subota, 15. rujna 2012.

Malcolm McNeill - The Lost Art of 'Ah Pook Is Here'

The Lost Art of Ah Pook

Projekt iz '70-ih Ah Pook Is Here bio je zamišljen kao tekstualno-likovna suradnja W. Burroughsa i ilustratora Malcolma McNeilla, no nije nikad dovršena. U međuvremenu se pojavila knjiga samo s Burroughsovim tekstom a sada Fantagraphics objavljuje i McNeillovu "polovicu" - stotinjak ilustracija, slika i skica (bez teksta). Usput je Fantagraphics objavio i knjigu Observed While Falling, McNeillova sjećanja na cijelu priču oko te polu-uspješne suradnje. Ilustracije su iznimne - spoj jesenskog lišća, fotokopija filma i spaljenog interneta.
Ah Pook je inače majanski bog smrti a priča prepliće judeo-kršansku i majansku verziju svijeta, govori o reinkarnaciji, vremenu, moći, kontroli i propadanju.


Over the years of our collaboration, Malcolm McNeill produced more than a hundred pages of artwork. However, owing partly to the expense of full color reproductions, and because the book (Ah Pook is Here) falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book nor that of a comix publication, there have been difficulties with the arrangements for the complete work. The book is in fact unique . . . –William S. Burroughs, 1978

The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel, Fantagraphics; 2012.

Images from the legendary unpublished Ah Pook graphic novel.
In 1970, William S. Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill began a small collaborative project on a comic entitled The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, which appeared in the first four issues of Cyclops, England’s first comics magazine for an adult readership. Soon after, Burroughs and McNeill agreed to collaborate on a book-length meditation on time, power, and control, and corruption that evoked the Mayan codices and specifically, the Mayan god of death, Ah Pook. Ah Pook is Here was to include their character Mr. Hart, but stray from the conventional comics form to explore different juxtapositions of images and words.
Ah Pook was never finished in its intended form. In a 1979 prose collection that included only the words from the collaboration, Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts (Calder, 1979), Burroughs explains in the preface that they envisioned the work to be “one that falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book nor that of a comix publication.” Rather, the work was to include “about a hundred pages of artwork with text (thirty in full-color) and about fifty pages of text alone.” The book was conceived as a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative. It was conceived as 120 continuous pages that would ‘fold out.’ Such a book was, at the time, unprecedented, and no publisher was willing to take a chance and publish a “graphic novel.”
However, Malcolm McNeill created nearly a hundred paintings, illustrations, and sketches for the book, and these, finally, are seeing the light of day in The Lost Art of Ah Pook. (Burroughs’ text will not be included.) McNeill himself is an exemplary craftsman and visionary painter whose images have languished for over 30 years, unseen. Even in a context divorced from the words, they represent a stunning precursor to the graphic novel form to come. Sara J. Van Ness contributes an historical essay chronicling the long history of Burroughs’ and McNeill’s work together, including its incomplete publishing history with Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press, the excerpt that ran in Rush magazine, and the text that was published without pictures.

 17-page excerpt (download 3.1 MB PDF):






Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me, Fantagraphics; 2012.

The artist's memoir on the making of Ah Pook is Here.
Observed While Falling is an account of the personal and creative interaction that defined the collaboration between the writer William S. Burroughs and the artist Malcolm McNeill on the graphic novel Ah Pook is Here. The memoir chronicles the events that surrounded it, the reasons it was abandoned and the unusual circumstances that brought it back to life. McNeill describes his growing friendship with Burroughs and how their personal relationship affected their creative partnership. The book is written with insight and humor, and is liberally sprinkled with the kind of outré anecdotes one would expect working with a writer as original and eccentric as Burroughs. It confirms Burroughs’ and McNeill’s prescience, the place of Ah Pook in relation to the contemporary graphic novel, and its anticipation of the events surrounding 2012. The book offers new insights into Burroughs’ working methods as well as how the two explored the possibilities of words and images working together to form the ambitious literary hybrid that they didn't know, at the time, was a harbinger of the 21st century “graphic novel.” McNeill expounds on the lessons of that experience to bring Ah Pook into present time. In light of current events, Ah Pook is unquestionably Here now.
Observed While Falling presents a unique view of the creative process that will be of interest to artists, writers and general readers alike. A perspective evoked by a literary experiment that has endured for forty years and still continues to “happen.”

19-page excerpt (download 391 KB PDF):


 Web stranica obiju knjiga


Ah Pook Is Here was a "Word-Image" collaboration between author WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS and artist MALCOLM MC NEILL that began in 1970 when Mc Neill was in his final year of art school. There was no market for such a book at that time and after seven years of work it was abandoned. The images were placed in storage, where they remained for twenty-five years.
Ah Pook was prescient both in its narrative content and form. It anticipated the controlling methods of the current Western political ideology and the intersection of the Mayan and Judeo-Christian temporal worldviews implicit in the events of "2012". It also proposed apocalypse as the inevitable outcome. As a visual narrative in book form it prefigured the Graphic Novel.
In 1979 the text of Ah Pook Is Here was published alone in the hope of attracting a publisher for the combined text-image version. When it became clear that no publisher would commit to the idea, the project ended and the collaboration of Ah Pook Is Here essentially disappeared. It would be thirty years before the unlikeliest of circumstances would revive it and a publisher would be found.
Even though Ah Pook had not been completed, FANTAGRAPHICS proposed a book showing the way the collaboration had worked and what it had tried to achieve. Burroughs' text and Mc Neill's images would finally be reconciled in the form in which they had been conceived. Regrettably the idea would not be realized. The Burroughs Estate would not allow the use of the text and Word and Image would remain separated. This time it was the words that were lost, but given the timeliness of the subject, and in acknowledgement of its role as seminal graphic novel, Fantagraphics decided to publish the images alone.
The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here now conveys a larger narrative. The images become the record of the collaboration itself, the difficulties it encountered and the very different ideas it set out to explore. In his summary Mc Neill describes the unique subtext that motivated the relationship and how Burroughs' unusual view of the creative process added a deeper sense of purpose to the project. As a book, the idea was a failure, but as a literary experiment it was remarkably successful. Word and Image between them would produce extraordinary evidence to support Burroughs' underlying perspective and as Mc Neill demonstrates, their ultimate separation is in fact but another affirmation of what the interaction really set out to prove.
SARA J. VAN NESS (Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel) contributes an historical evaluation of the project and considers the practical and creative issues confronting a book of that kind at the time it was conceived. She examines the concept of "genre" as an obstacle to the way the book was perceived and the nature of authorship in the context of Word-Image collaboration.
The Lost Art is an archive of all the work produced for Ah Pook Is Here including preliminary sketches, complete and incomplete pages, notes and correspondence and images for other Burroughs's texts that Mc Neill created during that time.


Lost Art of Ah Pook Main

OObserved While Falling MainBSERVED WHILE FALLING:

Observed while Falling is the account of the Word-Image Novel Ah Pook Is Here, an idea conceived by writer WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS and artist MALCOLM MC NEILL in London in 1970, abandoned after seven years, lost for twenty-five, then rediscovered and published four decades after it began.
Ah Pook Is Here was a book about Time; the ways in which it is perceived, the methods of controlling it and the possibilities of traveling within it. Burroughs contrasted the Judeo-Christian temporal model with that of the ancient Maya and proposed a fictional modern-day reenactment of the actual confrontation between these two views that had occurred five hundred years ago. It was a story in which characters from the past using the formulae within sacred texts traveled through Time to determine the outcome of that future event.
William Burroughs was not a conventional writer and Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God, is no ordinary character. The interaction between them would result in an actual manifestation of the ideas they evoked. An intersection of the Mayan and Judeo-Christian temporal views is now implicit in the events surrounding "2012", and just as it had been foreseen in the book, Apocalypse is considered by some to be the inevitable conclusion. The context in which these events occur was also anticipated by the book: the invasive system of Control devised by its protagonist John Stanley Hart is reflected in the very real methods of the current Western political ideology.
Burroughs was a visionary author; he had the ability to "write ahead". It was his contention that the fundamental purpose of writing was "to make it happen" and in light of recent events, Ah Pook Is Here certainly validated that idea. It confirmed his sense of the inherent potential of words: their ability to access and convey information beyond the constraints of linear time.
Ah Pook was a project in which images were added to the mix. They became the catalyst for increasing the likelihood of such an idea occurring. In the course of the collaboration inexplicable real events did in fact "happen" that appeared to mirror those in the book. The most significant of these, however, would not be realized until many years after the project had been abandoned and after Burroughs himself was dead. The unprecedented nature of that event and its direct bearing on the premise of Ah Pook Is Here is what led to Observed While Falling being written.
Mc Neill was 23 years old when Ah Pook began. Given Burroughs' intense literary persona and dramatic personal history the project represented a daunting formative learning experience. It was a creative collaboration that would nevertheless endure for almost a decade, during which time Burroughs asked him to create images for several of his other texts and became godfather to his son. It was a friendship and understanding that could only be made possible through such a process of interaction and allowed for a unique view of the writer's working philosophy and sometimes, idiosyncratic methods. The first section of Observed While Falling recalls the history of that relationship, which lasted until the author's death in 1997. It also demonstrates the added prescience of Ah Pook Is Here as a Graphic Novel ahead of its time
The second chapter describes the unusual circumstances surrounding the revival of Ah Pook Is Here and the implications of the narrative with respect to current events. It considers the Mayan view of Time from that perspective and reveals the way words and images working together were able to make the character of Ah Pook himself actually "happen."
The last section completes the journey through Time and recounts the process of achieving the publication of Ah Pook Is Here. It describes how the images recovered the collaboration from obscurity and continued to express its fictional narrative in real terms more than thirty years after they were first conceived.


