Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith
$17.95, 180 pages
by Sarah Jaffe
The book is called Gonzo perhaps because that's what would sell, but it's not a story of the gonzo-myth Hunter S. Thompson. It's a darker story, of the things that drove him and pushed him to greatness--and to addictions and finally suicide.
And it's an incomplete story, like all biographies, but the tale it tells is, I think, an important one. It's the story of the man whose work matters to me and to so many other journalists who left the myth of objectivity in the dust, who can't help but let the anger and passion we feel show in our work. There's a number of us, who have taken from Thompson not his style or his habits but the feeling that rang in every line of his (best) prose. It's telling that the worst imitators always want to rewrite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the real legacy of Thompson the journalist is in stories of politics and intrigue, freedom and fairness, not in drug binges and outlandish metaphors.
I am not objective about Hunter Thompson—without Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 I would not have the career I have; I would not be the writer I am. Thompson carved out a space for us outsiders with a healthy skepticism of all authority, but he was at his best when he believed in things. He faded to caricature when he stopped finding things to believe in, and this book's stark last pages capture that perfectly.
Whenever I pick up a graphic biography or other work of graphic nonfiction to read, the first question I ask is, why does this story deserve to be a comic? Why should it be told in this format rather than others, or if it has been told in others (as Thompson's life story surely has) what does this one add?
In this case, the book is narrated in first person; I actually flipped to the back to find out if Thompson's letters or some long-lost journal were the sources. But no, it's just writer Will Bingley's stark, economical prose that echoes Thompson's voice well enough to be compelling even to a fangirl like me. Those words are laid over images just as stark at times, the iconic sunglasses-and-hat face of the writer, his shirt always unbuttoned a bit too far, his smirk, his occasional slack-jawed amazement (or exhaustion) rendered a thousand different ways in these pages.
There's shocking brutality in these pages more often than buffoonery; it starts and ends with a gunshot and the writer alone. Violence defines the Thompson shown here, whether he's hunting alone in Aspen, being driven half mad with rage over Vietnam and Cambodia, getting “stomped” by Hell's Angels or cops outside the Chicago Democratic Convention. It also captures the writer's frenetic motion—to believe this story, he took the infamous gig that sent him to Vegas because the Sports Illustrated expense account would “keep him mobile,” and his early moves from city to city are rendered in just a few panels each.
Of course the story has holes. The beauty of comics is that certain things can be implied in the art without having to be stated in text—the intimacy, rendered in simple lines, between Thompson and his wife Sandy in just a few scenes leaves us believing that he was shattered by the end of their marriage, but there's little warmth to the other friendships shown here. Oscar Acosta, the lawyer immortalized in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Ralph Steadman make appearances, as of course does Rolling Stone boss Jann Wenner, but there's little feeling of connection between them.
Missing, too, is the visceral hatred that seeps out of every sentence Thompson ever wrote about Richard Nixon. The Watergate debacle here is reduced to Nixon as a cartoon villain, climbing up the side of a building, with claws for hands and feet. But Thompson's hatred for Nixon started well before that, and though the bombs falling on Cambodia are an easy shorthand for everything wrong with the 70s, the replaying of Nixon's speeches as a sort of shorthand for what was wrong with the man and the country doesn't work as well—politician-speak is notoriously bland and full of platitudes, and simply bracketing it with comments about Nixon's “lies” doesn't tell the story well enough.
It's funny—Thompson was worried, with the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that he'd be made into a cartoon, that his vision would be dulled by cartoons. (For the Thompson completist, I recommend the film Breakfast with Hunter for that full story.) Here, rendered as a comic, he's less of a cartoon than he was in his own prose before his death, at his own hand. And closing this book I felt once again the loss of a brilliant commentator; I wondered anew if he'd have been spurred into new life by the Obama administration, the rise of the Tea Party (which seems at times like something he'd have made up if he wrote more fiction).
Ultimately, I loved the book but it's not an entry point into Thompson. It provides two valuable services, though—a beautifully-drawn visual entry into a world most of its readers probably never saw, the late 60s and early 70s in America when we just realized that maybe the dream we'd been sold was rotten inside, and a reminder that inside the hard-drinking, hard-living “Gonzo” writer was a man with demons and grand loves and inspiration, a person who could perhaps have given us more if he'd slowed down or cleaned up but in the end, as his former editor Alan Rinzler wrote in the introduction here, “Who am I or anyone else to say what he should have done? That was him. His life.”
Sarah Jaffe edits the Labor and Media sections at AlterNet.org, and is a political reporter who tries to cultivate the rage of Hunter S. Thompson with about 1/100th the drug consumption. You can find her work here and follow her on Twitter.