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.
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.
These 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.
Interview with Malcolm Mc Neill
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?
Absolutely. 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?
The 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.
The 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 cutâ€“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.
As 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.
One 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…