… Confrontational revolutionary groups were a feature of the early seventies. Germany had its Baader Meinhoff gang, Italy had its Red Brigades and England had its Angry one: a group of young urban guerillas that had decided to confront the status quo head on. They'd bombed the homes of judges, high-ranking police officers and politicians as well as banks and army facilities. And as an indication of feminist solidarity they'd also blown up a 'dolly-bird' boutique in London, and a BBC broadcast van in protest of The Miss World competition. Their perceived form of anarchy, which amounted to at least 25 bombs* so far, had now run unchecked for over a year and the police were at their wit's end trying to catch them.
When combined with the ongoing round of anti Vietnam war demonstrations, free rock concerts, skinhead mayhem and all-round drug taking, blowing up the place was a clear indication that the post-war baby boomers were getting out of hand.
To top things off, the OZ Magazine 'School Kids' Issue had just been published: "...the most brazen and disgusting attempt to corrupt young boys and girls yet made in Britain."*
The OZ *editors had handed over one of the issues to a half dozen teenagers and given them free rein to do whatever they wanted. The result was a criminal charge not only of producing an "obscene article" but of conspiring to "corrupt the morals of young children."
A star witness for the prosecution was England's beloved Rupert Bear. A children's comic book character who'd been around since the '20's. Rupert was (and still is) a human child with a bear's head who lived with his mum and dad and had all kinds of adventures in a place called Nutwood. His pals were also human, some with animal heads, others not.
Rupert wore plaid pants, a look that would later be adopted by punk rockers. Right now though his pants were off. His bear's head had been pasted onto a human body drawn by Robert Crumb. Some teenage pervert had given our Rupert a woody for God's sake!
The magazine was so innocuous it was hardly worth buying, but the resulting obscenity trial, would be the longest in English history. The three editors receiving hefty jail sentences and getting their hair cut off.*
Given the number of erections that were starting to crop up in Ah Pook the event was a caution, but in the light of the trial's final outcome not something to be concerned about. It was spring after all, erections were everywhere. And in case I was unfamiliar with what one looked like, Bill suggested another field trip.
He got in shape everyday with a spell in his Orgone Box, an incongruous, Tardis-like structure in his bedroom, oddly reminiscent of an outhouse.
It was a homemade affair comprised of layers of organic and inorganic materials - wood and metal basically, with some rabbit fur thrown on top for good measure - with a door and a seat inside like a privy. Like a privy, the door also had a hole cut in it, presumably to let light in or alert others if it was already occupied. (Ideally the subject should be naked.) The purpose of the device was to accumulate orgone, the quintessential energy named by its discover, Willhelm Reich. A normal healthy flow of Orgone said Reich, was expressed through orgasm. The more flow the better.
Bill swore by its effects. Sometimes after twenty minutes in the box he said, he could "go off without even touching it." He invited me to try.
I sat in a couple of times, but fortunately or not, the way it is when you don't have your own piano to practice on, I wasn't able to manage a spontaneous outburst.
On his advice I'd read Reich's books, and when the documentary WR:Mysteries of the Organism opened, he suggested we check it out. It was the first time an erection had been shown to the general public he said. "It's historical!"
The scene in question starred the Chicago Plaster Casters. A couple of art gals who'd made a career out of casting the upright cocks of rock stars. Seeing a fifteen-foot, grainy hard on, on-screen was a novelty, but somehow anti-climactic.
"So what did you think?" asked Bill.
"Great." I said "It's a start."
Not long after he decided to clarify what kind of "start" I might have in mind…


…Compared to what he'd talked about at our first meeting, it was anti-climactic and as far as a book was concerned, as difficult as it had been with Cyclops. Apart from Percy Jones and Hiroshima, there were no real scenes, just a long exposition of Hart's methods. Methods that now included many references to artists and drawing - an idea that was
When I was working on Cyclops I really knew nothing about Burroughs, even so, I'd somehow made Mr. Hart look just like him. Mr. Hart the bad guy that is.
Hart the newspaper tycoon, who was loosely based on Randolph Hearst, came from a wealthy background, went to Harvard to study the Maya then set out to discover the secrets of control. In our first meeting Burroughs revealed that he too came from a wealthy background and had also studied the Mayans at Harvard. He too was fascinated by the control system contained within their books.
Writers naturally create surrogates of themselves in their fiction but this seemed a bit obvious. Especially since the character now looked like him. Burroughs' alter ego was also contemporary; the events that precipitate his downfall occur in 1970. The author was writing himself into his own book.
With all the references to artists and drawing, he now appeared to be writing me in as well. He'd even introduced a 23 year-old protagonist. The line between fact and fiction was somewhat fuzzy here. Who exactly was talking to who?
It was oddly disconcerting but then who was I to argue? In the book, or out of the book, my role was the same. Mr. Hart/Mr Burroughs was quite clear on that - in caps no less:
Drawing a "whiff" of something that couldn't be shown seemed like a tricky proposition, so I decided to let it slide for a while. Along with the "computerized associational networks" on which the "whiffs" were to be "hinted" at. Addressing the matter of Hart's age also seemed like a problem for later. According to the time-line he was at least 108 years old now and still going strong.
My first assignment I decided was to look for viruses.
Guy's Hospital Gordon Museum is the oldest and largest of its kind. Medical memorabilia have been accumulating there since the 1800's. Since it's only accessible to the 'trade', a medical student friend sneaked me in as an 'Operating Theatre Technician'.
We were the only visitors. Along with the bones of giants, dwarves and several headed babies we were treated to the preserved remains of murder victims, bizarre suicides, dissected criminals, abnormal births and human anomalies of every description. Pickled organs and body-parts in jars rounded out the show.
Anatomy was something I'd studied in Art school and I'd taught myself taxidermy as a teenager*. Guts and dead bodies, didn't bother me. This was bodies from a different point of view though: Mr. Hart's point of view. These images were to be recorded and manipulated in order to create fear and death. There was certainly evidence of it here.
The skull of a woman caved in with an axe : the stomach of a suicide who'd swallowed scalding water; the arm and shoulder of a man, flash-fried when it had touched the third rail. In terms of the assignment there was also plenty of disease, but disease often leaves little of itself behind. Viruses are self-serving microscopic termites that burrow into flesh and bone until all that's left are the ravaged remains of the victim. Even those would disappear if not for formaldehyde and extremely competent sculptors.
A hanged man had been sliced into sections horizontally from head to foot then perfectly modeled in wax. (Even the rope tear on his neck had been faithfully reproduced.) Studying the slices close up was a disquieting sensation. Nothing in the intricate arrangement of tissues was extraneous or arbitrary. Everything worked toward a single purpose: to sustain life. All of which was beyond our comprehension or control.
Viewed on a larger scale, the human body had the mystery and complexity of an alien landscape. On a molecular level, unknown to the sum of its parts, it was accident and opportunity waiting to happen. Manipulating such forces would be a monumental undertaking, as Mr. Hart would discover. Drawing pictures to express that idea likewise. What death looked like was apparently a secondary consideration. As Bill had indicated, it was about drawing out "…the feeling"…


…San Francisco also had its own Angry Brigade: The Symbionese Liberation Army. A couple of days after I arrived, they kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
In April, she helped them rob a San Francisco bank. In May, a S.W.A.T. team gunned down leader Donald De Freeze and five other members in Los Angeles. Patty wasn't among them. The San Francisco cops and the FBI stepped up the search encouraging people to report unusual characters moving into their neighborhoods.
A couple of days later they showed up at my place.
Nob Hill was a fairly respectable area, but I was surprised that someone considered me worth a call. Maybe it was the odd hours I kept. I preferred working at night. When the downstairs doorbell rang around lunchtime I was still in bed.
As the two men came up the stairs it occurred to me they might be Jehovah's Witnesses. I was struck by the plaid pants. Not something you see very often in England I thought. "FBI" announced one of them. Especially on a police officer.
They came in, arranged themselves side by side beside the door and flipped their badges. Reference material I thought. I leaned in for a closer look.
"We're making enquiries about the Patty Hearst kidnapping," said one of them. "Have you seen any strange or unusual people in the building lately?"
A tricky question under the circumstances.
"No" I said.
He handed me a stack of about thirty black and white photographs secured with a rubber band; about the size of baseball cards; mostly pictures of black guys. "Have you seen any of these people?" he asked.
Things were beginning to blur. I explained that I'd only just arrived in San Francisco but he insisted I look anyway.
"Well this is Donald DeFreeze" I said. "He's dead."
"That's OK," he said, "just keep looking."
Which I did, until his partner suddenly pointed to the wall above my drawing table and announced:
"That's Patty Hearst's grandfather! And so's that! And that's Hearst Castle. And...." And he was right. There were also pictures of cops, terrorists, atomic bombs and dead people. And replica guns on the table.
When I looked back they were both reaching for the hips of those pants.
It was an odd sensation. Two versions of a similar idea were in the same room together; one real, one imaginary. The cops were part of the real part and so were the guns. But then again, even that was strange. I was English. Cops with guns was something I'd only read about, or seen in the movies. And I'd never seen cops in plaid pants. It was like a dream. For a moment I didn't feel like I was anywhere at all.
"What exactly do you do?" asked one of them.
"I'm an artist." I said, "working on a book...based on Randolph Hearst...Randolph Hearst senior... a kind of science fiction William Burroughs...he wrote it years ago..."
There was a beat then the moment passed. The idea went its separate ways. The hands came off the pants.
One of them pointed to the Ah Pook artwork – the picture of the vigilantes running through the woods.
"What's happening there?" he asked.
"It's a time in the future," I said, "when law and order breaks down."
He studied it for a while then turned to me with a concerned, knowing look.
" Frightening." he said.
As they left, he handed me an FBI wanted poster. Of the five people shown only one was still alive - Patty Hearst. "If you see any of these people let us know." he said. At this point anything's possible I thought.
There was no cryptic advice this time, but I did have a second quote for the back of the book:
"Frightening" - The FBI …


