Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

201204170825After I read Gonzo: the Life of Hunter S. Thompson a few years ago I figured I knew everything I wanted to know about the famous journalist. But then I received a review copy of Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson by Will Bingley (author) and Anthony Hope-Smith (illustrator). I was attracted to its bright orange cover and the drawing of the long-legged Thompson clutching a satchel, running away from something. It was enough to entice me to crack open the book. I didn't stop reading until I was finished, past my bedtime, a couple of hours later.

201204170827180 pages isn't much room to examine a life in minute detail. Instead, Bingley tells a story (as if it were written, quite convincingly, by Thompson himself) of Thompson's frantic search to find meaning in the turbulent era he lived in. Bingley's story is about a passionate, rebellious genius who sprinted too fast at the beginning of a long-distance race, collapsed early, and spent his remaining decades burnt-out, crawling bewilderedly.

The book's forward, written by Thompson's longtime editor, Alan Rinzler, is especially revealing. Rinzler believes that Thompson could have been the "heavyweight champion of American letters," but his self-destructive behavior, which got worse with each passing year, ruined that opportunity.

I was interested to read how Thompson and Rinzler worked together:

In order to make the deadline for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, for example, we set up an old Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder in his room at the Seal Rock Inn, and I'd pepper him with questions, which he'd answer profusely. Then we'd have it transcribed, edit me out, and polish up the remaining text for the book itself. It took three days and nights but turned out pretty well in my opinion. After that we did Amerika, The Great Shark Hunt, and The Curse of Lono using better hardware, smaller machines, ending up in 1981 with a tiny hand-held table-top micro-recorder.
After Lono, says Rinzler, "Hunter's substance abuse, writer's block and brief attention span were increasing exponentially. He's slip out to see his dealer and come back so tanked he couldn't think straight." Thompson's work became a series of "repetitious, mediocre, regurgitated articles and books and collections he allowed to be issued and reissued over the last 30 years of his life."

The Curse of Lono was the last book by Thompson I read, but I don't doubt Rinzler's assessment of the quality of Thompson's books that followed. (Thompson's awful "Hey Rube!" columns for an ESPN website were enough to keep me uninterested in his newer books). But his earlier work, especially Hell's Angels, is so good that I will always admire Thompson as a heavyweight contender who showed a very promising start. Bingley and Hope-Smith's book reinforces that opinion. Buy Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson on Amazon


  1. Hey Rube awful?!  Occasionally, yes I suppose, but it would be a shame to dismiss the totality of the column out of hand simply because of his astute reading of the events on 9/11/01 and his prediction of what our future would hold.  I believe that column was published on 9/13 and he was as cogent and spot on as his early days.   His final book “Kingdom of Fear” I would also rank among his best works from the 70’s.  His analysis of the post 9/11 Bush years were trenchant and insightful, he was in his element again and got his teeth back a bit.  If you are a devotee of HST I think you owe it to yourself to read that work.  regardless, thank you for turning me on to this graphic novel.  I just always hate to hear the seemingly popular opinion that HST wrote nothing worthwhile after the Songs of the Doomed era or wherever people draw the line.

    1. Thanks Mike. I have only read a few “Hey Rube” columns and didn’t think they were very good. But I should read some more, I guess.

  2. I always wondered how Thompson managed to balance writing with so much drinking and drug use. It never occurred to me he had someone help him put it all together.

    I also hope I remember this correctly, but I found one of the most profound lines in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas to be when Duke and his attorney told someone that they were looking for the American dream, and were told by someone “the place burned down about three years ago”. I was disappointed that moment didn’t make it into the movie.

  3. “a passionate, rebellious genius who sprinted too fast at the beginning of a long-distance race, collapsed early, and spent his remaining decades burnt-out, crawling bewilderedly.”

    Yep, that about sums it up. When he was good, he was great. And he was great a lot early. Not so much later.

    1. Yeah, Steadman is the only illustrator for HST. Anything else just seems like the egregious Trudeau version.

  4. I like accuracy, and I live a block from there, so I’m sorry to see the artist has drawn Haight and Ashbury with a view of the Bay Bridge. Nope. It’s not even on a hill, man. Either Mr. Hope-Smith has neglected to do his research, or when he visited the drugs were pretty strong.

      1. Understood, but there is no vantage point like the one he drew where you can see houses below, or the bridge. I live right there.

  5. HST’s quality did decline quite a bit in his later years–and, IMO, the terrible self-knowledge of this probably drove him to suicide as much as the physical pain that he was in–but I wonder if it wasn’t the times that he was living in and his feelings of irrelevancy to them that led him to go over the top with the drugging. At least with Nixon, he seemed to be able to balance Nixon’s monstrousness against his humanity, but successive exposure to ever-more conservative and heartless presidents must have been torture to someone who seemed to prepare himself for writing by methodically scraping away the psychic calluses that most of us depend on to get through the day. 

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