By Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith
“The great American iconoclast, the great American outlaw, the great American hedonist. However you choose to view him,Thompson remains the high water mark for social commentators worldwide, and a truly fearless champion of individual liberties.This is his story.”
This is the second in SelfMadeHero’s graphic biography series, and following on from Richard Kleist’s quite brilliant Johnny Cash, Bingley and Hope-Smith had a tough task ahead of them.
Worse yet, the subject of Gonzo is Hunter S. Thompson, someone whose legend is far larger than the man himself, and anything written about the man has a tendency to play on that legend.
The brilliant, incendiary, passionate writing and the sheer genius of Thompson often gets lost in the pills and booze fuelled anecdotes, the riotous behaviour, the talent inevitably lost to a life of excess.
Likewise the temptation to attempt a Hunter S. Thompson biography in the famously Gonzo style of Thompson’s writing must have been strong, but Gonzo, despite the title, thankfully avoids this cliche. Instead we get something that does a laudably job of capturing the essence of both the man and his writing, without really succumbing to the cliche. And it’s all the stronger for it.
I’ve loved Thompson’s work since first reading Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail in one long weekend, revelling in the dream of Hunter’s world. It caught me young, and I shamelessly bought into the myth of Thompson the iconic counter culture writer, detailing the best and the worst of a pivotal time in US (and consequently world) culture.
I found his passion intoxicating and his writing breathtaking. So coming to Gonzo I was concerned that it might have been simply a pastiche of the man, an attempt to filter his genius onto the comic page, a dilution, a summary, celebrating the cliche, yet capturing nothing oif the man and his genius. I knew you can’t recreate Thompson, you can only try to emulate, to capture just a little of the spirit.
Thankfully Bingley seems to get it too, and Gonzo is spmething of a tour de force – a celebration of every aspect of the man’s life, yet not afraid to shine a light on his darker moments. I haven’t read anything by Thompson for a few years now, but on finishing Gonzo, my first thought was to get his books off the shelf again. Bingley and Hope-Smith’s graphic biography just seems to capture everything about the man’s writing that so fired me up all those years ago. It’s a brilliant, quite magnificent graphic novel.
Gonzo is a journey through Thompson’s life, touching on, but never lingering on, all of those monumental moments he was there to document for a nation finding it’s voice, finding that it’s masters weren’t to be trusted. From the career making writings about the Hells Angels to the whole Nixon affair (and Thompson’s hatred of the man comes through loud and clear in Gonzo) – it’s all here, not in any great detail, but there’s a spark in Bingley’s writing that communicates everything in just enough words to give you all you need to know of Thompson.
And then there’s the long descent into self-parody that so much of Thompson’s later work became. And as celebratory as he was early on, Bingley doesn’t shy away from documenting the descent, in all it’s horrendous detail, as a great, near visionary writer finds his words lacking, his mojo lost, and this celebration of a life turns into a tragedy that led to his eventual suicide.
The art by Hope-Smith isn’t showy, nor breathtaking. It would have been far too tempting to look at some of Thompson’s frequent artistic collaborator Ralph Steadman’s famous visuals and work from there, but that would have merely bought into the famous imagery too much. Instead Hope-Smith, like Bingley, selflessly allows his work to be quiet and unassuming. Thompson’s words are allowed to come through. Hope-Smith does a wonderful job of documenting those words.
The art is perfect for the subject, an ideal accompaniment to Bingley’s words, those familiar with the imagery of Thompson in his infamous Fear & Loathing personna will instantly recognise the man Hope-Smith puts down on the page, but once that image is acknowledged, the visuals relax and allow us to enter Thompson’s world. This is where not showy works so well, the power in Gonzo had to come from the man himself, from his ideas, his actions, his legacy.
All in all, Gonzo does exactly what I was hoping it would, it’s a fascinating biography, a triumph of a graphic novel and a beautifully realised picture of a unique man. It may be a late addition, but Gonzo has easily made it onto my best of year list. SelfMadeHero really have a knack of putting out some of the best origginal graphic novels around.