…The money ran out in no time. I was flipping a coin sometimes to decide whether to buy milk for tea, or a pack of cigarettes for the day. Inevitably I had to look for freelance work. It was my first New York summer and the apartment had no air conditioner. It also had no table. When I finally picked up illustrations for National Lampoon and Marvel Comics, I had to paint them resting on my knees. Bill suggested I work at the loft whenever I needed, and gave me a key.
He'd started a monthly column for Crawdaddy Magazine called Time of the Assassins and for a few months I also supplied illustrations for that.
I was at the loft one evening finishing up one of them when he came home from a dinner party. He'd had a few drinks naturally. He came over and placed a piece of hash on the desk.
"Here! I got a present for you!"
"Well thanks Bill. I'll smoke it later."
"No man! It's not dope! It's aphrode-e-e-e-siac! Ted Morgan gave me a bunch of it. Got it down in South America. Says it really works."*
"Great! I'll save it for a special occasion."
We talked about the picture for a while then he wandered off. Five minutes later I noticed it was very quiet. As I was packing up my stuff to leave I saw the back of his head on the other side of the kitchen counter. He still had his hat on. It wasn't moving. I figured he'd fallen asleep in the chair so I crept over to wake him.
When I came around the corner of the counter, I found him very much awake… sitting in his boxer shorts staring intently down at his crotch.
"Not-a-fu-cking-twitch!" he said.
Another time when I stopped by I found him busy at the stove. Plastic shopping bags covered the kitchen counter. He'd read an article in High Times magazine proposing that opiates could be extracted from lettuce. Lactuco virosa - wild lettuce - does have such properties. Head lettuce from Chinatown does not. Nevertheless, Bill had decided to commit himself to an all day vigil over a saucepan to prove things one way or the other, watching pounds of lettuce distill down to a black tar. When I asked him later how it had turned out, he said that it had tasted like shit and it hadn't done shit. As always, he knew whereof he spoke.
It made sense that he would encounter the occasional dud. His quest for mind-altering chemicals covered a territory few if any, have dared countenance. In the course of his life, he sampled just about everything in the pharmacy and washed it down with just about everything in the liquor store. That the endeavor resulted in one of the most far-reaching imaginations in literary history is testament to his methods.
Given the fact that he would continue to create to the ripe old age of 83, his liver by rights should be in The Smithsonian…


…The unassembled nature of the artwork wasn't the real issue. Any publisher could see from looking at the dummy and a couple of finished frames what the book would look like. The real problem was content – more specifically the translation of word content into image. "Words imply. A painting has to specify." It wasn't the Martian's arm that was in question.
As Peter put it euphemistically: "... this project is too far out and/or expensive for the more conventional publishing houses." Meaning: the explicit nature of the artwork precludes any mainstream publishing investment whatsoever. Or: the moment I'd started making pictures of Bill Burroughs' ideas, Ah Pook had been dead in the water. It ended at the beginning.
In keeping with the reciprocal nature of the process, I'd done exactly what Mr. Hart had told me to do : "GO OUT AND GET THE PICTURES. AND ESPECIALLY THE ONES WE CAN'T PRINT." The book had demonstrated its basic contention: the Images of Sex and Death are tightly censored by the status quo in order to assert Control.
Job done. Q.E.D. after seven years of work.
Cheaply produced comics and magazines that feature this kind of material are tolerated because they're marginal publications. Similarly, the porno industry, being a fundamental part of the status quo, is allowed to publish so called 'explicit' material, but that environment is also tightly controlled.
Ah Pook fell into neither of these categories. It wasn't cheap to produce and the material was far too intellectual to pass as pornography. Porno and ideas are antithetical. 'Less plot more twat' is axiomatic to the idiom.
Despite the reality being the sine qua non of all mammalian life, representations of penile erections shall not be found in any section of Barnes and Noble Booksellers. It's likely to be that way for a long time to come. It was only a few years earlier, that Bob Guccione had shocked America by revealing that women had pubic hair. Penthouse was a landmark publication, but in order to soften the blow, it still had to photograph the precious four square-inches of turf as Lenny Bruce put it, through a diffusing screen.
Hard on its heels came Richard Nixon's "War on Pornography". The year we signed the contract with Straight Arrow, he declared that so long as he was "… in the White House there [would] be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life." Nixon had a particular problem with gay folks. In San Francisco he said, they were everywhere. Not "… just in the ratty part of town", but in the "upper classes" as well. It was "… the most faggy goddamned thing you can imagine." So pervasive in fact, that he wouldn't " shake hands with anybody from San Francisco."
And as for The Comics Code Authority:
General Standards Part C:
1) Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
2) Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
3) All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.
4) Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Women as human skin suits becomes a complicated issue within these restraints - even if their "physical qualities" aren't exaggerated. Quality is an impossible thing to illustrate anyway, although it could be argued that few things are as honest as an erection: It's one of the sincerest indications of feeling and intent. (At that time at least. Viagra would ultimately put paid to the idea) To complicate matters, the erections depicted in Ah Pook were mostly being passed around amongst guys - some of whom were part something else. A factor that goes beyond the pale as far as obscenity is concerned and one which further diminished the possibilities of mainstream investment.
Regardless of the censorship issues, at the time there simply wasn't a market for illustrated books of that nature at all. It would take George Lucas to establish that. After Star Wars, full color, illustrated fantasy, science fiction books and magazines became a billion dollar industry almost overnight. A market that increased commensurate with cheaper and cheaper means of reproduction.
But that was in 1977. By then I'd already quit…

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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm McNeill —  That’s a very long story. I’ve written Observed While Falling to 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm McNeill —  It’s as complete as it will ever be. I worked for seven years on Ah Pook is Here and nine years on a book about Ah Pook is Here. That’s it. I’m done with it.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe White Review —  Does it matter to you how people categorise Ah Pook? The term ‘graphic novel’ was invented partly as a marketing tool.
AMalcolm McNeill —  It doesn’t bother me at all. Whatever it’s called, I’m done with it.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe 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?
AMalcolm 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.
QThe White Review —  Could you talk us through the event in 2003 that brought the project back to life? Who is the ‘dead man’?
AMalcolm McNeill —  The events that inspired Observed While Falling are 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 or a 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.

Interview with Malcolm Mc Neill

Artist Speaks about Collaborating with Burroughs on Ah Pook Is Here

In 1970 Malcolm Mc Neill received a phone call from a man who asked to meet “the guy who knows how to draw me.” The caller was William S. Burroughs. Mc Neill had recently illustrated a Burroughs text called “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” for the underground paper Cyclops. Burroughs had been struck by how much Mr. Hart resembled him, even though he had never met Mc Neill and, as it turned out, Mc Neill knew relatively little about Burroughs. The young artist accepted an invitation to the flat Burroughs shared with Brion Gysin at Number 8, Duke Street, London. When he arrived, Burroughs served him bacon and discussed extending their collaboration into a book. Mc Neill was just 23, Burroughs was 56, and the project — tentatively titled Ah Puch — would last for seven more years.
The Unspeakable Mr Hart, Collaboration by William Burroughs and Malcolm Mc NeillIn his 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, Burroughs described Ah Puch.
Robert Palmer: You’re working on a comic book?
Burroughs: Yes. It is a comic book in that it has whole sequences of actions in pictures. But there are also about 60 pages of text, so it’s something between a comic book and an illustrated book. Malcolm Mc Neill is doing the artwork. It is most closely similar to the actual format of the Mayan Codices, which was an early comic book. [...]
In this book that I am doing with Malcolm, there are lots of sections which go just like film, but the text is really still essential. There are 60 pages of text; we’re already having problems translating that into images — not that we can’t do it, but that it would take 300 pages to do it all. If we took every sentence and translated it into pictures, we’d have a huge book which would be way out of our budget.
Burroughs also enthused about Mc Neill’s work to scholar Eric Mottram in the 1973 BBC interview transcribed in Snack.
Mottram: Any sign of a publication date for Ah Pook Is Here?
Burroughs: Well, I’d say another year. Malcolm McNeil [sic] is doing the illustrations. He’s done some very good work. He’s been working on it for about two years now. The drawings he’s doing now are better than the ones in Cyclops, all new drawings and they’re in color. He works very slowly and he’s done 30 or 40 pages; so in order to finish it, Straight Arrow is paying his way out to San Francisco and he’s going to work with them on it. My part is more or less finished. I did the text.
Mottram: It works very well, even without the pictures.
Burroughs: I wish I could show you the pictures.
Unfortunately, it would not prove easy to show anyone the pictures. The book’s publisher, Straight Arrow, folded in 1974. Mc Neill followed Burroughs to New York and the two continued to collaborate on the project. It was impossible, however, to find a publisher who would pay to print the project with all its imagery. In 1979 Burroughs finally decided to publish the text by itself as Ah Pook Is Here. In an introduction to that edition, Burroughs explained:
Ah Pook Is Here was originally planned as a picture book modeled on the surviving Mayan codices. Malcolm Mc Neill was to do the illustrations and I was to provide the text. Over the years of our collaboration there were a number of changes in the text, and Malcolm Mc Neill produced more than a hundred pages of artwork. However, owing partly to the expense of full color reproduction, and because the book falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book, nor that of a comix publication, there have been difficulties with the arrangements for the complete work — which calls for about a hundred pages of artwork with text (thirty in full color) and about fifty pages of text alone.
One view of Burroughs’ career holds that, after exploring the cut-up in the 1960s, Burroughs ran dry in the 1970s. What the story of Ah Pook Is Here makes clear, however, is that Burroughs had actually taken the cut-up to the next level by working not just with texts and layouts but with images. In his essay “Les Voleurs,” Burroughs made this point himself by applying the cut-up’s rhetoric of appropriation and thievery to the collaboration with Mc Neill.
Look at the surrealist moustache on the Mona Lisa. Just a silly joke? Consider where this joke can lead. I had been working with Malcolm Mc Neill for five years on an illustrated book entitled Ah Pook Is Here, and we used the same idea: Hieronymous Bosch as the background for scenes and characters taken from the Mayan codices and transformed into modern counterparts. That face in the Mayan Dresden Codex will be the barmaid in this scene, and we can use the Vulture God over here. Bosch, Michelangelo, Renoir, Monet, Picasso — steal anything in sight. You want a certain light on your scene? Lift it from Monet. You want a 1930s backdrop? Use Hopper.
If the 1960s cut-ups had presented texts in non-linear chunks, Ah Pook did the opposite: it situated images in a new lineation, the “continuous panorama” of accordion-style panels that Mc Neill drew. However, this new linearity in form remained non-linear in content. Images would derive impulses from other images, from Bosch here or the Mayan Codex there, carry these along the way a rushing river picks up debris, and then transmit the impulse back to the texts to utilize in their unique way. The earlier cut-ups broke linearity, sentences, into juxtapositions and grids. Ah Pook was something else: non-linearity in a line.
Artwork by Malcolm Mc NeillThese innovations demonstrate that what ran dry in the early 1970s was not Burroughs’ talent or inspiration but rather the bank accounts of his publishers. Ah Pook Is Here, The Third Mind, and The Book of Breeething were not printed as Burroughs and his collaborators intended for simple economic reasons. It leaves you wondering how we might envision Burroughs’ career if a publisher had funded these books, printed them as lavishly as they required, and therefore also encouraged Burroughs to continue exploring this new conjunction of word and image. Clearly Burroughs was once again ahead of his time, since literary illustrated books have since become enormously popular.
Mc Neill, who finally could carry on no more with the seemingly doomed project, abandoned and nearly destroyed the artwork for Ah Puch. He moved on to commercial illustration and film, winning an Emmy Award and forging a successful career as a director. Though he remained friendly with Burroughs, he gave no more thought to Ah Puch until random opportunities inspired him to revisit the artwork. He has since created a web site featuring the illustrations and penned a memoir called Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs and Ah Puch. “Struggling to illustrate a book about Death for more than seven years seems like a ponderous task,” Mc Neill writes in the terrific but not-yet-published memoir. “But knowing and working with Bill Burroughs was above all characterized by its humor… He was simply the funniest guy I’d ever met.”
Mc Neill recently gave an interview to George Laughead’s excellent Beats in Kansas site, and he very kindly agreed to field some questions from RealityStudio as well.

