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

Daniel Johnston was a U.S. musician, one of the best known "outsider" musicians, artists whose performances lack professionalism, but are interesting in their authenticity and oddness. In Johnston's case his mental instability stemmed from schizophrenia and manic depression, which occasionally affected his performances, tours as well as his and other people's safety. Yet compared with many amateur musicians, he was actually a very capable guitarist and pianist. His lyrics are touching and he has an ear for writing catchy melodies. It explains why he was 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 boy sang and performed everything on guitar, harmonica and piano. The determined amateur also managed to make the best of his low-fi recordings. If he needed back up vocals he prerecorded them on tape. Johnston used household objects like a tap or baby toys to provide extra sound effects. He also illustrated his own album covers. After a while he had a whole series of cassette albums, which he handed out and sold to people at school and in his neighbourhood. Many songs deal with Johnston's personal obsessions, such as his fear of Satan and love for Jesus, 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. 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 that it's sometimes borderline embarrassing. On 'Hi, How Are You?' the tape deck accidentally fell, causing the music on one track to suddenly speed up. Halfway the song 'Cathy', Johnston suddenly belches, something he just left in. 

Despite his lack of professionalism - both in vocals as well as recording techniques - the songs are well written and composed. Johnston had the luck of actually being able to read music. As such he could present his raw material in a melodic way. Many are memorable sing-a-long tunes and mostly original material, no covers. And when he sang about his loneliness and misery, listeners knew he sang from the heart. His yearnings for love ('Impossible Love', 'Some Things Last A Long Time'), recognition ('The Story of an Artist') and a normal social life ('Despair Came Knocking') are authentic and moving. On some of his records he can be heard talking to girls in high school he liked, but who rarely returned his feelings. One girl, Laurie, inspired several of his songs, also because she later married an undertaker. Another girl, Kathy McCarty, was subject of several of his songs, and recognized his talent early. She later became a member of the alternative rock band Glass Eye and once recorded a cover album with his music titled 'Dead Dog's Eyeball' (Bar/None, 1994). While Johnston is closely associated with melancholic songs, he is actually a versatile performer. Some of his songs can be funny ('Never Relaxed') and upbeat ('Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances'). Others are homages ('Danny Don't Rapp', 'The Beatles', 'Casper'), spiritual hymns ('God', Love Defined') or based on events from his personal life ('Almost Got Hit By A Truck'). He sometimes performs various instruments, but other songs are sung a cappella ('King Kong', 'Devil Town'). Some songs show a certain self-awareness ('I'm A Baby In My Universe', 'Like A Monkey In A Zoo', 'Sorry Entertainer',...). 

'Talking with a torso'.

Slowly but surely, Johnston gained a cult following.  Many listeners who at first were amused or boggled by his music gradually recognized his talent. 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 Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt baring the art work from 'Hi How Are You?' during his band's Nevermind tour. He also placed 'Yip/Jump Music' on number 35 in his personal Album 100. Johnston received further media promotion by being namedropped, praised and covered by alternative 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. Other celebrity fans are Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, film director Harmony Korine, Belgian comedian Wim Helsen, pop musicians David Bowie, Norah Jones and 'Simpsons' creator Matt Groening. The latter also appeared in the 2005 documentary 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston', about Johnston's career and personal life. 

Mental troubles
Despite his cult success, Johnston's 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 least 15 pills of Lithium and Elival a day). At times he suddenly panicked right before or during concerts. His father recalled a time when they took a flight in his single engine airplane and his son suddenly grabbed the keys out of the ignition and flung them out the window, which caused them to crash. Luckily there were no fatalities, but Johnston was instantly taken to a hospital under medical observation. Nevertheless the artist managed to build up a very productive musical career and toured all around the world. 

Hi How Are You?Yip/Jump Music
Covers for the albums 'Hi, How Are You' and 'Yip/Jump Music'.

Apart from music, Johnston also shared a huge love for comics, particularly 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
'High School Band'. 

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, 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. Together with Lucia PamelaUrbanus, Schoolly D., Kurt Cobain, Def P, Serge Buyse, Adam Wallenta, Charlie Watts and Dallas Tamaira, Daniel Johnston is one of the few musicians to have designed his own album covers and make comics-related artwork. 

Advertisement by Daniel Johnston from 1990.

Published comics
Johnston's professional breakthrough as a cartoonist took a bit longer. 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.

Final years and death
Daniel Johnston retired from touring in 2018. Fans feared that health issues might be the cause, seeing that Johnston suffered from obesity, diabetes and was a notorious chain smoker and candy eater. On 11 September 2019 Johnston passed away from a heart attack. He was 58 years old. 

Legacy and influence
Daniel Johnston leaves a powerful and moving body of work behind. Few professional musicians can match his authentic sound, heartbreaking lyrics and simplicity. Few fellow amateur musicians have been able to avoid cacophony. And he could be proud of the fact that he was one of the few teenage dreamers to actually make a career. While he never entered the hit parade - something fellow outsider musician Tiny Tim did manage in 1968 with 'Tip-Toe Thru the Tullips' - Johnston's songs still made a considerable cultural impact. Various musicians covered him, even releasing a full-out tribute album: 'The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered' (2004). Some of his songs have been used on soundtracks and his album 'Hi, How Are You?' was adapted into a 2009 video game. His classic song 'The Story of an Artist' (1982) was used in a 2018 TV commercial for Apple. 

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 comic artist Ricardo Cavolo drew a comic strip homage to Johnston in 2013. Other cartoonists who fans 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
'Space Ducks'.

Series and books by Daniel Johnston you can order today:


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