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.
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.
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.
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!
interview by: bianca budricks and sarah claire picton
images: © Malcolm Mc Neill, lostartofahpook.com