You knew Bill the man before you knew Burroughs the writer and celebrity. This lends an intimate and human touch to your portrait of him, as for example when you describe his personal generosity in financial matters. Do you think people who only know the Burroughs legend would have been surprised to meet the man himself?
Bill once remarked that his students often seemed disappointed when they met him in person. “They expected me to appear naked with a strap on …” as he put it. To me, it was one of the most fascinating things about him — the contrast between his literary and real-life persona. A soft-spoken, unassuming gent in a jacket and tie writing about folks being skinned alive and boiled inside giant metal centipedes etc. As far as generosity went, he certainly helped me out financially during Ah Puch a few times — gave me some of his share of the advance for example — but it was more an overall sensibility. A generosity of spirit as it were.
Early on, before you felt the need to read his work, did Burroughs encourage you to read any of his books in particular?
I don’t recall Bill ever advocating any of his own work. He mentioned things in conversation that I later discovered were already in print but he didn’t suggest that I check out such and such that he’d written. It was just one more aspect of his unassuming manner that appealed to me. On the other hand he did recommend other writers, which I invariably picked up right away.
You did an astonishing amount of research on a wide variety of subjects in order to develop a visual vocabulary for Ah Puch. Do you think that this research primed you to have a better understanding of Burroughs or his books?
Drawing by Malcolm Mc NeillAbsolutely. Producing artwork was almost secondary to the process of trying to understand Bill’s worldview. And that meant a lot of reading. I remember one time finding pictures of Mexican bandits at a Mexican Cultural Library in London and spending weeks reading the books I’d found them in. In hindsight this was one of the great benefits of image research back then. It was an analog process, involving real things like travel, weather, time and actual books. The idea of sitting at home in your skivvies and clicking a couple of times with a mouse to get what you needed, was an option far in the future.
Do you have any idea why “Puch” mutated into “Pook?”
I think as a matter of practicality. A title you stumble over isn’t a good thing. The vast majority of people still have difficulty pronouncing “Puch” as “Pook.”
In the preface to your book, you speak of being both “creatively and ethically committed” to the project. Later you also speak of the ethical difficulties of working with some subject matter that was foreign or perhaps even repugnant to you. Could you explain a little the nature of your commitment to something that seemed sometimes to challenge you ethically?
One of the great lessons of Bill Burroughs was that nothing is repugnant, in the sense that it cannot be looked at. In fact such things must be looked at more closely. As a hetero male in his twenties, I had to look long and hard at his early remarks about women being a “biologic mistake,” for example. In the end it all comes down to opinion. And disagreement was implicit in his overall perspective. The possibility of disagreeing with an intellect like Bill’s was a daunting prospect of course. Coming to terms with that fact was a big part of the learning process. Ethics in the first context you mention was more to do with having made a legal commitment and therefore being bound to the project — and to Bill as a partner — in a more literal sense.
You speak in Observed While Falling of trying to get away from the comic-book look. Your artwork for Ah Puch clearly shows this: the roundness of the forms, the chiaroscuro lighting, etc., look more like the renderings of an old master than an illustrator. Did Burroughs push you in this direction at all? Aside from Hieronymous Bosch, were there any specific visual influences on the Ah Puch drawings?
Again Bill didn’t push one way or the other. His method was to allow free reign and see what happened. It’s something I can relate to as a director. You hire someone based on their abilities, then let them run with it. To impose restraint is somehow contrary to the purpose. The biggest influence on the Ah Puch artwork was the illustrator Frederick Catherwood, simply because his drawings of the Mayan ruins in the 1800s were specific to the subject. His images though went far beyond mere architectural representation. They reminded me of Piranesi, who I discovered later was one of his main influences. Thirty years later Catherwood would then become the inspiration for OWF. Not so much for his drawings, but because of his oddly sympathetic relationship to the whole symbiotic process of myself, Bill and Ah Puch.
You thought of doing Ah Puch as a “continuous panorama,” an accordion-style booklet of linked pages. Did this recall to your or to Burroughs’ mind the single-roll typescript of On the Road?
Artwork by Malcolm Mc NeillThe continuous panorama idea was based on the Mayan codices — that and the fact that I just liked doing it that way. I’ve read a couple of Kerouac’s books, but he doesn’t interest me to anywhere near the degree Bill does. Bill was a visionary. He’s incorporated into the Beat canon, but his perspective is in a league of its own. Distinct in fact from any other writer I’m aware of. I only found out Kerouac’s manuscript was on a single roll a year ago, when a friend mentioned that it was on exhibit at the UNC Library.
In general you portray the collaborative process as a matter of you struggling to visualize Burroughs’ words. Did Burroughs ever suggest specific visuals or approaches? Did he critique work as you presented it to him? Or was his approach toward your illustrations more laissze-faire?
I started working with Bill while I was still in art school, so inevitably everything about it was a struggle. I didn’t meet him during that time, hadn’t read anything else he’d written, in fact knew nothing about him. I didn’t even know what he looked like, which ironically turned out to be the reason Ah Puch began. When we did finally meet, it was essentially a case of two strangers accepting each other at face value. Him 56 me 23. Naturally it wasn’t long before I realized there was a whole lot more to it. The more I found out, the more daunting it became, but when it came down to it, he had called me on the basis of my artwork, and then agreed we collaborate on a book together. It instilled a confidence that encouraged me to stick with it despite the seemingly overwhelming odds.
He never really told me to do anything. Images were implicit in the ideas. I was left to my own devices in digging them out. The first pictures were character studies and I remember him nodding with genuine pleasure at seeing the likes of Cumhu the Lizard Boy and The Dib. One of the reassuring things about Bill right from the get-go was that he was absolutely straight with me. I acknowledge that fact in OWF as characterizing my debt to him: it was the kind of sincerity that forced me to pay attention and the reason our working relationship endured for as long as it did.
Did Burroughs share his notebook collages with you? Did he ever draw connections between the cut-up and your collaboration? After all, it does seem as though you established a “third mind” with him that was very different in its conjunction of word and image than the “third mind” Burroughs established with Brion Gysin.
Artwork by Malcolm Mc NeillThe first time I saw one of Bill’s scrap books was a month ago. I went to Ohio to check out the Burroughs Collection at OSU and looked through all the ones that were there. I was surprised at how intimate they were. I’d envisioned something more in keeping with his writing. They were very personal. Collections of odds and ends that had appealed to him for one reason or another. Suggestions for sets or characters etc or just guys he liked the look of. Bill talked about the fragmentary, cut-up nature of perception in general. When you walk down a street for instance you see fragments of things chopped and intersected by street signs, passing cars, other people and so on. These fragments are incorporated in the mind along with imaginary pictures, dream pictures and “real” pictures to create an overall cut–up sensibility. Negative space — the space between objects — which was something I’d learned early on in art school added to this sense of perceptual collage. In Ah Puch I took off on the idea by interspersing images contained within the negative spaces from other scenes throughout the book.
Do you think that your illustrations influenced the text that Burroughs continued to produce as you collaborated?
There were definite instances where this was true — the transitional devices for example that I came up with for the end sequences, were added in text form in Ah Pook Is Here. The project began as a continuation of “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” — the comic strip in Cyclops magazine. By our second meeting, Bill had written a total of 11 pages. In 6 of these, he referred to the word “draw” 20 times, with Mr. Hart constantly exhorting his artists to “draw out” this picture, and “draw in” that. For Bill it was clearly an experiment, and the fact that drawing had always represented a similar process of extraction to me, was why the interaction worked so well. It was writing to make it happen with pictures added to the mix. Certainly not an ordinary comic.
Artwork by Malcolm Mc NeillAs a result, during the course of the project, many unusual “real-life” circumstances corresponding to events in the images and text were “drawn out.” One such started Ah Puch, and another Observed While Falling. Many of these events only really became apparent during the process of writing the latter. It was then that patterns that had otherwise not been so obvious became very clear. Particularly the events surrounding Catherwood which only came to light years after Bill had died. Having established the game plan as it were, much of the 11 pages, including most of the references to artists and drawing were dropped from the final text. (I still have them of course.) It was after a visit to the British Museum together, when we ordered a copy of the Mayan Dresden Codex, that the book started for real. That’s when Ah Puch, the Mayan Death God, was discovered and used as the title. The copy of the codex went back and forth between us and we worked on color schemes and descriptions for the various deities. I recall Bill being impressed with my discovery of Hunab Ku: the head deity of whom no picture was ever made.
Did Burroughs read Ah Puch aloud to you? Did you ever hear Burroughs read (in private or in public)?
A good memory was essential to a good writer Bill once said. There were times when he’d launch into an enormous chunk of Shakespeare or Milton or some poet or other. Plus he had a battery of curses he’d learned from his Irish nanny in childhood. There was never a reason to read Ah Puch aloud while we were working on it. He read a section once at NYU, with slides of the artwork projected alongside, and I recall one other occasion — at St Marks’ Church maybe. Naturally I heard him read other stuff publicly.
Burroughs worked with several other illustrators in the 1970s. For example, he worked with Robert F. Gale on The Book of Breeething and with S. Clay Wilson on the short story “Fun City in Ba’Dan.” What did you make of these other projects?
Bob Gale is one of my favorite illustrators. I like him personally and admire his work. I have him to thank for getting me started at the New York Times doing political illustration. S. Clay Wilson I met briefly on his birthday in SF in 1974 when he and Bill and I had a couple of drinks in the revolving bar at the Hyatt Regency. I like his work of course.
Did Burroughs ever show you his work in Jeff Nuttalls’ My Own Mag? Were you aware of the publication at all?
Jeff Nuttall I may have met, though I can’t remember where or when. I wasn’t familiar with his magazine and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.
As was often the case with Burroughs, your collaboration with him was ahead of its time. Since Art Spiegelman’s Maus was published in 1992, ‘literary’ illustrated books have become incredibly popular. Have you paid any attention to the new wave of graphic novels and manga? Have any of them struck you as interesting?
Graphic Novels have only recently become a phenomenon in America. Europeans, particularly the French and Italians, have been producing them for years. Since the seventies at least. Some from scratch, others as anthologies of comic series such as Asterix the Gaul or Tin Tin. These were aimed at kids, but there were several beautifully illustrated sci-fi, and erotic publications. Guido Crepax for instance. In England collections of Dan Dare and Frank Bellamy’s work also became available.
Artwork by Malcolm Mc NeillOne of the reasons they’ve become so popular is that Hollywood and comics have gone hand in hand over the past twenty years, and with computer-generated imagery becoming more and more sophisticated, they’re the perfect vehicle for elaborate fantasy productions. Also, since one of Hollywood’s primary preoccupations is in promoting and glamorizing violence, they tend to fit right in. As a means for anaesthetizing the largest demographic to the reality of violence, they’re the perfect political media tool. 300 and Sin City are the current watershed. Massive doses of seductive dumbing-down with no emotional, intellectual or spiritually redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s unlikely Zippy the Pinhead will make it to the big screen any time soon. Or Joe Sacco. To my mind he’s the most significant artist using the medium today.
As an artist, illustrator, and filmmaker, what did you make of the paintings that Burroughs produced late in life?
Bill once remarked that art was a whole lot easier than writing. In light of Ah Puch, I couldn’t help but disagree with him. I saw his paintings for the first time in Santa Monica in 1996. They were a wonderful bookend to his life’s work. Text and images collaged on board then signed with a shotgun. With anyone else but Bill it would have been a gimmick, but as the final statement of the gun-loving, greatest literary iconoclast of all time it truly was great art.
Did you see any of the experimental films that Burroughs was working on with Ian Sommerville and Antony Balch? Did these inform any of your own later work in film?
I didn’t see any of them at the time. I’ve only seen them recently online.
You also mention meeting Burroughs’ son Billy. Were you ever with them at the same time? Was there anything parental in Burroughs’ attitude toward his son?
I recall one brief moment at the Bunker as Billy Jr. was leaving. It wasn’t a typical father-son relationship obviously. Bill never really shared intimate details of any sort, much less about his son. He seldom mentioned him. I can’t imagine that was a good feeling for either of them.
Jacques Stern always comes across as one of the most interesting characters in Burroughs’ colorful stable of friends. Any idea what ever happened to him?
The last time I saw Jacques in person was for lunch in NY in February 1988. A year or so later I got a phone call at four in the morning. I recognized his familiar raspy voice as soon as he said “Who’s this?” He’d dialed the wrong number but we agreed to get together soon. Regrettably we never did. I’ve searched for him online but I get the feeling he’s gone now. It would be great if he wasn’t. I’d love to see him again.
What is the significance of the title Observed While Falling?
Implicit in Bill’s notion of a pre-recorded Word / Image track is the idea of inevitability: that everything is predetermined. From that perspective, my working with him was simply a matter of me being in the appropriate place at the appropriate time. Fallen into place as it were, like everything in such a scenario must necessarily do. Foregone conclusion is unacceptable to a lot of people, yet in the long run the actions and observations remain the same whether it’s the case or not. Falling is just a little more relaxing is all… -

