Malcolm McNeill interviewed by Larry Sawyer
Including some of McNeill's
Graphic Collaborations with
William S. Burroughs

This interview was conducted 1/20/2008.



The artist Malcolm McNeill has worked for many various publications including The New York Times, National Lampoon, Marvel Comics, and also the television show Saturday Night Live for which he won an Emmy. He also wrote and illustrated a monthly science fiction series called "Tetra" for Gallery magazine. In addition to this, McNeill collaborated with the writer William S. Burroughs on projects including "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart" and a long story titled "Ah Puch is Here" which remains unpublished. (In Mayan mythology, Ah Puch is the god of death and king of Metnal, or the underworld. He was depicted as a skeleton or corpse adorned with bells. Sometimes Ah Puch was depicted with the head of an owl. To the Maya the screech of an owl signifies an imminent death.) Note. In 1979 a text-only version of "Ah Puch is Here" was published as "Ah Pook is Here."

I gladly spoke with Malcolm McNeill at the behest of Michael Rothenberg for Big Bridge magazine and was surprised to learn that McNeill has been excluded from the major retrospectives of the work of William S. Burroughs because his illustrations provide key insights into the mind of the writer. McNeill's recent manuscript Observed While Falling documents his working relationship over the span of many years with William S. Burroughs.

[Larry Sawyer: Malcolm, what made you want to become an artist?]

Malcolm McNeill: I've drawn pictures since I can remember. Where the "made to want to" came from though is interesting to speculate. It's one of the reasons I wrote Observed While Falling. Cause and effect can be a very protracted process it seems, compounded by the fact that the cause can just as easily be in the future as in the past.

[Mektoub in Arabic means "it is written" do you think it was predestined that you would meet William Burroughs and collaborate with him on "Ah Puch is Here"?]

Bill updated the notion of Mektoub with his Word/Image track: the concept of life as prerecorded film. Given his overall dissatisfaction with the way the plot was turning out, he spent a great deal of time trying to break into the projection booth to disrupt it. There were times when he appeared to be quite successful. Once you buy into the idea though, disrupting the movie is also predetermined, so it doesn't amount to disruption at all. It's a no win situation.

As a writer he was in fact prescient. He had the ability to "write ahead'. I experienced that phenomenon first hand many times while working on "Ah Puch is Here." Fictional events in the text would materialize in real life. Very specific correspondences, not just similarities. Such events might suggest that things are already in place and that with the right combination of words they can be made to reveal themselves ahead of time. That's what Bill's 'Cut ups' were about: "Cut the word lines and the future leaks out." as he put it. Unlike other forms of augury — cards, coins, animal guts etc. Cut-ups literally cut to the chase. They don't need interpretation, You have the answer in writing. But no matter how accurately you're able to predict the future, in order to verify it, you still have to actually get there, at which point the future you've confirmed really amounts to a post-dated check. It's a great feeling when you nail a coincidence, but again it's a no win situation. Like it or not, you haven't changed anything. You've simply confirmed what was already there. Even so you have confirmed that it was there. At least that something was there. If the event isn't exactly identical to what was predicted though — which it never is —then what have you confirmed?

I considered that idea in Observed While Falling, although the falling refers more to a sense of being out of control than the idea that the trajectory is predetermined. Given that we have no control over our genetic disposition or the circumstances into which it's forced to operate, our interaction with those circumstances is also beyond our control. We don't so much proceed through life as fall through it. In which sense individual behavior could be described as inevitable. Acknowledging it doesn't change anything because the observations remain the same. Falling is a little more relaxing is all. Assigning inevitability to the greater scheme of things however is something else altogether. With a 'script' that's as insanely complex as this one, it's impossible to know one way or the other. My being who I was, may have been predetermined when I met Bill Burroughs, but whether the circumstances that conspired to make it happen were or not is anybody's guess. And in the long run what difference would it make? Like Melville said in Moby Dick: "...what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready"

[Throughout your manuscript Observed While Falling one gets the sense that there were many obstacles that nearly prevented the creation of "Ah Puch is Here." What kept bringing you back to work on such an arduous project?]

