Space Ducks by Daniel Johnston
'Space Ducks - An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness'

Daniel Johnston is an American singer/songwriter and artist. He is one of the best-known "outsider" musicians, artists whose performances lack professionalism, but are interesting in their authenticity and oddness. Like all of them Johnston too is an eccentric amateur. His mental instability stems from schizophrenia and manic depression which occasionally affected his performances, tours as well as his and other people's safety. Compared with many amateur musicians Johnston is actually a very capable guitarist and pianist. His lyrics are touching and he has an ear for writing catchy melodies. It explains why he is one of the few to make a career out of it. Johnston gained a cult following in the 1980s, which grew significantly over the decades. Many alternative musicians and rock bands have praised him and covered his work. Along with Lucia Pamela Johnston is also one of two outsider musicians who once made a comic book. Most were scribbled inside his personal diaries, but in 2012 he published a full-length comic book: 'Space Ducks'. 

Early life 
Daniel Johnston was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California, but raised in West Virginia. He loved comics, cartoons and pop music from an early age. In the late 1970s, while still in high school, he started recording music in his parents' home in Austin, Texas. He taped his songs on little cassettes and constructed them like real albums. The eager boy sang and performed everything on guitar, harmonica and piano. If he needed back up vocals he prerecorded them on tape. He used household objects like a tap or baby toys to provide extra sound effects. Johnston also illustrated his own album covers. After a while he had a whole series of cassette albums together, which he handed out and sold to people at school and in his neighbourhood. All have bad audio quality, clumsy editing and unwanted background noises. Sometimes his mother can be heard yelling to keep it down. Everything is performed with a childlike naivité, so intimate at times that it's sometimes borderline embarrassing. Many songs deal with Johnston's personal obsessions, such as his fear of Satan and love for Jesus Christ, the Beatles, 'Casper the Friendly Little Ghost' and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's 'Captain America'. Other deal with more universal emotions, such as lovesickness, rejection, alienation and despair. 


'Talking with a torso'

Breakthrough
Slowly but surely Johnston gained a cult following.  Many listeners who at first were amused or boggled by his music gradually recognized his talent. Despite his lack of professionalism - both in vocals as well as recording techniques - the songs are well written and composed. Many are memorable sing-a-long tunes and mostly original material, not covers. His yearnings for love and a social life are authentic and moving. Johnston had the luck of actually being able to read music. As such he could present his raw material in a melodic way, often better performed than his vocals. By 1985 MTV devoted a special around him, which increased his media attention. Several of his cassette albums, such as 'Songs About Pain' (1980), 'Hi, How Are You?' (1983) and 'Yip/Jump Music' (1983), later received a proper CD release and are now seen as classics. In 1992 Johnston received more public attention when Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt baring the art work from 'Hi How Are You?' during their Nevermind tour. Cobain also placed 'Yip/Jump Music' on number 35 in his personal Album 100. Johnston was also praised by musicians such as Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Beck, Eels, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Sparklehorse, Jad Fair, fIREHOSE, Mercury Rev, The Butthole Surfers, Lana Del Rey, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth and The Flaming Lips, who all covered songs by him. Other celebrity fans are Johnny Depp, David Bowie, Norah Jones and Matt Groening. The latter also appeared in the 2005 documentary 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston', about Johnston's career and personal life. 

Johnston could be proud of being one of the few teenage dreamers to actually make a career. In fact: he is so far the only outsider musician whose work has been commercialized. In 2009 'Hi How Are You' was turned into a video game, while his song 'The Story of an Artist' (1982) was used in a TV commercial for Apple. Yet his mental issues remained an obstacle. His parents, friends and relatives always kept a close eye on him, because he could be unpredictable. He spent months in mental hospitals and took a lot of medication. At times he suddenly panicked right before or during concerts. His father recalled a time when they took a helicopter flight and his son suddenly took the steering wheel causing them to crash.  Luckily there were no fatalities. Johnston's fondness for candy and smoking have also led to serious health issues. Nevertheless the artist managed to build up a very productive musical career and toured all around the world. In 2018 Johnston announced his retirement. 

Hi How Are You?Yip/Jump Music

Comics
Apart from music Johnston also shares a huge love for comics, particularly those starring Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's creation 'Captain America', as well as Harvey Comics. At the age of eight he started drawing comics of his own. Some were about his cat, other based on the Bible or fan fiction about Captain America, King Kong, Godzilla or Casper the Friendly Little Ghost. They were typically superhero stories, where good battles evil. Johnston gave them the title 'Cool Comics Presents'. The boy also doodled in his school books and Bible lesson books. He kept personal diaries where he scribbled down cartoons, comics, poems, lyrics and personal reflections. Some pages have images from magazines and comic books pasted upon them. During puberty drawing helped him get over his depressions. One comic strip was 'High School Band', which expressed his feelings about becoming a trumpeter in his high school band. The two-page story ends with a cut-out image from a 'Casper' comic strip, where the little ghost buys a guitar. 

High School Band by Daniel Johnston

After high school Johnston attended art classes at the East Liverpool, Ohio branch of Kent State University. He tried to get a college degree in this field too, but his mental problems put a stop to that. Johnston acknowledged that he actually moved to Austin, Texas, because of its thriving underground comix scene. A self-made artist in every way he also illustrated most of his own album covers. In 1990 he drew a special promotional comic featuring himself and his signature character, Jeremiah the frog, which was inspired by the amphibian in Three Dog Night's hit song 'Joy The World'. The comic advertised his then recent album '1990'. Jeremiah the frog has become Johnston's official mascot. The animal is often seen on his concert posters, T-shirts and other associated merchandising, making him one of the few music mascots designed by the musical artist himself.


Advertisement by Daniel Johnston from 1990.

Published comics
Johnston's professional breakthrough as a cartoonist took a bit longer than his musical breakthrough. It wasn't until 1997 when he made his first comic book, a crossover with long-time admirers Ron English and Jack Medicine, as part of the Hyperjinx Tricycle project. Even then it still took until March 2012 before he published a complete comic book of his own: 'Space Ducks - An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness'. The story features an anthropomorphic duck, General Duck, who battles Satan in a sci-fi adventure. The book was released through BOOM! Studios and combined with a compilation CD of the same name.

Graphic influence
When Matt Groening hosted the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in 2010 he invited Johnston to be one of the performing acts and drew a flyer featuring a caricature of him. Spanish comics artist Ricardo Cavolo drew a comic strip homage to Johnston in 2013. Other cartoonists who are fan of Johnston's music are Kamagurka and Kim Duchateau.

Books about Daniel Johnston
For people interested in Johnston's life, career and artwork Tarssa Yazdani and Don Goede's book 'The Life, Art & Music of Daniel Johnston' (2009) is highly recommended. 

Space Ducks by Daniel Johnston

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