Malcolm McNeill interviewed by Larry Sawyer
Including some of McNeill's Graphic Collaborations with William S. Burroughs

This interview was conducted 1/20/2008.


The artist Malcolm McNeill has worked for many various publications including The New York Times, National Lampoon, Marvel Comics, and also the television show Saturday Night Live for which he won an Emmy. He also wrote and illustrated a monthly science fiction series called "Tetra" for Gallery magazine. In addition to this, McNeill collaborated with the writer William S. Burroughs on projects including "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart" and a long story titled "Ah Puch is Here" which remains unpublished. (In Mayan mythology, Ah Puch is the god of death and king of Metnal, or the underworld. He was depicted as a skeleton or corpse adorned with bells. Sometimes Ah Puch was depicted with the head of an owl. To the Maya the screech of an owl signifies an imminent death.) Note. In 1979 a text-only version of "Ah Puch is Here" was published as "Ah Pook is Here."
I gladly spoke with Malcolm McNeill at the behest of Michael Rothenberg for Big Bridge magazine and was surprised to learn that McNeill has been excluded from the major retrospectives of the work of William S. Burroughs because his illustrations provide key insights into the mind of the writer. McNeill's recent manuscript Observed While Falling documents his working relationship over the span of many years with William S. Burroughs.
[Larry Sawyer: Malcolm, what made you want to become an artist?] Malcolm McNeill: I've drawn pictures since I can remember. Where the "made to want to" came from though is interesting to speculate. It's one of the reasons I wrote Observed While Falling. Cause and effect can be a very protracted process it seems, compounded by the fact that the cause can just as easily be in the future as in the past.
[Mektoub in Arabic means "it is written" do you think it was predestined that you would meet William Burroughs and collaborate with him on "Ah Puch is Here"?] Bill updated the notion of Mektoub with his Word/Image track: the concept of life as prerecorded film. Given his overall dissatisfaction with the way the plot was turning out, he spent a great deal of time trying to break into the projection booth to disrupt it. There were times when he appeared to be quite successful. Once you buy into the idea though, disrupting the movie is also predetermined, so it doesn't amount to disruption at all. It's a no win situation.
As a writer he was in fact prescient. He had the ability to "write ahead'. I experienced that phenomenon first hand many times while working on "Ah Puch is Here." Fictional events in the text would materialize in real life. Very specific correspondences, not just similarities. Such events might suggest that things are already in place and that with the right combination of words they can be made to reveal themselves ahead of time. That's what Bill's 'Cut ups' were about: "Cut the word lines and the future leaks out." as he put it. Unlike other forms of augury — cards, coins, animal guts etc. Cut-ups literally cut to the chase. They don't need interpretation, You have the answer in writing. But no matter how accurately you're able to predict the future, in order to verify it, you still have to actually get there, at which point the future you've confirmed really amounts to a post-dated check. It's a great feeling when you nail a coincidence, but again it's a no win situation. Like it or not, you haven't changed anything. You've simply confirmed what was already there. Even so you have confirmed that it was there. At least that something was there. If the event isn't exactly identical to what was predicted though — which it never is —then what have you confirmed?
I considered that idea in Observed While Falling, although the falling refers more to a sense of being out of control than the idea that the trajectory is predetermined. Given that we have no control over our genetic disposition or the circumstances into which it's forced to operate, our interaction with those circumstances is also beyond our control. We don't so much proceed through life as fall through it. In which sense individual behavior could be described as inevitable. Acknowledging it doesn't change anything because the observations remain the same. Falling is a little more relaxing is all. Assigning inevitability to the greater scheme of things however is something else altogether. With a 'script' that's as insanely complex as this one, it's impossible to know one way or the other. My being who I was, may have been predetermined when I met Bill Burroughs, but whether the circumstances that conspired to make it happen were or not is anybody's guess. And in the long run what difference would it make? Like Melville said in Moby Dick: "...what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready"
[Throughout your manuscript Observed While Falling one gets the sense that there were many obstacles that nearly prevented the creation of "Ah Puch is Here." What kept bringing you back to work on such an arduous project?] Bill once remarked in an interview that "...nobody seems to ask the question what words actually are. And exactly their relationship to the human nervous system." It was a concern he dedicated much of his life coming to terms with. Using words essentially to determine what words can do. In the case of "Ah Puch is Here," he recruited images to the cause. It wasn't so much a comic book as an experiment and the way it is with any experiment, difficulties were par for the course. A lot of the problems were of a practical nature. There was no precedent for the form of the book and to begin with no money at all to figure it out. I was right out of art school when it started so I knew next to nothing about book production anyway. Plus I'd never collaborated with another writer before. Even if I had of course, nothing could have prepared me for Bill Burroughs. Apart from "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart," I hadn't read anything he'd written and knew very little about him. I was 23 he was a 56. I was straight he was gay. And of course he was Bill Burroughs. Then there was the material itself: a consideration of death and immortality. Concepts that are remote to a 23-year-old. Coming to terms with all that was an enormous learning experience and one that I couldn't fake. In order to make images that were commensurate I had to really understand what was going on. In order to do that I had to understand the context: all the other stuff Bill had written, all the stuff that had been written about him and most importantly Bill himself. As I point out in OWF it put me in a unique situation. It placed me with a blank slate between Bill Burroughs and the characters he created. As a collaborator I not only experienced the process of that interaction but also contributed to it. Having no preconceived notions was an asset but I also knew how to make images that fit. It was the reason Bill called me in the first place. "I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me." was how he put it. "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart," was a "comic" series in Cyclops magazine which I began in my last semester of art school. I didn't meet Bill during that time. I was simply handed a half page of text every month and left to try and figure out what the heck it meant. Even though I had no idea Bill looked like, the character I came up with for Hart looked remarkably like him. Hence the phone call. It was on the basis of that odd quirk that "Ah Puch is Here" began. As it happened it wasn't an isolated event. Odd quirks became an ongoing feature of the project. It was that and the fact that I was making images I couldn't make anywhere else that kept things going as long as they did. Plus I was getting a one-on-one tutorial from one of the most intense literary minds of all time. It was a unique situation. Walking away from it was out of the question. The only obstacle that couldn't be overcome was money. When Straight Arrow Books finally baled, I had to support the project with freelance illustration work, which wasn't easy to find, didn't pay much, and in places like London and New York didn't go far. As much as I tried, the on-again, off-again routine eventually became impossible to sustain. When the project was finally abandoned after 7 years, the disappointment was such that I stuck all the material in a flat file and did my best to forget about it. That's where it stayed for almost 30 years.
[What was it like collaborating with Burroughs?] It was a hard act to follow. I went on to illustrate several of his other texts, but beyond that there was nothing really comparable. The imagery in "Ah Puch" was extreme on occasions (which was one of the reasons the book had problems getting funded.) and anything after that was tame by comparison. The original project — "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart" — was in a sense a conventional arrangement between a writer and illustrator. "Ah Puch" though was very different. Bill and I discussed and researched the ideas, and images and words went back and forth to create the end product. There were only 11 pages of text to begin with, much of which was discarded once the project got going. Within a couple of years there were 50 pages of text which I'd integrated into a 120 page mock-up. Some of the pages functioned like a comic book with dialogue and narrative, some as text alone, others as image alone. The great thing about Bill as a collaborator was that he didn't impose on the artwork. There were times when he suggested things, but most of the time he just let me run with it. He was always straight with me. If it was wrong he would say so, but he rarely said wrong to me. The fact that he'd called me and had agreed to work on a full-length novel together inspired a default confidence that kept me going. Plus of course he was just such a great guy to be around.
[Could you describe your current process? What materials do you use and when and where do you work?] I quit directing in 2000 to go back to creating my own image/word projects in book form. They're far from resolved in terms of final product, but the images are a combination of text and drawn originals painted in Photoshop. I gave up on dirt and water techniques almost as soon as paint systems arrived. Since the end product is going to be reproduced anyway, the idea of an original/original is redundant and the amount of energy spent agonizing over ruining it with a mistake is completely eradicated.
