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Interview with Malcolm McNeill

I first met Malcolm McNeill in 2007. He was in London to do some printing for an exhibition, and he showed me a number of test pages. I thumbed through the astonishing series of expansive, hallucinatory images; a visionary tapestry of sci-fi warfare, mass orgies and metamorphosing gods printed in a continuous series of interweaving panels.

 

The images were from an abandoned project called Ah Pook is Here. It had started life as a text and image collaboration with the notorious American writer William Burroughs – or ‘Bill’, as Malcolm called him. For various convoluted and, it seemed, deeply frustrating reasons, the book had never been published. Begun in 1970, over a decade before the term ‘graphic novel’ existed, Ah Pook revisited Mayan mythology to inform a disorientating narrative about collapse of Western civilisation. I was surprised that a major work of one of the twentieth century’s most experimental writers could have been ‘lost’ for so long, and hoped that Malcolm’s attempt to resuscitate the project would succeed.

 

It didn’t. The exhibition went well, but a series of logistical complications, combined with ongoing friction with the proprietorial Burroughs estate, meant publication was once again postponed. I assumed this setback was the final nail in a heavily studded coffin.

 

Malcolm continued his attempts to bring Ah Pook to light, however, and it is finally being published this August. I spoke to him via email.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  You first met William Burroughs in 1970 in London, when you were in your final year at art school. How did you end up collaborating together?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  I was in my last term at Hornsey College of Art and decided to start an adult comic magazine. Graham Keen, graphics editor of International Times was thinking of doing the same thing so we pooled our resources. He happened to know Burroughs and convinced him to contribute. My idea was to create an English version of the kind of comics being produced in the US at the time so having Burroughs involved didn’t impress me at all. I didn’t know anything about him and hadn’t read anything he’d written but I did know he was American and that was contrary to the idea. He’d looked at the work of the available artists and picked mine apparently, which also didn’t impress me.

 

The strip was called The Unspeakable Mr Hart and it lasted for four months. I didn’t meet Mr Burroughs during that time or even get to speak to him to find out what the heck he was talking about. I was simply handed a half a page of copy each month by the editor, which didn’t read like comic book text at all. When the magazine folded I was kind of relieved. I’d already started working on another one. But then I got a phone call from Burroughs himself insisting we get together. “I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me,” he said. Even though I knew nothing about him, not even what he looked like, the character I’d created for Mr. Hart had ended up looking remarkably like him. That was the event on which the whole experience was predicated. Once I met Bill everything changed. As it happened we were in sync about a lot of things. I’d been working on word/image storytelling ideas in college and I’d written my graduation paper on the history of ‘visual narrative’. Naturally that included Mayan murals and codices and Mr Hart was all about the Maya. I’d also turned twenty-three that month which was a significant number for Burroughs. ‘Auspicious’, he called it, though at the time I had no idea why.

Q

The White Review

—  Ah Pook is Here is being published forty-one years after you began working on it. Why has it taken so long to see the light of day?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  That’s a very long story. I’ve written Observed While Fallingto explain it. Ah Pook wasn’t published first time around because there was no market for a book like that back then. There was no money to support it. I managed to stick with it for seven years, but the process of starting and stopping to do paying work became more and more difficult to sustain. It also involved moving from London to San Francisco and then New York to try and finish it and setting myself up with a work space each time and the necessary resources. It was an extremely complicated project to begin with both intellectually and creatively, but having that to deal with as well made it even more difficult. Eleven pages were in fact published in Rush Magazine in New York in 1976 in an attempt to interest a publisher but nothing came of it. The following year I managed to set up a tentative arrangement with the Marlboro Gallery in Rome to exhibit the work and publish the book in Europe but the agent wasn’t enamoured of the idea. With that I just gave up.

 

The reason it’s being printed now is the result of Observed While Falling and gallery shows of the images. Between them they found a publisher who then decided to publishAh Pook as well. His idea was to show the words and images in the form they were at when the project was abandoned – a kind of proto-typical graphic novel in progress. Sketches, notes, finished pages, unfinished pages and scans of Bill’s working text would give an idea of what we’d tried to achieve. The Burroughs Estate however would not agree to use of the text. Given Ah Pook’s relevance to 2012 we decided to publish the images alone.

Q

The White Review

—  Ah Pook is Here is a complex, hallucinatory work that weaves together Mayan mythology, guerrilla warfare, apocalyptic visions and late twentieth Century paranoia. How complete is it?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  It’s as complete as it will ever be. I worked for seven years on Ah Pook is Hereand nine years on a book about Ah Pook is Here. That’s it. I’m done with it.

