Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson


Written by Yusuf Laher
07 Monday 07th February 2011

When I read about Don't Panic contributor Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith's new illustrated, graphic biography of Hunter S. Thompson, my first thought was, "How much more to the story could there possibly be?" Even the title put me off. Gonzo. We get it. But after a quick chat with the graphic novel’s co-creators over a couple of pints, I was enthusiastic. These guys are the real deal.

Hope-Smith rattled off a list of dream inkers and letterers, Bingley confessed that if he had to sleep with a man it would be Bill Murray and together, they make an awesome pop culture-consuming duo. This time, it’s about giving Hunter S. Thompson a new voice and dispelling the cartoon persona that they admit Thompson himself is to blame for.

So why Hunter S. Thompson? Is he a personal anti-hero?

Will: He is... For starters, he’s an amazing person. Secondly, we felt that he’d been misrepresented, particularly with the movies and bigger US papers. His broader image is that pure kind of gonzo thing, which is a massive misrepresentation of him. So we figured we could go in and tell a more interesting story.  
Anthony: He is very much perceived as a caricature persona, which, admittedly, is a persona that he came up with for himself. But it meant people didn’t take him as seriously as they should have.

Where does the story begin?

W: It begins with him being born, pretty much. Him as a youth, growing up in Louisville. So much of what he wrote is a reaction to how he perceived the world that it made sense to give the audience a good insight into what his world was.

Did you use photos of him as a kid?

A: There isn’t a lot of him as a kid. I managed to find enough to create that initial likeness. You can kind of judge, knowing what they look like as an adult, doing a younger version of those features. Tricky. But he’s got a very distinctive face. So I just tried to use logic to morph it backwards.  
W: This little kid with a massive bald head. Ha ha...      

So is the story literally a non-fictional illustrated biography?

W: It’s not a straight non-fictional biography. It’s told from his perspective, written in the first person, as if it was fiction... to some extent.
A: But we wanted to avoid exposition. We didn’t want to be patronising. These days, you can find stuff out so easily.
W: We wanted to beat a path through his life through his eyes. That just seemed the best way to try and tell the story.

Are you both comic geeks?

A: I’ve been reading comic books since the age of six. I started out with the superhero stuff. But as I got older it became a passion of mine as a story-telling medium. It can stand on its own two feet. And a project like this is very attractive to me. Something that isn’t fantasy...
W: Sci-fi, superhero nonsense...
A: Exactly, to show that the medium can support this kind of material.

Favourite comic book movies?

A: American Splendor, Ghost World, Art School Confidential... that’s the stuff that appeals to me.
W: There is a general idea in this country about graphic novels and comic books, that they’re superheroes, kid's books, that’s what they are.
A: Tights!
W: And there’s just so much really, really great material out there.
A: So much stuff doesn’t get translated into English. I speak Spanish and spent time living in Spain, so I got a chance to read some amazing stuff. Like Jacques Tardi, which is now getting translated into English. On the continent, especially in France, their attitude towards comics is so different. They’ve got Angoulême, which is the big convention in France. I think Van Hamme (Jean) got the lifetime achievement award, and the French minister of culture presented it!

So they're more credible?

W: Much more credible. It’s a serious thing. Which it should be over here. It’s a valid art form.  
A: Like I say, strengths and weaknesses, it can stand on its own legs.  
W: You’ve kind of hit a nerve here, ha ha...    

Will Bingley, Anthony Hope-Smith

As far as the dialogue goes, did you use artistic license or is it mostly a collection of quotes?

W: There's a few direct quotes. He’s just got such an obvious writing style. His vocabulary and rhythm are very specific. So it wasn’t that hard a thing to mimic. Some of the reviewers have ended their reviews with Hunter S. Thompson quotes that aren’t actually Hunter S. Thompson quotes. Which is kind of awesome.
A: Obviously I’m going to be biased, but I really do think Will nailed that voice. He got it down perfectly. The intonation in the words.
W: If you read his letters, he often wrote about his language. And about his use of language. So you can almost scientifically look at how he wrote and mimic it that way.

What did you think Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Vegas film?

W: It’s a great adaptation of the book but it’s given a lot of people who aren’t aware of his work the image that this is what he was, when it’s purely a work of satire. He didn’t actually go to Vegas and take a shitload of drugs. It’s a work of fiction.
A: A work of entertainment.
W: Exactly. And people associate that with him. It draws too much attention away from someone who was a great writer.
A: That cartoon persona.

What about Where the Buffalo Roam? Who makes a better Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp or Bill Murray?

W: Johnny Depp, probably... I love Bill Murray. He’s a fucking legend.
A: Johnny Depp’s in the better film.
W: Yeah, but if I had to sleep with a man, it would probably be Bill Murray.
A: Fair play.

And what did you think of Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?

W: The thing we found was how incredibly difficult it was to crystallise the events of his life into any kind of sensible narrative. There’s so much. Some of it’s contradictory... The documentary focused a lot on the campaign trail and pushed that as the impact he had beyond his books, which is fair enough. I thought it was a good film but it didn’t tell me anything more than that.
A: It was a very useful piece of reference. The home footage. The people that turned up doing interviews. It was nice getting a firsthand account. Their point of view. It informed my approach drawing him. The little things. It’s like acting through your drawings.  

Does it irritate you when modern journalists throw the word gonzo around after they’ve had a few beers and written a dodgy gig review or something?

W: Nah mate, that’s their prerogative. Hunter S. Thompson said that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas didn’t work as gonzo journalism. People do throw it around, but fuck it, let ‘em. Even if it does mean a couple of wankers down in some pub in Holborn or Fleet Street chat bollocks.

Who would you call a true gonzo journalist then? Tom Wolfe gets mentioned a lot?

W: Yeah... Hmm... Will Self is a writer in his own right and does his own thing, but he’s probably the closest we’ve got now.

Favourite Hunter S. Thompson anecdote, quote or myth?

A: There’s a recording on YouTube that I highly recommend. It’s an angry phone call made during the last few years of his life, to a place where he’s just bought a DVD player from. Basically, they’ve done a really hopeless job hooking the DVD player up to his home entertainment system. It’s a complete disaster. I won’t say too much, but check it out. It’s brilliant!
W: I think my favourite anecdotes are in his letters. There’s one he wrote to Aldous Huxley, when Huxley reneged on an article for Rolling Stone. Hunter S. Thompson was running the National Affairs Desk at the time. Huxley was someone you don’t fuck with and Thompson just tore him to shreds. The mailbox story’s good as well.
A: The mailbox story’s amazing. That’s in the book.  
W: When he was a kid, he trashed a mailbox. He was about 10 or 11 years old and the FBI turned up at his house to charge him with the crime. And he just sat there and lied and lied and lied and said “Fuck you, I’m not taking this.” Which is amazing for a 10 year old kid.        

For more info and to order a copy of Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson visit selfmadehero.com

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