One of the biggest problems with Ah Puch was image style. The project wasn't a conventional comic strip and there wasn't really a precedent for what we were trying to do. Figuring that out as I went a long was a difficult and frustrating process. The original plan was to simply take the line art style in Cyclops and 'color it in', but that looked too much like comic strip and created all kinds of limitations when it came to light and space. Plus Bill never struck me as "comic book." His images had a cinematic quality that weren't flashy or slick looking. Once I decided to go with the concept of the book as a single continuous image, that created more difficulties, since the art had to rolled up. After several aborted attempts with various media I opted for graphite, acrylics, and airbrushed inks. Working with this technique made changes in the text problematic. It meant cutting and gluing patches, or in the worst cases, starting over again. Given the complexity of the imagery and the fact that Bill continued to add and subtract from the text for a couple of years, it wasn't an easy process. Photoshop would have made life a lot easier, but personal computers were science fiction back then. The amount of time spent looking for photo reference, which was an enormous part of the job, would also have been reduced drastically. Now you just click a couple of times with a mouse and you can have a picture of just about anything.
[What visual artists served as your inspiration at the beginning of your career? Why?] Growing up in the country in England meant most of my influences came from mass media: television, films, magazines etc. There weren't really any art galleries. Certainly not ones showing contemporary art. I studied classical painters naturally. Particularly Bosch, Breughel and the Surrealists. In art school the list obviously got longer: Bacon, Turner, Van Gogh, Schiele, William Blake, RB Kitaj, etc. Film was probably a bigger influence. Kubrick, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard and Bertolucci were in their prime then. Plus there was a lot of underground stuff. Warhol, John Lennon, Ed Emshwiller, Peter Watkin etc..
Bill Burroughs was the beginning of my career so the artists relevant to "Ah Puch" were influential. Coincidentally or inevitably that included Bosch. The reason Bill and Bosch are such a fit is that both of them are able to combine horror and humor in the same frame. The other artist specific to the project was the illustrator Frederick Catherwood who first recorded the Mayan ruins in the 1830s and 40s.
[Did you find living in England to be agreeable for a young artist with your aesthetic interests?] England is a monarchy, so every time you looked up, there was the queen's ass. It's a strange idea from this perspective but back then it was a view I simply accepted. A class structure which is that entrenched, naturally favors some rather than others, but the Sixties had begun to change things. Working class kids, particularly in the arts, were able to break down a lot of barriers. Bejewelled layabouts still ran the show, but all in all a lot of things were getting better. I went through the system relatively easily. I'd hoped to study Fine Art at Hornsey but they suggested I'd be better off in Graphics. That sent me in a direction I didn't care for but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have been in the right place to take on Bill Burroughs. When I began working with Bill the nature of the English status quo became more apparent. I started to encounter the police more often for example. On one occasion a half dozen members of London's finest visited me at 6 in the morning for a bit of "Wakey wakey". They actually took the time to give me a review of the artwork before they left: "It's very good...but it's a bit sick." In San Francisco the FBI did the same thing. Their comment was simply that it was "frightening."
[Do you sustain yourself solely on profits made from selling your work?] I don't know about profits, but I've only ever made money from art. The kind of art has varied over the years and the money has varied with it. I began with "Ah Puch," then went into conventional illustration. After that, I wrote and illustrated a science fiction series for a while then switched to 3D as a sculptor, model maker, and set designer. That got me into film and television. I then segued into television design and from there went on to director.
[Looking back on your career what would you have done differently had you known then what you know now?] A regret for the past is an insult to the present. Everything that's happening now is contingent on everything that preceded it. I wouldn't change a thing.
[Your book is a really interesting read and would be so even for those who have no knowledge of Burroughs or his work. Did you find that compiling the material that ended up as Observed While Falling was an enjoyable process?] When someone suggested I write about "Ah Puch" I wasn't keen on it at all. Writing about a book that failed seemed tantamount to an autopsy. Not really a fun project to spend a couple of years on. After a couple of months of scanning the artwork and trying to figure out an approach I essentially gave up on the idea. But then another one of the odd "Ah Puch" moments occurred. One that topped all the rest. Frederick Catherwood, the English illustrator who'd been inspirational to the "Ah Puch" artwork reappeared as it were in a way that seemed to relate to the premise of the book. I came across his life story for the first time in a book published in the year 2000, at which point everything changed. He literally brought the project to life. When you nail a coincidence it's a great feeling, but in Catherwood's case there were so many coincidences between his life and my own that it was impossible to ignore. In addition there were correspondences between "Ah Puch is Here" and his own project on the Maya with American writer John Stephens. A word/image collaboration that occurred 160 years ago. This discovery threw new light on the concept of the Word/Image track and also the nature of creative interaction. What was especially interesting was that that it happened long after "Ah Puch" had been abandoned and years after Bill himself had gone. It placed the experience within a much larger ongoing dynamic. Most significantly it finally gave me the opportunity to bring the artwork to light and recount the unique process that led to it.
[What are you working on currently?] At this point I'm still trying to bring "Ah Puch" to a close. As well as getting OWF published I'm also planning to show the artwork. Much of it is quite fragile after all this time, which means scanning everything and creating prints. Some of the images are large, so it's time consuming. The final sequence alone is 25 feet long by 2 feet wide The two projects I was working on before "Ah Puch" came back to life are both illustrated texts. The first was originally titled "1%" since it deals with the DNA distinction between humans and apes. In the course of writing OWF though, I discovered that other folks already have the dibs on that title, who might not take kindly to the association, so I switched it to "99%" instead. It's non fiction. The other is "0º" which is based on an image I came up with while working on "99%."
An ongoing feature of "Ah Puch is Here" was coincidence and this particular image provided a classic example of the extent to which the phenomenon can go. Like most coincidences however it ultimately had no meaning. With coincidences, even if the correspondences match 100% this remains the case. All that increases is our sense of disquiet. It's a discrepancy I find fascinating. Coincidences do however have effect. A very odd one started "Ah Puch is Here" and another Observed while Falling. In the case of 0º it resulted in a dialogue between two brothers driving along the equator in Africa.
[Your rendering of the scenes of the imagination of Burroughs is amazing. I was glad to see there is a parallel in the book between the art of Hieronymous Bosch and the phantasmagoric aspect of Burroughs' work as represented by your art. Did you ever feel like you were in over your head?] Starting out with Bill Burroughs while I was still in art school and knowing nothing about him certainly led to a sense of being in over my head. If I'd had any idea of his literary scope or intense personal life I would have been intimidated to say the least. As it was I took him at face value. One of the sincerest, most considerate, normal guys I'd ever met—and of course the smartest. I knew I was in the deep end the moment I met him, but of what and how deep I had no idea. It didn't take long to realize I even had that wrong. Deep under normal conditions implies a bottom. Bill's time /space orientation precluded such a thing.
Making tangible images of the ideas in "Ah Puch" was only hampered by technique. Seeing them was relatively easy. And the more I read and researched the project, the easier it became. Plus there was the odd visualizing factor which initiated the project and which clearly operated throughout.
The imagery of Hieronymous Bosch had been ingrained since I was a teenager, but there were only a couple of occasions where it became specific in the book. The story was to have resolved in The Garden of Earthly Delights with the hero boys setting off into the sunset in the Marie Celeste. Sketches and layouts exist for those scenes but the money ran out before I got there. The only place where I actually incorporated Bosch imagery directly was in the transitional sequence when the biologic plagues sweep across the planet and the old human conditions are erased. It wasn't specified in the text but was simply implicit in the idea. Bosch-like, Burroughs-like mutant imagery was also something that came easy. I'd studied anatomy as a teenager and also taught myself taxidermy. Not just stuffing birds and animals but mixing up their various parts.
[Where will the next 10 years find you?]
I've no idea. As long as they do find me I'm fine.
[It's an absurdity that you have been often excluded from retrospectives on the life of Burroughs. This book should help clarify things for people. Does the fact that "Ah Puch is Here" never saw the light of day simply add to its mystique?]
Given the amount of work and number of years involved, it's an omission that goes a little beyond absurd. Apart from the "Ah Puch" material which represents almost 200 images — 11 pages of which were published in 1976 in Rush magazine — I also illustrated other of Bill's texts: four episodes of "Mr. Hart" in Cyclops, six illustrations in Crawdaddy magazine, two in National Screw magazine, a double page spread in The Berkeley Barb, and end papers for the text-only "Ah Pook is Here." All of which were published. Also the cover for "Ah Pook is Here," four illustrations for Exterminator! and a double-page spread for a comic compendium which were not. In compiling OWF I discovered that Burroughs scholars were often unaware that this much work had been produced, or in a few cases unaware that it existed at all. The fact that the work is documented in published form, yet not mentioned either in retrospectives or the official Burroughs press kit does beg the question.
As far as mystique is concerned, being essentially censored all this time certainly adds an ironic subtext to a book about William Burroughs, but whether or not it sees the light of day depends on whether the "absurdity" in question can finally be overcome. (end)

