May 6, 2012

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Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness

Written and Illustrated by Daniel Johnston
BOOM! Studios

On a routine space flight, the pill-popping General Duck is approached by a friendly stranger warning him of an alien plot to take over the Earth, and only the fighting power of anthropomorphic ducks can save us. The general teams up with more ducks as they embark on an Inglourious Basterds-style rampage against Satan and his minions on the aptly named "Satan's Planet." Will the ducks manage to beat back the forces of evil? And could this all just be a medication-induced fever dream?

For those of you who aren't aware of Daniel Johnston's life story (and I can't imagine anyone seeking out this comic who isn't already a fan of his), he's a musician and artist with bipolar disorder whose works combine a childish naivete with a dark ominousness and awareness of supernatural and satanic forces dwelling in the mundane. I'm a huge fan of Daniel Johnston's music, and as fans of his know, all of his albums feature cover art by him. In recent years, he's been more successful as an artist than a musician, with some of his Magic Marker drawings fetching prices up into the thousands. As the moving documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston makes clear, Johnston is severely mentally ill, and without the fame and money his art and music have bought him, he might well be dead or institutionalized, which would have been a terrible loss both for him, and for his thousands of fans.

Being honest, though, Space Ducks succeeds more as an art book than as a comic book, and a little bit of Johnston's art goes a long way. Rob compared it to Shia LaBeouf's recent minicomics, which isn't that far-fetched a descriptor... except that Johnston isn't being ironic here which makes all the difference. But just as with his music, this book is clearly something he needed to get out, and there are flashes of genius: a duck yelling "I'm from Texas!" while brandishing a shotgun, the fact that the ducks' spaceship has an eye bank on the bridge (eyeballs being a Johnston-art staple), the author being painfully aware of his terrible spelling. Even though the art is primitive, some of the facial expressions he manages to convey (which, to be honest, are largely confined to "rage" and "glee" at disembowling devils) could only have come from a raw, mostly untrained talent. Nothing here is muted, especially the color scheme.

The Kickstarter also came with a free download of the Space Ducks soundtrack, which is half Johnston new original material, and half by his friends. I hadn't heard of any of the other bands/artists, and frankly I wasn't wowed by the non-Johnston tracks. But his songs are quite good and if you like Johnston's music, you'll want to pick these tracks up (tracks can be bought individually at the Yip Eye Tunes store).

Ultimately I don't see Space Ducks winning over any new Daniel Johnston converts, and I still prefer his music to his art. But Space Ducks is a glimpse into one of our most idiosyncratic minds, and something that fans will want to check out. Don't miss the cut-out action figures on the back flap!