Bill once remarked in an interview that "...nobody seems to ask the question what words actually are. And exactly their relationship to the human nervous system." It was a concern he dedicated much of his life coming to terms with. Using words essentially to determine what words can do. In the case of "Ah Puch is Here," he recruited images to the cause. It wasn't so much a comic book as an experiment and the way it is with any experiment, difficulties were par for the course. A lot of the problems were of a practical nature. There was no precedent for the form of the book and to begin with no money at all to figure it out. I was right out of art school when it started so I knew next to nothing about book production anyway. Plus I'd never collaborated with another writer before. Even if I had of course, nothing could have prepared me for Bill Burroughs. Apart from "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart," I hadn't read anything he'd written and knew very little about him. I was 23 he was a 56. I was straight he was gay. And of course he was Bill Burroughs. Then there was the material itself: a consideration of death and immortality. Concepts that are remote to a 23-year-old. Coming to terms with all that was an enormous learning experience and one that I couldn't fake. In order to make images that were commensurate I had to really understand what was going on. In order to do that I had to understand the context: all the other stuff Bill had written, all the stuff that had been written about him and most importantly Bill himself. As I point out in OWF it put me in a unique situation. It placed me with a blank slate between Bill Burroughs and the characters he created. As a collaborator I not only experienced the process of that interaction but also contributed to it. Having no preconceived notions was an asset but I also knew how to make images that fit. It was the reason Bill called me in the first place. "I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me." was how he put it. "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart," was a "comic" series in Cyclops magazine which I began in my last semester of art school. I didn't meet Bill during that time. I was simply handed a half page of text every month and left to try and figure out what the heck it meant. Even though I had no idea Bill looked like, the character I came up with for Hart looked remarkably like him. Hence the phone call. It was on the basis of that odd quirk that "Ah Puch is Here" began. As it happened it wasn't an isolated event. Odd quirks became an ongoing feature of the project. It was that and the fact that I was making images I couldn't make anywhere else that kept things going as long as they did. Plus I was getting a one-on-one tutorial from one of the most intense literary minds of all time. It was a unique situation. Walking away from it was out of the question. The only obstacle that couldn't be overcome was money. When Straight Arrow Books finally baled, I had to support the project with freelance illustration work, which wasn't easy to find, didn't pay much, and in places like London and New York didn't go far. As much as I tried, the on-again, off-again routine eventually became impossible to sustain. When the project was finally abandoned after 7 years, the disappointment was such that I stuck all the material in a flat file and did my best to forget about it. That's where it stayed for almost 30 years.

[What was it like collaborating with Burroughs?]

It was a hard act to follow. I went on to illustrate several of his other texts, but beyond that there was nothing really comparable. The imagery in "Ah Puch" was extreme on occasions (which was one of the reasons the book had problems getting funded.) and anything after that was tame by comparison. The original project — "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart" — was in a sense a conventional arrangement between a writer and illustrator. "Ah Puch" though was very different. Bill and I discussed and researched the ideas, and images and words went back and forth to create the end product. There were only 11 pages of text to begin with, much of which was discarded once the project got going. Within a couple of years there were 50 pages of text which I'd integrated into a 120 page mock-up. Some of the pages functioned like a comic book with dialogue and narrative, some as text alone, others as image alone. The great thing about Bill as a collaborator was that he didn't impose on the artwork. There were times when he suggested things, but most of the time he just let me run with it. He was always straight with me. If it was wrong he would say so, but he rarely said wrong to me. The fact that he'd called me and had agreed to work on a full-length novel together inspired a default confidence that kept me going. Plus of course he was just such a great guy to be around.

[Could you describe your current process? What materials do you use and when and where do you work?]

I quit directing in 2000 to go back to creating my own image/word projects in book form. They're far from resolved in terms of final product, but the images are a combination of text and drawn originals painted in Photoshop. I gave up on dirt and water techniques almost as soon as paint systems arrived. Since the end product is going to be reproduced anyway, the idea of an original/original is redundant and the amount of energy spent agonizing over ruining it with a mistake is completely eradicated.