Artist Malcolm McNeill:
On Beat Writer William Burroughs, The Unspeakable Mr. Hart Comic Series, Ah Puch Is Here Graphic Novel, and London 1970s Art Scene

Interview by George Laughead, August 2007

Emmy award winning artist Malcolm McNeill worked with Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs during the early 1970s in London. Much of that work remains unknown. Malcolm was "born and educated in England. Started working with Bill Burroughs in 1970 on comic series The Unspeakable Mr. Hart while at Hornsey College of Art in London. Moved to the US in 1974 to complete graphic novel Ah Puch is Here (aka, Ah Pook is Here). Lived in New York for twenty plus years. Worked as a live action/effects director for television for fifteen years. Now lives in Los Angeles. Just finished a book about his working relationship and friendship with Burroughs, including artwork from the various collaborations." [Note: Manuscript of Malcolm's book, Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs and Ah Puch, made me read all day long -- interview was result. GL]

George Laughead: Malcolm, you knew William Burroughs before he came back to the USA in the 1970s - a much younger Bill, and still living with Brion Gysin - can you tell us about the daily life of William during his days in London? How he found you? [The Unspeakable Mr.Hart:Cyclops #3, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1970]

The Unspeakable Mr.Hart: Cyclops #3, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1970

Malcolm McNeill: Bill was 56 when I first met him - on Duke Street in 1970 - I was 23. We’d been working on the magazine Cyclops together and after it folded he called to suggest we finally meet one another. It was the start of a long friendship. The last time I saw him was at the Robert Berman Gallery in Los Angeles, in 1996.
He lived in two different apartments at the Duke Street building; the first with Brion, the other with his odd partner John Brady. I visited him many times in both while we were working on Ah Puch is Here. Brion was around some times, but since the visits were mostly work related, he tended to chat for a while then make himself scarce. Even when they were both there, one thing that struck me was that the place was always silent. No radio, no TV and certainly no record player. Just me, and Bill holding forth in his jacket and tie.
GL: William Burroughs’ and your comic series The Unspeakable Mr. Hart is really great stuff, new to me - not well known. How did William and you start that? Why haven’t we heard much about it before?
MM: I started Cyclops during my last semester of art school in 1970, with International Times editor Graham Keen. Keen convinced Bill to contribute a strip and The Unspeakable Mr. Hart was the result. He’d shown him the artwork of the available artists and Bill had apparently pointed at mine and said "I’ll work with this guy."
[Comic series: The Unspeakable Mr.Hart: Cyclops #4, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1970]

The Unspeakable Mr.Hart: Cyclops #4, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1970

I didn’t know anything about him at the time, hadn’t read anything he’d written and didn’t even know what he looked like. Keen handed me a couple of paragraphs of text each month and I did my best to figure out what it meant. There was no interaction between us at all. I asked Keen if I could talk to Bill, but for some reason it never happened. It was a surreal arrangement. The comic folded after only four months - which was a pity because whatever it was I was doing, I felt like I was getting better at it. Despite its short life, it is significant that it’s not mentioned in the official WSB press kit, particularly since he also collaborated with illustrators Bob Gale and Steve Lawson on other word/image projects. Completed or not, this work represented a distinct area of experimentation during his later London period. Plus The Unspeakable Mr. Hart subsequently developed into Ah Puch is Here which was an unprecedented, full-blown word/image novel.
GL: Since you were a non-gay, non-beat crowd artist at the time, how did you ‘fit’ into the London Burroughs’ scene? Was that tough?
MM: It was rare that there were other people at Duke Street when we were working, but when it happened, they were invariably gay guys- Anthony Balch, Ian Sommerville, Michael Portman etc. It was a novel situation, but then everything about Bill was new. Their reactions to an obviously straight guy in their midst ranged from vague indifference to mild hostility. Since these encounters were brief, it wasn’t really ‘tough’ as such. Being around Bill by contrast was a breeze. He was always a gent. From his mannerisms he didn’t come across as gay at all. But then again, drawing hard-ons, going to movies to admire hard-ons and talking about them all afternoon couldn’t help but introduce a little tension. He came on to me a couple of times. Both times when he was well lit. Saying “no” to the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’ wasn’t easy given what was at stake, but he took it OK and Ah Puch kept moving along.
GL: Was Ian Sommerville still around William when you knew him in London? Seems like John Brady was also one of William’s boyfriends during that period. What were those relationships like, if you know?
MM: Ian was around, though like I said, I rarely saw him. It wasn’t so much that these guys were gay, but the fact that they were older and had a lot more experience with Bill than I did, simply made it a bit awkward. Ian was also a smart computer-head which, for a twenty three year old art kid back then was difficult to get in-sync with. I remember him in Bills’ rickety elevator one time, dismissing my questions with: "It’s all about zeroes and ones my dear!"
John Brady - the "Sailor" as he described himself - was a whole other story. He hardly talked at all. It just wasn’t his forte. The place always felt dull and claustrophobic when he was around and he usually left when I showed up. Bill once remarked that "sex wasn’t a time for laughter." I’d wondered what that kind of sex might be like. Johnny the Sailor seemed to offer a clue.
[Image: Ah Puch Is Here, A tornado of vigilantes sweeps up from the bible belt from <i>Ah Puch Is Here</i> art work by Malcolm McNeill, ©  1975]

"A tornado of vigilantes sweeps up from the bible belt" (The image the FBI called "Frightening") from Ah Puch Is Here art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1975

