Interview with Malcolm Mc Neill: Raider of the Lost Art

Thank you to my dear friend and fierce creative Malcolm Mc Neill to whom I am forever grateful for sharing such a powerful story, encouraging me to challenge perceptions and raise the hard questions

What follows is the original text from the interview/feature in 2012.

originally published in one small seed magazine, circa 2012.

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 attempted to gain access to the text of Ah Pook is Here from the Burroughs estate – to no avail. He released, [in 2012], The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here, which is a collection of all original and updated imagery.

Interview by Bianca Budricks and Sarah Claire Picton.

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?’

Ah Pook

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.

How so?

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.

What makes the combination of words and images so powerful?

That’s the question Bill attempted to answer throughout his career. That was his m.o. as a writer: using words to figure out what words are and what they do. He worked them for all they were worth, arranging and dissecting them to try and elicit a response and achieve an effect.

‘Effect’ however doesn’t always provide answers or techniques for repetition. It doesn’t necessarily result in ‘useful’ information, as Heidegger put it, but often simply sustains the dialogue. A word is a complex emotional glyph, or as Bill suggested a possibly less-than-benign viral form of energy. Ah Pook was an instance where he added images to the mix.

In Observed While Falling, you wrote that the images play a role as a catalyst in strengthening the likelihood of such things happening. Why is that so and what does it say about words ?

Who knows? They were a catalyst in Ah Pook, is all I can say…but that was an unusual project. Apart from the subject matter and the ‘happening’ subtext, Bill was no ordinary writer and Ah Pook is no ordinary character.

When you invoke a god, all kinds of things can happen.

How does Ah Pook apply to a modern context?

Like the title says: Ah Pook is Here. Here now. All time is here now. It’s implicit in the idea of a word/image track. ‘Modern’ is a marketing term.

Why the strong sexual atmosphere?

I didn’t agree with everything Bill said or wrote obviously. His position on women was always incomprehensible to me. Despite his sense of life as a pre-recorded script, he nevertheless referred to them fairly consistently as ‘biological mistakes’ or as ‘hosts to the alien parasite’.

This was not only nonsense to me but a contradiction in terms. In a predetermined scenario, there can be no mistakes. Being a straight 23-year-old confronted with that perspective was one of the difficult aspects of the project – particularly since Bill was initially determined to convince me. Hermaphrodites presented the only real opportunity to throw in some girlie parts but I snuck them in elsewhere.

Do you think that the Burroughs estate will ever allow the words to be published?

It’s difficult to understand why the words were excluded from the Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here so I can’t possibly predict what the estate may decide to do in the future. I imagine the words will be republished, but in what form I don’t know since there are only 50-plus pages. I have no interest in devoting more time to combining them with the images. Producing this version was a very long, very intense process.

Discover more about the collaboration between Burroughs and Mc Neill, here, and learn more about The Lost Art of Art Pook, here. Follow Malcolm Mc Neill on Facebook, here.

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