One of the biggest problems with Ah Puch was image style. The project wasn't a conventional comic strip and there wasn't really a precedent for what we were trying to do. Figuring that out as I went a long was a difficult and frustrating process. The original plan was to simply take the line art style in Cyclops and 'color it in', but that looked too much like comic strip and created all kinds of limitations when it came to light and space. Plus Bill never struck me as "comic book." His images had a cinematic quality that weren't flashy or slick looking. Once I decided to go with the concept of the book as a single continuous image, that created more difficulties, since the art had to rolled up. After several aborted attempts with various media I opted for graphite, acrylics, and airbrushed inks. Working with this technique made changes in the text problematic. It meant cutting and gluing patches, or in the worst cases, starting over again. Given the complexity of the imagery and the fact that Bill continued to add and subtract from the text for a couple of years, it wasn't an easy process. Photoshop would have made life a lot easier, but personal computers were science fiction back then. The amount of time spent looking for photo reference, which was an enormous part of the job, would also have been reduced drastically. Now you just click a couple of times with a mouse and you can have a picture of just about anything.

[What visual artists served as your inspiration at the beginning of your career? Why?]

Growing up in the country in England meant most of my influences came from mass media: television, films, magazines etc. There weren't really any art galleries. Certainly not ones showing contemporary art. I studied classical painters naturally. Particularly Bosch, Breughel and the Surrealists. In art school the list obviously got longer: Bacon, Turner, Van Gogh, Schiele, William Blake, RB Kitaj, etc. Film was probably a bigger influence. Kubrick, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard and Bertolucci were in their prime then. Plus there was a lot of underground stuff. Warhol, John Lennon, Ed Emshwiller, Peter Watkin etc..

Bill Burroughs was the beginning of my career so the artists relevant to "Ah Puch" were influential. Coincidentally or inevitably that included Bosch. The reason Bill and Bosch are such a fit is that both of them are able to combine horror and humor in the same frame. The other artist specific to the project was the illustrator Frederick Catherwood who first recorded the Mayan ruins in the 1830s and 40s.

[Did you find living in England to be agreeable for a young artist with your aesthetic interests?]

England is a monarchy, so every time you looked up, there was the queen's ass. It's a strange idea from this perspective but back then it was a view I simply accepted. A class structure which is that entrenched, naturally favors some rather than others, but the Sixties had begun to change things. Working class kids, particularly in the arts, were able to break down a lot of barriers. Bejewelled layabouts still ran the show, but all in all a lot of things were getting better. I went through the system relatively easily. I'd hoped to study Fine Art at Hornsey but they suggested I'd be better off in Graphics. That sent me in a direction I didn't care for but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have been in the right place to take on Bill Burroughs. When I began working with Bill the nature of the English status quo became more apparent. I started to encounter the police more often for example. On one occasion a half dozen members of London's finest visited me at 6 in the morning for a bit of "Wakey wakey". They actually took the time to give me a review of the artwork before they left: "It's very good...but it's a bit sick." In San Francisco the FBI did the same thing. Their comment was simply that it was "frightening."

[Do you sustain yourself solely on profits made from selling your work?]

I don't know about profits, but I've only ever made money from art. The kind of art has varied over the years and the money has varied with it. I began with "Ah Puch," then went into conventional illustration. After that, I wrote and illustrated a science fiction series for a while then switched to 3D as a sculptor, model maker, and set designer. That got me into film and television. I then segued into television design and from there went on to director.

[Looking back on your career what would you have done differently had you known then what you know now?]

A regret for the past is an insult to the present. Everything that's happening now is contingent on everything that preceded it. I wouldn't change a thing.

[Your book is a really interesting read and would be so even for those who have no knowledge of Burroughs or his work. Did you find that compiling the material that ended up as Observed While Falling was an enjoyable process?]

When someone suggested I write about "Ah Puch" I wasn't keen on it at all. Writing about a book that failed seemed tantamount to an autopsy. Not really a fun project to spend a couple of years on. After a couple of months of scanning the artwork and trying to figure out an approach I essentially gave up on the idea. But then another one of the odd "Ah Puch" moments occurred. One that topped all the rest. Frederick Catherwood, the English illustrator who'd been inspirational to the "Ah Puch" artwork reappeared as it were in a way that seemed to relate to the premise of the book. I came across his life story for the first time in a book published in the year 2000, at which point everything changed. He literally brought the project to life. When you nail a coincidence it's a great feeling, but in Catherwood's case there were so many coincidences between his life and my own that it was impossible to ignore. In addition there were correspondences between "Ah Puch is Here" and his own project on the Maya with American writer John Stephens. A word/image collaboration that occurred 160 years ago. This discovery threw new light on the concept of the Word/Image track and also the nature of creative interaction. What was especially interesting was that that it happened long after "Ah Puch" had been abandoned and years after Bill himself had gone. It placed the experience within a much larger ongoing dynamic. Most significantly it finally gave me the opportunity to bring the artwork to light and recount the unique process that led to it.

