Nathan Wilson: Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson by Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith

Posted by on January 13th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Self Made Hero Press; 176 pp. $23.36 (must be ordered through British booksellers); B&W; paperback (ISBN: 978906838119)

Hunter S. Thompson is one of the most colorful iconoclasts of 20th-century American journalism and a name that conjures fictionalized images more readily than the reality or realities of Thompson’s secluded life.  Popular perceptions created by actors such as Bill Murray or Johnny Depp, and cartoonist Gary Trudeau Uncle Duke caricature evoke the most hyper-exaggerated aspects of Thompson’s world.  Warren Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem from the pages of Transmetropolitan warrants mention here, as well, since he is basically a Hunter-esque figure transported into a not-so-distant future.  Even personas crafted by Thompson himself interpreted through the grotesque and haunting illustrations of Ralph Steadman are larger than life.  Although a number of unauthorized biographies of Thompson written during his life and more published immediately after his suicide in 2005 have attempted to give clarity to this amalgam of enigmatic identities, ultimately, very little divorces Thompson from his extravagant persona.  The most recent effort to unravel Thompson the man from Thompson the myth is Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson by the British team of Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith from Self Made Hero press in England.

Unlike its predecessors, Gonzo is not a biography but more or less a collection of glimpses into Thompson’s life over the years.  Told chronologically through short vignettes, Gonzo relies heavily upon the audience’s already-established familiarity with Thompson’s life.  As such, new readers will likely find the text disjointing and potentially difficult to follow as little to no context is presented.  Nothing new in the form of information is presented; yet, for diehard Thompsonophiles, such as this reviewer, the graphic representation and sequential format provide an intriguing and innovative approach that deserves attention and praise.

Gonzo benefits, in a limited way, from a forward by Thompson’s editor Alan Rinzler.  While luminaries in Thompson’s life such as Steadman, Jann Wenner, Doug Brinkley and a host of others have offered their proverbial “two cents” either on Thompson’s contributions to American literature and journalism or his active role as a renegade political writer in the evolving landscape of American society since the 1960s, Rinzler provides an insightful, albeit disconnected, perspective on Thompson.  Although very informative and offering a number of personal and professional insights into his nearly 40-year relationship with Hunter and his various cadre of associates, Rinzler’s piece fails to contextualize how Bingley and Hope-Smith’s contribution to the Thompson legacy is significant.  Instead, the onus falls entirely upon the writer and artist.

Bingley captures Thompson’s voice, particularly the broken or staccato-paced muttering familiar from Murray’s and Depp’s performances.  At times, particularly in the beginning of the narrative, the style and pacing of the writing mirrors Thompson’s own. Instead of mimicking Steadman’s original designs or copying Trudeau, Hope-Smith’s black-and-white line art is absent exaggeration and casts a much more honest portrait of the man.

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This aids the story in de-mystifying Thompson and distinguishing him from the mythic Gonzo iconography.

What is at times frustrating, however, is the ambiguous nature of the American Dream, the elusive spirit that guided Thompson’s own quests over the generations.  Although Thompson brilliantly documented and chronicled what the American Dream was for him in the 1960s and how it changed throughout the years in a variety of books from Hell’s Angels through more contemporary tomes such as Songs of The Doomed, the same cannot be said of Bingley and Hope-Smith.  Absent the prior experience with Thompson’s own voice on the topic, new readers may simply gloss over the references, and the words might fall silent and lose resonance for those who are well-versed in Thompson’s catalog.

The historical canvas is sometimes awkward.  Seminal events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention or the Kent State shootings of 1970, as well as individuals like Richard Nixon and groups such as the Haight-Ashbury Beat writers and the Hells Angels, appear mostly as laundry-list entries and thus their connection to and impact upon Thompson is undervalued.

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Hence, readers will learn little more about key historical events, people and issues of the 1960s and 1970s that shaped Thompson’s life and work beyond that which they have already gleaned from other sources. Hopefully, the references to these sequences should at least encourage some readers to learn more about incidents such as the 1970 invasion of Cambodia or individuals such as Ed Muskie.

By far the strongest segment of Gonzo is the coverage of Thompson’s role in the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern and the subsequent political demise of Richard M. Nixon.

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Unfortunately, the attention paid to this sequence is followed by a thrifty exploration of Thompson during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s that holds little relevance or the power of the preceding installment.  What precisely “gonzo” is or was and the role Thompson played in creating and shaping the lifestyle and journalistic approach is best left to his own writings. Gonzo serves best as a strong and welcome introduction to Thompson’s life and an incitement for audiences to delve into his canon on their own.

All images © their respective creators

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2 Responses to “Nathan Wilson: Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson by Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith”

  1. […] is a link to my review at the Comics Journal of Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith’s GONZO: A Graphic […]

  2. Nice summing up of my feelings too. Though I really liked the approach, I’m pretty versed in Hunter S Thompson’s exploits. The true strength of the GN lays indeed in wetting people’s appetite for more Thompson although his Gonzo approach could use more emphasizing.