Scott McClanahan Takes the Devil Out of Daniel Johnston

Look what happens when literary iconoclast meets anti-icon.

In 1984, Austin, Texas, musical savant Daniel Johnston sang, “Don’t be sad I know you will, but don’t give up until, true love will find you in the end.” The song, “True Love Will Find You in the End,” eventually became Johnston’s biggest hit, one minute and 48 seconds of devastating, shaky triumph. The track is a spurt of beauty, distilling the essential duality of the artist’s sad, romantic world, his story of unrequited love, and living terribly alone with the voices in his head.

The singer-songwriter-illustrator’s staggering talent is only eclipsed by his madness. The 2005 documentary film The Devil in Daniel Johnston chronicles Johnston’s struggle with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder closely.

The true beauty of The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, Two Dollar Radio’s new graphic novel illustrated by Ricardo Cavolo and written by Scott McClanahan, is McClanahan’s choice to lift the thorned crown of Johnston’s illness, a condition that both doomed and mythologized his art. McClanahan’s narrative follows Johnston’s life in a swirling fever dream. Characters flitter between fiction and the real, detailing a backwoods Appalachian upbringing.


Like an acid-laced children’s book, Incantations follows the course of the musician’s life with a hallucinatory reverence, before departing into the happy, beautiful, life filled with love that could have been for Johnston.

McClanahan’s prose over Cavolo’s stunning illustrations left me welling with tears. “This is the part of the book where Daniel sees that he has to make things forever and that the whole world is a great fever we catch from one another like a game of tag,” writes McClanahan. Reminding us later, “You’ll never be as young as you are right now or the people you know. And there are no answers for any of us. We remain mysteries to one another.”

The Skeeve connected with McClanahan at his West Virginia home to talk about the gorgeous project.

The Skeeve: How did you meet Ricardo Cavolo?

Scott McClanahan: I’ve still never met him. He published this book in Spain a couple years ago. They decided they were going to do a version of it here in the United States, and they asked me to write the text. So really, we’ve had very limited conversations. Actually, no conversation. I did learn how to spell his name though. That’s the important thing when you’re collaborating with someone. If I was writing someone or in interviews, I kept spelling his name wrong, but I think I got that down now.

“I don’t even know if he likes it. He may very well hate it. He may very well hate me.”

The Skeeve: How did you guys work on the West Virginia via Barcelona project?

Scott McClanahan: He really already had the book self-contained as far as the images. He’d written a text himself. I just took that text and kind of completely changed it. His text was more narrative driven, I don’t want to say stereotypical, but followed the outline of the life. I don’t know if he even considers himself a writer either. I would do Google translate for each of the pages he had as text. Then I would say, ‘That’s horrible! I gotta do something else!’ It’s one of those things I feel nervous about. I don’t even know if he [Cavolo] likes it. He may very well hate it. He may very well hate me. I was telling my wife the other day as I was doing it, there’s this little voice in my head being like, You have destroyed my beautiful comic; I hate you! And this is always for some reason like a French voice in my head, instead of a Spanish voice. I hope he likes it.

The Skeeve: What is your experience with Daniel Johnston outside of this book?

Scott McClanahan: I don’t know if you could say I was a fan, but some of the songs are just amazing, as good as anything in the Great American Songbook. And a lot of his songs are perfect. There’s an album he did with Kramer [the founder] of Shimmy Disc [label], called 1990. I think that album’s amazing from start to finish.

The Skeeve: He’s spent time in West Virginia, too. 

Scott McClanahan: But he’s from North Central West Virginia, what I guess you would call Northern West Virginia, which is like the Ohio River Valley. It’s really more like he’s from Ohio. He’s from a place called New Cumberland. He grew up across the river from what would’ve been Steubenville, Ohio, which is where Dean Martin’s from.

Some strange things happening there. But yeah I guess I was a fan. I will say this, the Daniel Johnston story, there’s always been something about it that kind of bothered me, where the mental health stuff is always pushed to the front, rather than the fact that he wrote really amazing songs. I always thought that was more compelling than the mental health stuff. But there’s also the flip side, where it’s kind of a condescending tone they take with Johnston, which I think is really, really strange.

The Skeeve:  Is that why you departed from the linear narrative at the end of the book and just got weird with it?

Scott McClanahan: That’s exactly the reason why I did it. There’s just something so condescending about the way we treat people who hear voices. We want to take a pill and make it go away. We want to normalize them, which is what a lot of our psychology does. When I’ve been in bad spots before, the things I was hearing or feeling were every bit as real as your normal reality, sitting around drinking diet soda and eating Hot Pockets or whatever.

Repurposed thanks to Kindland.

Lindsay MaHarry writes about music, weed, and literature.
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