[What are you working on currently?]

At this point I'm still trying to bring "Ah Puch" to a close. As well as getting OWF published I'm also planning to show the artwork. Much of it is quite fragile after all this time, which means scanning everything and creating prints. Some of the images are large, so it's time consuming. The final sequence alone is 25 feet long by 2 feet wide The two projects I was working on before "Ah Puch" came back to life are both illustrated texts. The first was originally titled "1%" since it deals with the DNA distinction between humans and apes. In the course of writing OWF though, I discovered that other folks already have the dibs on that title, who might not take kindly to the association, so I switched it to "99%" instead. It's non fiction. The other is "0º" which is based on an image I came up with while working on "99%."

An ongoing feature of "Ah Puch is Here" was coincidence and this particular image provided a classic example of the extent to which the phenomenon can go. Like most coincidences however it ultimately had no meaning. With coincidences, even if the correspondences match 100% this remains the case. All that increases is our sense of disquiet. It's a discrepancy I find fascinating. Coincidences do however have effect. A very odd one started "Ah Puch is Here" and another Observed while Falling. In the case of 0º it resulted in a dialogue between two brothers driving along the equator in Africa.

[Your rendering of the scenes of the imagination of Burroughs is amazing. I was glad to see there is a parallel in the book between the art of Hieronymous Bosch and the phantasmagoric aspect of Burroughs' work as represented by your art. Did you ever feel like you were in over your head?]

Starting out with Bill Burroughs while I was still in art school and knowing nothing about him certainly led to a sense of being in over my head. If I'd had any idea of his literary scope or intense personal life I would have been intimidated to say the least. As it was I took him at face value. One of the sincerest, most considerate, normal guys I'd ever met—and of course the smartest. I knew I was in the deep end the moment I met him, but of what and how deep I had no idea. It didn't take long to realize I even had that wrong. Deep under normal conditions implies a bottom. Bill's time /space orientation precluded such a thing.

Making tangible images of the ideas in "Ah Puch" was only hampered by technique. Seeing them was relatively easy. And the more I read and researched the project, the easier it became. Plus there was the odd visualizing factor which initiated the project and which clearly operated throughout.

The imagery of Hieronymous Bosch had been ingrained since I was a teenager, but there were only a couple of occasions where it became specific in the book. The story was to have resolved in The Garden of Earthly Delights with the hero boys setting off into the sunset in the Marie Celeste. Sketches and layouts exist for those scenes but the money ran out before I got there. The only place where I actually incorporated Bosch imagery directly was in the transitional sequence when the biologic plagues sweep across the planet and the old human conditions are erased. It wasn't specified in the text but was simply implicit in the idea. Bosch-like, Burroughs-like mutant imagery was also something that came easy. I'd studied anatomy as a teenager and also taught myself taxidermy. Not just stuffing birds and animals but mixing up their various parts.

[Where will the next 10 years find you?]

I've no idea. As long as they do find me I'm fine.

[It's an absurdity that you have been often excluded from retrospectives on the life of Burroughs. This book should help clarify things for people. Does the fact that "Ah Puch is Here" never saw the light of day simply add to its mystique?]

Given the amount of work and number of years involved, it's an omission that goes a little beyond absurd. Apart from the "Ah Puch" material which represents almost 200 images — 11 pages of which were published in 1976 in Rush magazine — I also illustrated other of Bill's texts: four episodes of "Mr. Hart" in Cyclops, six illustrations in Crawdaddy magazine, two in National Screw magazine, a double page spread in The Berkeley Barb, and end papers for the text-only "Ah Pook is Here." All of which were published. Also the cover for "Ah Pook is Here," four illustrations for Exterminator! and a double-page spread for a comic compendium which were not. In compiling OWF I discovered that Burroughs scholars were often unaware that this much work had been produced, or in a few cases unaware that it existed at all. The fact that the work is documented in published form, yet not mentioned either in retrospectives or the official Burroughs press kit does beg the question.

As far as mystique is concerned, being essentially censored all this time certainly adds an ironic subtext to a book about William Burroughs, but whether or not it sees the light of day depends on whether the "absurdity" in question can finally be overcome. (end)