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Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

By Mark Clapham on 01 December 2010

Alan Rinzler, Hunter S. Thompson’s sometime editor, writes a foreword to this book that asks why Thompson isn’t taken more seriously, why the drugs and excesses of his life have overshadowed his achievements as a writer and journalist?

Rinzler’s foreword never directly refers to the content of writer Will Bingley and artist Anthony Hope-Smith’s graphic biography of Thompson, but I would like to think he was pleased when he received his contributor’s copy, because this is a book that takes Thompson’s life and work in the round, rather than concentrating on the writer’s undoubted capacity for substance abuse and eccentricity.

Yes, the excesses are here – no biography of Thompson could deny them – but the book spends less time in bat country than you might expect, the misadventures of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ coming quite late in Bingley and Hope-Smith’s retelling of Thompson’s life, or at least his formative years and those of his creative peak.

Instead, ‘Gonzo’ (published on Thursday by SelfMadeHero) is a portrayal of a deeply serious man who was a major part of the American counterculture of the 60s and 70s, and who was committed both to that culture and the potential for his writing to be a driving force within it.

Bingley’s script takes an appropriately non-linear and episodic approach, following thematic threads through the major events of Thompson’s early life and career. The book is ostensibly narrated by Thompson – although I’ve no idea how much of this narration is pulled directly from his own words – and one anecdote will lead to another, Thompson’s attempts to get elected as Sheriff reminding him of police actions at an earlier riot, for instance.

It’s a playful and brave approach, one that captures both the strung-out skittishness of the Gonzo persona, and the way that memory can take us on a strange route through past events.  Bingley is unafraid to concentrate on seemingly minor episodes and skip over major events quickly if his story requires it, and this helter skelter approach keeps the action moving in what is, after all, the story of a writer observing events as much as directly engaging with them.

This is the life of a writer, one with a very distinct voice, told in that voice, and to a certain extent that means that words play a greater role here than they might do in other graphic novels. Yes, it’s a visual medium, but in a story that’s so much about words, inevitably those words are going to drive the narrative more than the pictures.

This isn’t a problem, and neither is it to diminish Hope-Smith’s contribution. While it’s the words that tell Thompson’s story, the monochrome visuals layer and texture that story. As we zig and zag through Thompson’s life, so Hope-Smith’s consistent style bends to the demands of the narrative, from low-key period realism, to moments of violence, to almost Kirby-esque reflections of Thompson’s heightened mental state.

Lines tighten and loosen as the moment requires, and Hope-Smith uses Thompson’s changing appearance over time to make sure the reader is always certain at what period of the writer’s life we’re looking at, even if only for a panel. It’s excellent cartooning which serves a complex story well.

It’s telling of how far this book veers away from the trippy focus of, say, Terry Gilliam’s film of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ that Hope-Smith only gets one straight-up fantasy sequence to illustrate, and that’s an episode of political satire rather than an illustration of a hallucination. The scene that lingers in the memory most isn’t a bad trip or freakout but a very minimal page, the moment where Thompson walks in on the gang rape of a girl by Hell’s Angels represented by a page of scratchy censor’s black ink, his recollections of the horrible scene in white type against the blotchy darkness.

There are many vivid and violent episodes in the book: beatings, riots, war. Thompson’s story is of a time of great upheaval, and of his intense desire to see, and if possible inspire and initiate, positive political change. These hopes ended in disappointment, and the latter stage of the book portrays Thompson as a man frozen into his Gonzo persona in the decades that followed, aging gracelessly and indulging his vices until his suicide in 2005.

This is an entertaining and dramatic retelling of an important life, one which goes beyond the usual cliches. It neither sugar coats nor demonises its subject, instead reflecting the complex priorities of a complex individual, one who clearly put his craft above his personal life. The political events that interested Thompson may have been specific to the times, but the desire for change is a persistent one, and there’s certainly plenty of relevance in scenes of police fighting rioting students, and of politicians brought low by damaging leaks.

‘Gonzo’ is an excellent, entertaining and informative biography, a great read and an intriguing calling card from creators to watch out for.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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