of comics. Fantagraphics’ inaugural volume in their complete edition of Barks’s Disney comics [Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes] drops the reader in right at the onset of this creative surge, covering the years 1948–49. ...[T]his is a series that finally promises Barks done right, promising a major revival of one of our greatest cartoonists." – Matthias Wivel, The Comics Journal
• Interview:The Believer blog presents part 1 of an interview with Jim Woodring conducted in 2008 by Ross Simonini: "There’s a Robinson Jeffers poem about a guy who has made wounds on the back of his hands and keeps them fresh by cutting them over and over again with a sharp piece of clean metal. That always struck me as being akin to what I do. I wouldn’t let those childhood wounds heal. The tunnel kept trying to close behind me, and I kept forcing it open so I could remember those primordial things, the way that the world seemed to me as a child. It’s been a vocation for me to keep that view intact."
• Interview (Audio): Matt Smith-Lahrman of New Books Network talks to Kevin Avery about Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson; in Smith-Lahrman's written introduction he says "In Avery’s biography, Nelson is a man who deeply believed in the idea of the American hero as a maverick: tough, brave, in touch with the essence of what it means to be human, and, importantly, alone. Nelson died in 2006, just as Avery was beginning to write this book. He died alone.... Nelson’s writing is deeply personal, inviting readers into the relationships he had with the people he wrote about. Avery’s biography similarly invites readers into Paul Nelson’s life, lonely as it was."
• Plug: "New from Fantagraphics, a decade spanning comics anthology from icon maker Bill Griffith. Griffith is surely best known as the creator of the polka-dot robe wearing daily strip character, Zippy the Pinhead, but Griffith's productivity reaches far beyond Zippy. Lost and Foundis a collection of comics, handpicked by the artist, many rare and out of print, from 1969-2003 (but with the first third of that time period, the heyday of the underground, occupying the majority of the book). Though most of the comics in Lost and Found aren't about Zippy, there are some unique and important Zippy moments included, like the icon's first appearance..." – 211 Bernard (Librairie Drawn & Quarterly)
• Plugs:Robot 6's Michael May & Graeme McMillan look ahead to a couple of our upcoming releases:
Angelman – I’ve not read much by Austrian cartoonist Nicolas Mahler, but I think I’m won over just by the idea of his new book, which satirizes not just superheroes, but the business behind them. [Graeme]
Interiorae – Lovely, lovely art by Gabriella Giandelli in this collection of his Ignatz series. (It’s also in full-color, unlike the original serialization, which is another win.) [Graeme]
I don’t know why it’s taken this long for Fantagraphics to collect the comics that got their cool Ignatz format a few years ago, but I’ll shut up and be grateful. I greatly enjoyed Giandelli’s creepy tale of an apartment building, its residents, the large rabbit who roams its halls, and the creature the rabbit seems to serve. What’s also exciting though is that this means Richard Sala’s Delphine will get a collection too. [Michael]
• Plug: "Malcolm McNeill was just finishing art school when he began his seven year collaboration with the author, William S. Burroughs. This work, which has never been published, is finally going to see the light of day. Fantagraphics has two books coming out this Spring by McNeill: one with his lost drawings and paintings, and the other a reflection on the relationship between word and image which has made an indelible mark on the artist and master draftsman." – Laura Williams, Lost at E Minor
FANTAGRAPHICS ACQUIRES LOST ‘GRAPHIC NOVEL' BY WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS & ARTIST MALCOLM McNEILL
SEATTLE, WA, SEPT. 9, 2010 --- Fantagraphics Books is proud to announce the acquisition of the only graphic novel written by — and possibly the last unseen work of his to be published — the innovative Beat writer and Naked Lunch author, William S. Burroughs. This lost masterpiece, Ah Pook Is Here, created in collaboration with artist Malcolm McNeill in the 1970s, will be published in the summer of 2011 as a spectacularly packaged two-volume, hinged set, along with Observed While Falling, McNeill's memoir documenting his collaboration with one of America's most iconic authors.
Ah Pook Is Here first appeared in 1970 under the title The Unspeakable Mr. Hart as a monthly comic strip written by Burroughs and drawn by the British cartoonist and painter Malcolm McNeil in the English magazine Cyclops. When the publication folded, Burroughs and McNeill decided to develop the project into a full-length, Word/Image novel (the term "graphic novel" had not yet been coined). Burroughs was 56 at the time, McNeill 23.
The book was conceived as a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative. It was conceived as 120 continuous pages that would "fold out." Such a book was, at the time, unprecedented, and no publisher was willing to take a chance and publish a "graphic novel." Burroughs and McNeill finally abandoned the project after collaborating on it for 7 years.
"It is singularly appropriate that after championing literate comics and the graphic novel form for over 30 years, Fantagraphics Books should bring a literary collaboration between one of America's most distinctive writers and his exemplary hand-chosen artist to light," says Fantagraphics Publisher and acquiring editor Gary Groth.
Ah Pook Is Here is a consideration of time with respect to the differing perceptions of the ancient Maya and that of the current Western mindset. It was Burroughs' contention that both of these views result in systems of control in which the elite perpetuate its agendas at the expense of the people. They make time for themselves and through increasing measures of Control attempt to prolong the process indefinitely.
John Stanley Hart is the "Ugly American" or "Instrument of Control" - a billionaire newspaper tycoon obsessed with discovering the means for achieving immortality. Based on the formulae contained in rediscovered Mayan books he attempts to create a Media Control Machine using the images of Fear and Death. By increasing Control, however, he devalues time and invokes an implacable enemy: Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God. Young mutant heroes using the same Mayan formulae travel through time bringing biologic plagues from the remote past to destroy Hart and his Judeo/Christian temporal reality.
Ah Pook Is Here was an experiment, not just in terms of the form in which the idea was expressed but the possible effects the form might produce. Burroughs was preoccupied throughout his career with the fundamental nature of words and images, particularly with regard to their ability to transcend time. In the case of Ah Pook Is Here, the rapport between artist and writer produced results that confirmed that contention. Ah Pook is the kind of extrapolative, futuristic feat of imagination that a reader would expect from the author of Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded — a mind-boggling tour de force, dramatizing outré theories with a science fiction patina.
The second book in the set is Observed While Falling, written by Malcolm McNeill, an account of the personal and creative interaction that defined the collaboration between the writer and the artist, the events surrounding it, and the reasons for its ultimate demise. McNeill describes his growing friendship with Burroughs and how their personal relationship affected their creative partnership. The book is written with insight and humor, and liberally sprinkled with the kind of the hilarious anecdotes one would expect working with a writer as original and eccentric as William S. Burroughs. It confirms the prescience of Ah Pook Is Here with respect to the contemporary graphic novel; Burroughs' exploration of the artistic potential of combining words and images was a revelation to the artist. The book offers new insights into Burroughs' working methods as well as how the two explored the possibilities of words and images working together to form the ambitious literary hybrid that they didn't know, at the time, was a harbinger of the 21st century's "graphic novel."
"Fantagraphics is honored to bring this major work into print and to publish what is quite possibly the last great work from one of America's most original prose stylists," added Groth. "Burroughs once said that 'The purpose of writing is to make it happen.' We are proud to make Ah Pook Is Here finally happen."