It’s been 11 years since the original master of gonzo journalism left the planet, but Hunter S. Thompson’s incalculable influence on American culture continues to burn bright. The latest evidence is the new graphic novel adaptation of his most famous work, “the Vegas book” as the good doctor called it. Fans who have re-read the novel and watched the 1998 Terry Gilliam/Johnny Depp film countless times can now welcome a third format in which to enjoy the classic counterculture tale. This version is a winner in how it merges the written and visual forms.
Produced in “proud partnership with the Hunter S. Thompson estate”, Troy Little’s graphic novel delivers a truly top shelf experience. Thompson’s immense legacy lives on due to his uniquely influential approach to reporting on one of the most colorful and revolutionary eras in American history.
The key to Thompson’s gonzo legacy is that he wasn’t just a great writer, he was a great American. He certainly wasn’t without some well-documented character flaws, but his patriotic devotion to “the American Dream” and determination to provide vital cultural analysis in his writing and reporting played a key role in promoting the ongoing value of the New Left socio-cultural revolution of the ’60s that he was literally at the center of (living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the mid-’60s).
Written in 1971, the “Vegas book” served as sort of a denouement for the ‘60s with Thompson spinning his famous reflective anecdotes that brilliantly summarized the cultural energy of that paradigm shifting era. Thompson and Little build toward the moment by first recounting the magic of the San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll scene at classic venues like the Fillmore and the Matrix, then move into the lament for the passing of the era. But the enduring brilliance of the passage also lies in how it continues to speak to the substance of the revolutionary fire that still charges the modern progressive movement:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Little does a fine job of capturing this transcendent moment in the story, a key to the project’s ultimate success since it is arguably Thompson’s most iconic passage. The sequence starts with a panel of Hunter typing with a bottle of the ever present Wild Turkey by his typewriter; moves through panels of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters partying around their legendary bus Furthur and Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock; continues with anti-war protesters marching in the streets and placing flowers in rifle barrels; and concludes with Hunter gazing wistfully toward the Vegas dawn.
Little also does an excellent job of utilizing one of the comic art form’s most unique tools, which is to vary the size and shape of text to generate tone and inflection in the dialogue. Too many graphic novels stick with one standard type size, but Little uses this tool skillfully to help convey the many manic moods of Raul Duke and Dr. Gonzo and such as phrases like “THIS IS BAT COUNTRY”, “DID YOU SEE WHAT GOD DID TO US?”, “YOU BASTARDS”, etc. Little’s multi-dimensional artwork also covers the wide range of the story’s action with great diversity, from stark desert landscapes to the bright lights and psychedelic adventures in Sin City.
From the drunken lizards at the Mint to our dynamic duo’s ether binge and mind-melting bar scene at the famous Circus-Circus merry-go-round bar, to the psychedelia of the “White Rabbit” scene in the hotel bathroom, it’s easy to see that Little is genuinely devoted to bringing these wacky hijinks across with the appropriate gonzo vibe. The disjointed angles of the panels on the ether scene are artfully crafted to convey “the severance of all connection between the body and the brain”. (It’s also worth noting that the current management of the Circus Circus hotel and casino should be tarred and feathered like the heartless swine they are for removing the merry-go-round bar from the premises. That bar should have been registered as a historic landmark and now its memory lives on only in these documents.)
The graphic version of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Vegas book” remains relevant as it subversively confronts the disillusionment and desperation that he saw corrupting his beloved American dream. Alas, the corruption and disillusionment have only deepened over the decades, enabling the story to continue resonating with timely socio-political relevancy.
While some skeptics see the spirit of the ‘60s as long gone, fans of the era may argue that the modern generation is poised to pick up the torch and run with it. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign for political revolution is catching fire across America, albeit with a somewhat tempered spirit compared to the reckless, drug-fueled Thompson, but nevertheless it’s still the rebellious spirit of the ‘60s that fueled Sanders’ own coming of age as a college activist that carries on into the 2016 presidential election. Thompson would surely get a kick out of reporting on the political battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
The surviving members of the Grateful Dead, meanwhile, are still delivering vibrant takes on the prototype psychedelic music of the era, while Gen-X descendants like Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, STS9 and the entire jamband scene keep the freak power flag flying to give the psychedelic counterculture a pathway to carry on. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones continue to tour as well, delivering more of the “fuel” that powered Thompson’s writing to a new generation of fans. Thompson and the recently departed Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane are probably knocking back drinks in Heaven right now while plotting to influence the political revolution from the Other Side.
Indeed, the spirit of the ‘60s is very much alive in the battle to save the American Dream from the corrupt Corporatocracy that eats away at Democracy with each passing year and each “free trade” agreement (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that threatens to cede national sovereignty to private corporate tribunals.) Hunter S. Thompson’s departure from the Earthly realm left a void, for there are few journalists willing to tell it like it is as he did without fear of losing precious access to those in power. But as in the Kinks’ classic song “Celluloid Heroes”, Hunter’s spirit lives on eternally through his “savage journey to the heart of the American Dream”.
The fate of that dream remains in dire peril, yet hope lives on as long as the progressive movement continues to fight. Troy Little’s graphic novel does its bit to keep the gonzo flame burning.