GL: Your artwork with William for Ah Puch Is Here is not well known - was not published in the 1970s - how did that collaboration between Burroughs and you work? His text, your art - was it an on-going creation, or what?
MM: Once Cyclops folded I figured that was it. But then Keen called and told me to expect an important phone call. That afternoon, for the first time, I heard the remarkable voice of Mr. William S. Burroughs. "I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me" he said and insisted we meet. Given that I didn’t really know what I’d been doing for the past four months, it was an odd statement. As it happened though, he was being literal.
The character I’d designed for The Unspeakable Mr. Hart did look uncannily like a younger version of Bill. Sufficiently alike enough to make him want to call me. The fact that I’d drawn him without knowing what he looked like, (if I had, I would hardly have drawn him as the villain) introduced a galvanizing element to our working relationship which would continue to grow over the next ten years: images and words going back and forth and manifesting odd, temporal, real life anomalies. The most significant of which would occur years after Bill was gone. Given that Ah Puch is Here was a consideration of various aspects of death, this anomaly was significant enough to convince me to write an account of the process that led to it. This is the reason why, after all this time, the website of the artwork has finally appeared.
Bill and I decided on a full length word/image novel almost immediately. At the time he had written only eleven pages of text - still titled The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. Then after a trip to the British Museum, we ordered a copy of the Dresden Codex and the book began for real. It was re-named Ah Puch is Here after the Mayan Death God and much of the eleven pages were discarded. It was a daunting prospect, not the least because I also had to try and understand who Bill was. In the first meeting he’d introduced me to the Reactive Mind, Reichs’ Orgone theories, Randolph Hearst, "Nigger Killing" sheriffs, Mugwumps, the CIA, the Algebra of Need and a whole lot of other stuff I knew next to nothing about. I knew right away I was in at the deep-end, but of what, I had no idea. In time I realized I’d even got that wrong. ‘Deep’ in conventional space/time orientation implies that there’s some kind of bottom!
In a sense, not knowing anything about Bill was my greatest asset. If I’d had any inkling, I would have been intimidated to say the least. On the other hand, I had to devise a methodology for creating a book form that really had no precedent and hadn’t yet been written: some pages of text, some of image and some of image and text combined. Bill Burroughs’ text at that! And finally there was absolutely no money at all to do it. Some would come, about a year later and then it was only enough for a few months sustained work. Somehow however the project managed to move forward and we persevered on and off for over seven years. It brought me to San Francisco in 1974 and then New York in 1975, where it was finally abandoned two years later (eleven pages were in fact published in Rush magazine in late 1976). Considering the emotional and creative investment involved, failure was a difficult thing to reconcile. I stuck all the artwork in a flat-file and essentially did my best to forget about it. It stayed there for almost thirty years.
[image: Day is Done: National Screw Magazine, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, ©  1977]

"Day is Done" from National Screw Magazine; text by William Burroughs, art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1977

GL: Since those days, you’ve done much other art - including Emmy award winning television work and film work. Did you stay in touch later with William? Did your work with him effect your later art? And, in light of the 10th anniversary of his death in August 1997, what were your thoughts on hearing that news?
MM: Bill gave me his loft on Franklin Street in ’76 when he moved to the Bunker. Naturally I continued to see him and even illustrated other texts. When he moved to Kansas, the good old days of just stopping by for a visit necessarily came to an end. I was also a first time new parent in 1979, which created a whole other set of priorities (Bill did volunteer himself as my sons’ Godfather before he left).
Ah Puch Is Here was the formative creative experience of my life without question, beginning as it did at the end of art-school. And having Bill as a one-on-one mentor for all those years was a unique privilege. I gained insights into his personal life and working methods which could only occur during a collaboration such as Ah Puch and they fundamentally influenced my own sense of word and image making. The underlying design of the book had been a continuous panorama. One that, like the Mayan Codices, could be ‘folded’ and viewed conventionally page-by-page or holistically as a single image. Working on random areas of this overall strip, rather than sequentially, encouraged a non-linear time methodology corresponding to the time-travel motif in the book.
In combination with Bills’ uncanny prescience as a writer, the result was an ongoing series of real-life temporal quirks that were unique in my experience and these seemed to vindicate his convictions regarding the inherent magical quality of word and image. It clearly demonstrated their combined ability to "make it happen." It was the aspect of Bill that impressed itself on me most and the one that continues to really effect me still. Seven years after he’d gone, one such event - and unquestionably a most remarkable event at that prompted me to dig up the artwork again and produce a written account of the time I’d spent with him. As far as his anniversary is concerned, Bill and "Ah Puch" are integral to my world view. A means to a means as it were, not an end. As I hope my book shows, They are always Here.


John Calder edition (1979). Design by Brian Paine incorporating a glyph of Ah Pook from the Dresden Codex.
It would have been tempting to write “Ah Pook is finally here” but that’s not quite the case. Artist Malcolm McNeill sent Savoy Books the following preview images last week. What was originally going to be the long-awaited publication of McNeill’s collaboration with William Burroughs, Ah Pook Is Here, will now be two separate volumes published by Fantagraphics Books later this year: The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here which will comprise McNeill’s art without the accompanying text (apparently the Burroughs estate objected to its inclusion), and Observed While Falling—Burroughs, Ah Pook and Me, a memoir of the project’s creation. The loss of the text is an annoyance but not the end of the world, at least if you’re fortunate enough to own the scarce Calder book above which comprises a 40-page story that I imagine (and hope) may be read whilst viewing McNeill’s meticulous artwork. Amazon’s listing shows the two books scheduled for October 2012, and there’s now a website for the two books with further preview images.

The 1979 Ah Pook Is Here is a fascinating collection, not least for the title piece which fits with the Wild Boys/Port of Saints narratives that Burroughs worked on during the 1970s. It’s also one of the better Burroughs anthologies so it’s always seemed odd that it’s remained resolutely out of print. Burroughs mentions McNeill’s artwork in a preface but doesn’t show any examples of his work. There is other artwork, however: in addition to some uncredited line drawings of figures like those in the Mayan codices there’s the whole of The Book of Breeething, a collaboration with artist Robert F. Gale from 1974. The latter concerns Burroughs’ interest in hieroglyphic communication, and attempts to show how one might convey short sentences through visual images alone, as in the pages below.
The Book of Breeething (1974).
The final piece in the book is The Electronic Revolution, an essay about using technology for guerilla purposes which was an inspiration for Cabaret Voltaire and others. All of this is choice and unusual material so it’s surprising that it’s been out of print for so long. In the case of Ah Pook Is Here it’s even more surprising to find it being prevented from republication despite Burroughs’ hope in his 1978 preface that the text would eventually be published along with the artwork. I’m sure the Burroughs estate have their own reasons for these manoeuvres but you can’t help but feel that this is another example of best intentions acting posthumously against the wishes of the artist they represent. A final irony can be found on the first page of Ah Pook Is Here where we see several mentions of a predatory agency that Burroughs warned against throughout his career, the thing he called CONTROL. - John Coulthart

In the ’70s Beat writer William S. Burroughs collaborated with artist Malcolm Mc Neill to create Ah Pook is Here – a graphic novel predicting an apocalyptic future. ‘Lost’ for over twenty years, the book has been discovered. To follow is a sneak preview of our interview with Mc Neill, featured in issue 25 of one small seed magazine.

© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill
Iconic Beat writer and poet William S. Burroughs met Malcolm Mc Neill in London in 1970 while working on the comic The Unspeakable Mr. Hart for the short-lived Cyclops. At 23, Mc Neill was still a student in his final year of art school while Burroughs had already lived a life as chemically and sexually experimental as his writing.
Mc Neill’s imagery captures the fecund destruction within modern society and Burroughs’ head through dense and complex images. Cannibalism, rape and blackened icons under vanilla skies… the world in its most primitive and raw state. After Cyclops folded, the duo began work on what they called a ‘Word/Image Novel’. Ah Pook is Here was developed into a 120-page book and was accepted by San Francisco publishers Straight Arrow books in 1971. But the project was abandoned in 1974 when the publishers closed down, seeing light in a ‘text only’ form in 1979 by Calder publishing.
Burroughs’ ‘cut-up technique’ helped create parallels and crossing paths between issues of politics, mysticism, drugs, sexuality and common human emotion. The story of Ah Pook is Here follows billionaire newspaper tycoon John Stanley Hart as he tries to build a Media Control Machine and achieve immortality. His quest leads him to ancient Mayan books and the accidental summoning of Ah Pook, the Mayan God of Death, and hot pursuit by assorted mutants. The idea of time is made fluid and initiates battles between the ideals of ancient and modern society. Many critics have hailed it as one of the world’s ‘lost masterpieces’. Almost 15 years since Burroughs’ death and 40 since the book’s inception, Mc Neill has attempted to gain access to the text of Ah Pook is Here from the Burroughs estate – to no avail. He has recently released The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here, which is a collection of all original and updated imagery.
© Malcolm Mc Neill

 Ah Pook has been called a failure as a book but a success as a literary experiment or graphic novel. How does this affect the balance between words and images?
Its appeared to demonstrate Bill’s contention that the purpose of writing was to make it happen – happen in a literal sense… to realise fictional ideas as fact. The collaboration began as the result of a coincidence and the ongoing coincidence of fact and fiction was what made it unusual.
Some of these occurred after Bill’s death and were the impetus for the project being revived.
Those particular events realised the first two sentences of the book.

© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill

What are the first two sentences?
‘The Mayan codices are undoubtedly books of the dead; that is to say, directions for time travel. If you see reincarnation as a fact, then the question arises: how does one orient oneself with regard to future lives?’
Regardless of implications or meaning, Ah Pook was brought back to life by a dead man.
The correspondence between his life trajectory and my own, and its relevance to the collaboration and premise of the book, were significant enough to make me reconsider the whole experience. As with the coincidence that initiated the project, it was a case of seeing where the idea might lead.
Ah Pook was a book about time and death.
Coincidences: you can choose to acknowledge them or ignore them. With Ah Pook, it was the former. Bill didn’t take coincidences lightly. The term ‘graphic novel’ didn’t exist back then and the book wasn’t planned as such. It was a case of simply combining words and images in whatever form seemed to work best.
The fact that there was no market for it at that time and no real financial incentive was what led to its ‘failure’ as a book.

I think it’s odd that the Burroughs Estate would miss out on what – today – is a potential financial opportunity…
It‘s often less a case of the power of words themselves than the power – and the need for power – of those who control them. The way they are used and allowed to be used.

To read the full feature, go buy your copy of the latest issue now!
© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill
© Malcolm Mc Neill

Salomon Arts
Salomon Arts
  interview by: bianca budricks and sarah claire picton

McNeillova web stranica:

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