Q

The White Review

—  I’m interested in how the collaboration worked in practice, particularly in light of the fact that Burroughs dabbled in painting himself. Did you respond to texts sent to you in the mail, or did you sit down together and collaborate more closely on text and images?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  Bill gave no instructions regarding the form of the book or the specific nature of the imagery. He approved the various characters as I created them but that was it. It was a collaboration – words and images exploring the same idea. They worked off each other. Some parts of the book were to be text alone, some images alone and others a combination of the two. We’d spend time together talking about various ideas and from that the words and images would appear. It took about a year for the fifty pages of text to be completed.

Q

The White Review

—  Burroughs is as remembered for his life as for his work – famously he killed his wife in a botched game of William Tell. What was it like to collaborate with this self-mythologising figure, so central to the Beat Generation?

A

Malcolm McNeill

— I came to know Bill in a very particular way. Collaborating with someone on ideas of that nature makes for a relationship that’s quite unique. Understanding his overall literary persona and personal history were as much a part of the project as the subject of the book. It was essential to me to understand the source of the ideas in order to make images that were commensurate. He was not the celebrity back then that he later became and not knowing anything about him meant I was essentially working with a blank slate. If I’d known how intense his work was or how bizarre his life was I would have been intimidated to say the least.

 

As it was I took him at face value. One of the sincerest, most generous, normal people I’d ever met… and the funniest. I knew I was in at the deep end the moment I met him, but I had no idea how deep. I read everything he’d written and as much as I could that had been written about him – plus I had a one-on-one dialogue in person. I didn’t agree with everything he said or wrote, obviously. The fact that he killed his wife and then went on to describe women as a ‘biological mistake’ was a fascinating irony to say the least. As I put it in Observed While Falling, it struck me as less a case of William Tell than William do Tell. That he then went on to describe the event as the real impetus for writing only added to the fascination. All of this was in the context of me being straight and him being militantly gay- and thirty years older than me- and a heroin addict. It was difficult sometimes, but it certainly forced me to think. Despite these disparities it became a unique and lasting friendship. Over the course of almost a decade he asked me to supply images for several of his other texts, many of which were published and in 1980 he volunteered as godfather to my son.

Q

The White Review

—  Many of the Ah Pook’s more violent images might be read as references to the Vietnam War. By revisiting ancient Mayan mythology- particularly in the figure of Ah Puch, the god of death- were you in some way commenting on the present?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  Ah Pook is Here was a consideration of systems of political control. Bill determined that the current Judeo/Christian version – epitomised by Mr Hart – was doomed to collapse the same as the Mayan had done. What distinguished the two worldviews were the models of time they employed. The Judeo-Christian, Biblical version is linear, the Mayan circular. Ah Pook and his Corn God alter ego embody an ongoing repetitive view of time; the interdependent, mutually reinforcing process of death and regeneration. When these two temporal worldviews confronted one another back in the 1500’s the Maya were essentially obliterated. Ah Pook is Here proposed a second confrontation between them in present time – a fictional idea that has now become realised in the actual events of 2012. When that happened/happens, Ah Pook – the Destroyer – would be here, and both systems would be obliterated. The Vietnam War was certainly going on during the beginning stages of Ah Pook but it was not consciously a part of the narrative. There is really only one war with different names.

Q

The White Review

—  The graphic novel as we know it today came into being during the 1980’s, but your collaboration with Burroughs began a decade earlier. Were you attempting to pioneer a new format?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  We didn’t think of format in that sense. The idea was to combine image and text in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative. One thing that determined an overall perspective was the continuous image idea inherent in the Mayan Codex Bill I looked at in the British Museum. It was a single piece of parchment that folded down into pages– a single image essentially like a panorama that then became a book. I’d been drawing and painting panoramic images for years so that idea really appealed to me. By thinking of a book in those terms it would be possible to express the narrative as a single overall temporal event or in a conventional linear manner page by page – an idea which also happened to correspond to Bill’s notion of life as pre-recorded script.

Q

The White Review

—  Does it matter to you how people categorise Ah Pook? The term ‘graphic novel’ was invented partly as a marketing tool.

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  It doesn’t bother me at all. Whatever it’s called, I’m done with it.

Q

The White Review

—  Your illustrations reflect the visual style of the underground comics of the 1970’s – particularly their psychedelic overtones, sexual content and science fiction elements. Yet there is a highly painterly quality to them reminiscent, at times, of Hieronymus Bosch. Were you consciously developing a hybrid approach, somewhere between painting and illustration?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  Fantasy, science-fiction etc., and even Hieronymus Bosch were simply elements within the narrative. Obviously Bill was familiar with Bosch but the way he became an integral part of the story was a perfect example of the way the collaboration worked. Bosch happened to be my favourite painter and I ended up buying a book about him during my first LSD trip while I was working on the project. I brought it with me the next time I saw Bill. Bill hated LSD. ‘No bueno,’ he said. He’d tried it a couple of times but wouldn’t go near the stuff again. Ironically it was the drug that provided me with the inroad to his literary worldview; the dichotomy of comedy and terror that characterised his writing. My first trip was a classic combination of both.  Hieronymus Bosch is rare among painters in that he also juxtaposes these extremes. I loaned Bill the book and The Garden of Earthly Delights became the end scene for Ah Pook.

