McNeill, Malcolm. The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images From The Graphic Novel. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books, 2012. Print.
In 1979, William Burroughs published a collection of stories titled Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts with a prefatory note: “Malcolm McNeill and I have decided to publish the text without the artwork, still in hopes of seeing the eventual publication of this [picture book]” (11). The decision to call the project a “picture book” was due to Burroughs’s view that “the books [sic] falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book nor that of a comix publications” (11). Following encouragement from friends to unearth the artwork which had been in storage for 25 years,1 McNeill first exhibited the projects in two gallery exhibits, one in 2008 and one in 2009, before publishing The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here. As he writes, the publication of the book is meant to offer readers of Burroughs’s short story an opportunity “to see the other half [of Ah Pook Is Here],” and for “enterprising reader[s]” to perform their “own closure” on the story of Ah Pook (156).
Designed as one continuous image (without “panels”), as Sara Van Ness explains in the post-script, the project was meant to “stray from the conventional comics form to explore different juxtapositions of images and words as modeled after the surviving Mayan codices” (141). The visual style of the narrative appears as a mixture of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Dave McKean’s Pictures that Tick, Alan Moore’s From Hell and Promethea, Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, and Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics. Resisting the temptation to define it as a “comic,” McNeill describes the project as a “visual narrative where pictures and text interacted in whatever form seemed appropriate” (144; original emphasis). While the final project remains incomplete as first conceived, the publication of McNeill’s artwork offers an opportunity to experiment with Burroughs’s use of the “cut-up” method—cutting and pasting material from multiple works to create a new text, or what today would fall within the category of remix—including the emergence of an alternative narrative experience where readers take on the role of author-artists who piece together image (McNeill) and text (Burroughs) as a part of the reading/viewing experience.
While preparing The Lost Art of Ah Pook, McNeill explains his intention to include “images of Bill’s annotated working text” to “show what the collaboration had tried to achieve” (127), namely an experiment acting “as a device for seeing what might happen when words and images addressed [an] idea simultaneously” (124; original emphasis) without regard to the conventions of any particular form, including the conventions of the comics popular at the time. The combination of McNeill’s art and Burroughs’s cut-up writing methods offer a vision of a comics/graphic-novel narrative form and practice that McNeill describes in Observed While Falling (a kind of artist’s state, and a supplement to The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here) as “the kind of interaction that inevitably involves a merging of ideas [and] a blurring of ownership” (5), even while “ownership” has remained the primary obstacle to the publication of a complete project, in a single volume. According to McNeill, the major hurdle in publishing such a volume is that the Burroughs estate “would not agree to allow any of Bill’s texts to be included” (127), thus preventing the possibility of publishing the graphic novel as first conceptualized by the two authors. Given the style and tone of McNeill’s discussion of The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here, the project can also be read as argument (to the Burroughs estate) for allowing the project to finally be completed as Burroughs and McNeill had planned when they contracted the project with Straight Arrow Press in 1971: consisting of “approximately 35,000 to 40,000 words and all necessary graphic materials” (146).
In its present form, McNeill’s artwork retains the blank spaces where Burroughs’s text (narration, dialogue, and captions) would have gone, and reflects the project’s aim of exploring the relationship(s) of meaning-making practices—the reading/writing experience the authors were aiming for. As McNeill recalls, the project was “not be restricted to a particular form but determined by whatever arrangement seemed appropriate to the narrative” (124). The visual and textual narrative structures are meant to reflect characteristics of the main character, Ah Puch (re-named “Ah Pook” for pronunciation), the Mayan death god, or “the destroyer.” In McNeill’s words, the “visual novel” was “an idea about time expressed over time in a manner consistent with the principles embodied in the character that evoked it: a character that does not allow for completion” (121; original emphasis). In addition, as reflected in McNeill’s description, the narrative follows Ah Pook (character/protagonist) moving back and forth from historical events (including images from the Vietnam War) to the present and potential futures, encompassed in the Here of the project’s title. Describing Burroughs’s view of time as pre-recorded, McNeill also addresses the decision to develop the project as one extended image: “In a pre-recorded universe, ‘here,’ ‘now,’ ‘present,’ ‘current,’ include all time and from that, the obvious implication that the future is also Here” (125; original emphasis). By extension, the project’s visual and verbal narratives take place all-at-once, depicting a moment when all the moments of the narrative collide. Reading/viewing the project in such a self-reflexive manner points toward Ah Pook is Here‘s larger aim: to experiment2 with the effect of visual narratives on both writer(s) and reader(s).
The Lost Art of Ah Pook fulfills its intention as “an attempt to extend the possibilities of sequential imagery, in book form” that was at the time “only used by conventional comic strips” (153; McNeill qtd. in Van Ness’s postscript), and deserves a place among other, more contemporary projects experimenting with comic-art forms and visual narrative structures. While the project remains incomplete, it is valuable as an addition to historiographical studies of comics and graphic novels, as well as for the challenges it presents to formal conventions and understandings of the medium. Its incomplete-ness is not so much a weakness as it is a strength; the self-reflexivity of the project speaks more to form than content, and offers a conceptual understanding of comics/graphic novels as a medium of contingency (to use Sara Van Ness’s key terminology from the postscript).
The publication of this project may best be described as an addition to historiographical studies of comics and graphic novel, and attempts to experiment with the forms and conventions of image-text and graphic storytelling during the 20th century, particularly with the use of the “cut-up” method for which Burroughs become known. In concept and form, The Lost Art of Ah Pook presents a conceptual practice of composing comics most akin to contemporary experiments that see comics as a method of writing rather than as a well-defined medium—such as Art Spiegelman and R. Sikoryak’s The Narrative Corpse, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s Hypercomics, Stu Campbell’s Nawlz, and Özge Samanci’s GPS Comics. While the full project of Ah Pook Is Here remains unfinished, McNeill’s The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here offers a vision of a graphic novel that never was, but that has the potential to inform future thinking about the forms, functions, and purposes of comics as a method.
 In facsimiles of the agreement and contract published in this book, both authors agreed that Burroughs would retain the copyrights to the text and McNeill the copyrights to the illustrations/artwork (146-147).
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