 

Bosch appealed to me because his characters are rendered in a one-to-one ‘realistic’, representational way. There is no stylistic element intruding between what is conceived and what is conveyed. Drawing to me has always been a means for trying to understand what I’m looking at. The process of transposing an event to paper involves the most acute form of observation. The point is not to simply reproduce a photographic facsimile but to experience the event. The less one imposes oneself on the process through preconceptions or stylistic artifice the clearer the experience becomes- the same as it is when you try to understand someone else’s ideas. You listen, you don’t talk. One-to-one is the way scientific illustrations or architectural renderings work. They’re direct and unequivocal. The characters and creatures in Bosch’s paintings are like that. They’re like natural history illustrations. I was in sync with that idea also. I’d painted and sold wildlife images as a teenager and even begun an illustrated book on birds. It was the methodology that came to define the approach to the images and by extension my way of understanding Bill himself. I had no preconceptions about who he was or any of his other work prior to meeting him. There was nothing to ‘colour’ my perception. Frederick Catherwood’s Mayan architectural renderings were the other key image influence and they conformed to the same one-to-one parameters.

 

The most significant effect of this approach involves time, and time was what Ah Pook is Here was all about, both conceptually and literally. The process of observation inherent in the one-to-one method not only experiences the event in space but in time as well. In the case of Ah Pook it meant weeks, months, even years of focusing intently on the same idea. It was that aspect of the process that would ultimately produce the most interesting results. Bill once remarked that ‘No one seems to be asking what words actually are…what their effect is on the human nervous system’. That question applies to images as well. One aspect of the two that fascinated him was with respect to time and consideration of those possibilities formed a subtext to the project. It was a perception of words and images that was unique to Bill Burroughs and the one that would make the most lasting impression on me. The idea that a created image involves more than superficial, i.e. spatial, representation.

Q

The White Review

—  I’m interested about the structural elements of Ah Pook, which seems to be working towards a new visual grammar. Some images resemble realist oil paintings, while others melt across the page, disintegrating into symbols or dreamlike swirls. There is none of the panel-by-panel rigidity of, say, Watchmen by Alan Moore. Was this freeform strategy a response to Burroughs’ penchant for experimental forms?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  The imagery in Ah Pook covered a wide range of ideas. A train full of Mayan Gods for instance travelled through various time zones to end up alongside a carnival in a red brick town outside St Louis. Then they got out…out of the books Mr. Hart was reading on the train. Fact also alternated with fiction. We could be chugging along with Lizard boys in a Mayan City one moment then switch to a history of Immigration Laws in the US or the development of tape recorders and Speech Scramblers. Then switch to a bright red Shrew boy with a hard-on on a bicycle in Palm Beach at the end of the world. Time was what the book was about: defining it, controlling it and moving back and forth within it. It was also about order and chaos. The conventional frames around the scenes would break down when Hart’s controlling methods broke down. The images would not be constrained by the edges of the pages either. At the end it amounted to scenes flowing from one time zone to another. I needed a device to get from Armageddon to the first evolutionary change and came up with ‘bats out of hell’. I filled the bat shapes with the incoming scene, which in turn used birds to get to the next. The last was to be the release of the butterflies of fear, which would lead into the Garden of Delights. These weren’t in the script obviously, but Bill was more than happy with the results. The random juxtaposition of incoming and outgoing images in effect corresponded to his ‘cut-up’ methodology.

 

Watchmen is a remarkable book for the way it also plays with the perception of time, but it relies on a consistent frame size and frame rate to do that. I only read it recently because graphic novels never really interested me. Most of them are comic strips in book form, which wasn’t what Ah Pook was about. I still don’t think there’s been a book that’s done what we tried to do.

Q

The White Review

—  There is a timeless quality to Ah Pook, since fears of apocalypse have been with humankind forever. 9/11, global warming and worldwide economic implosion have provided new manifestations of this lingering phobia. How has your understanding of the work’s significance altered in the years between conception and publication?

A

Malcolm McNeill

—  The end is always nigh. Shitty things will happen this year the same as they did last year. The same as they have for the last 10,000 years. It’s a shitty planet. Ah Pook’s take on the idea was that all human attempts at managing circumstance are unsustainable. That we are subject to an overarching dynamic of control that makes suffering inevitable and that the only possible solution is to end human consciousness altogether. Given the appalling conditions that prevail this isn’t such a bad idea. Conceptually, practically and creatively it was an unusual project but focusing on these ideas opened the book up to a whole other dimension of strangeness. It revealed an insight into the creative process that is unique to my knowledge, and if the images have any significance at all, to me it’s in the way they contributed to that effect. Bill was fascinated by the way words and images appear on occasions to access and convey information outside of the constraints of linear time – that was why he contacted me in the first place. The image of Mr. Hart was the first indication of that possibility but the words and images between them produced all kinds of evidence over the years to support it.

 

The fundamental purpose of writing, Bill said, was to ‘Make it happen’ and in the course of Ah Pook is Here many odd things did actually happen. Time was the subject of the book and real events mirroring those in the book occurred both concurrently and after they were drawn or written. The most obvious is the Mayan/Biblical intersection of 2012 and the idea of apocalypse but there were others which are recounted in my book that were as real as they were impossible to explain. The most significant occurred in 2003 long after Bill was dead and that was what brought the project back to life. In that instance the actual premise of the book appeared to materialise.  Given that it was a book about time and death and the event involved a dead man from 150 years ago, it was sufficient to get me to write an account of it. It confirmed Bill’s preoccupation with making it happen in an unprecedented way.

 

Words and Images are seldom considered from this point of view because there are rarely verifiable instances of it occurring. This event though, and the others that happened are entirely verifiable. What this creative quirk implies I have no idea but it seemed unacceptable to simply ignore it. Regardless of ‘meaning’, by writing about it, a book that had been marginalised and obscured for over thirty years was brought back to life. If not for a dead man that would have almost certainly never have happened.

 

Happened though means more than just the book being published. That too is an example of the in-the-book, out-of-the-book routine. The fact that it was ‘lost’ then found and the images were separated from the narrative is also part of the process of fiction becoming reality. When the Europeans destroyed the Mayan culture the language became undecipherable. The textual narrative was gone. All that remained were the images – the architecture, sculpture, murals and a handful of incomplete books. One of those books inspired Ah Pook is Here: a book of words and images about a book of words and images in which the narrative had been lost. Forty years later Ah Pook is Here has become that book. It has realised its own idea.

Q

The White Review

—  Could you talk us through the event in 2003 that brought the project back to life? Who is the ‘dead man’?
A

Malcolm McNeill

—  The events that inspired Observed While Fallingare too complex to summarise in a few sentences, but what prompted their discovery was the suggestion that I show the artwork from Ah Pook. I could sell it maybe…It might be worth a few bucks. The response from gallery owners was positive, but the work – and the working relationship that went with it – had become so marginalised over the years that they’d never heard of it. In order to show the images they felt some kind of explanation was necessary- an account of why so much Burroughs-related work had simply disappeared. I tried that, but it was such a depressing idea I gave up. Ah Pook to me was a book that had failed. Writing about it would be tantamount to an autopsy. Digging up all the artwork again had sent me right back to the frustrations I’d experienced when the project was abandoned. That’s what images do: they take you back.

 

One thing I remembered while I was sorting through the material was the work of the artist who’d inspired my own for the Mayan imagery. I’d found a half-dozen small illustrations in a book back in 1970 that really made an impression on me. There was no description of the man himself, just his images, credited to ‘Arch. Frederick Catherwood’. Even though I’d given up on the idea of a book ora show, I was in the LA Public Library one time researching other work and decided on the off chance to type in his name. I found one book in the Art section published in 2000 – a complete account of the man’s life with illustrations to match. Reading it was one of the strangest sensations I’ve known. His life was so similar to mine in so many precise ways that it seemed like a joke. There was even a punch line: in 1844 he published a folio edition of the images he and his (American) writer partner John Lloyd Stephens had produced together, with a history of the project and acknowledgement of their friendship.

 

This placed Ah Pook in a far more interesting light. It was no longer a thing of the past in a literal sense but of a very different kind of past. A past that was suddenly remarkably present. It resonated with the underlying premise of the book itself. I really didn’t have any choice but to write about it. Not to make any claims or suggest any particular significance to the events but simply to record them. As a result, the entire project came back to life – an idea also in keeping with the premise of the book.

 

Without that chance discovery Ah Pook is Here would almost certainly have stayed lost. As it is, the prescience of its ideas and the way words and images interacting together confirmed them, is a matter of record.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Patrick Langley is a writer and producer based in London. His work has appeared in The White Review, the TLS, the Lisbon Triennale, Arc Magazine, Arena Homme+ online, Radio 4, Radio 3, Resonance FM, the South London Gallery and elsewhere. He co-runs CAR, an arts podcast.


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