September 29, 2009
A Brain on Fire, Spreading to Phones
By RANDY KENNEDY
The Texas singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston has always poured at least as much of his wild energy into his artwork — brightly colored drawings of a kind of Manichean war in his mind — as he has into his songs. But aside from the stray album cover or concert T-shirt emblazoned with his creations, his art and music rarely come together.
That they have now done so in a video game, released last week for the iPhone, seems somehow fitting in the topsy-turvy career of Mr. Johnston, who has never owned any kind of cellphone, let alone an iPhone, and has no telephone at all in his house in a small town northwest of Houston. (To reach him you have to call his father, next door, who summons Mr. Johnston via intercom.)
The game — called “Hi, How Are You,” one of Mr. Johnson’s catchphrases — was created by two designers in Austin, Tex., who said they had always been enamored of Mr. Johnston’s music and wanted to find an entertaining way to use it while bringing to life the characters that people his artwork. They have names like Jeremiah the Innocent (who takes the form of, among others, a frog with eyes on stalks) and Joe Boxer (a pugilist missing the top of his head).
The result is a kind of psycho-religious version of Frogger, the classic arcade game. In Frogger the objective is to make it, unsquashed and undrowned, across a busy highway and a rushing river. In “Hi, How Are You” it is to navigate Jeremiah and other embodiments of the protagonist through a morally fraught three-dimensional world of glowing red demon babies and other malign forces seeking to keep him from the girl of his dreams, a recurring motif for Mr. Johnston, who suffers from severe bipolar disorder.
“We wrapped the game around his whole story of a man going through life trying to find his true love but constantly having to contend with evil and with Satan, which are probably the demons within himself,” said Peter Franco, who designed the game over the last year and a half with Steve Broumley.
They spent many of those months simply trying to grasp Mr. Johnston’s cosmology through his songs and drawings, which mix his own creations with several stock comic-book characters — not in the game because of licensing costs — like Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost. “There are so many more characters in Daniel’s world,” Mr. Franco said. “I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface.”
The game, which costs 99 cents and uses the iPhone’s tilt sensor and other features, plays out with Mr. Johnston’s high, heartfelt voice providing much of the music in the background, in songs like “Funeral Girl,” “Some Time Spent in Heaven” and “True Love Will Find You in the End.”
Mr. Johnston, 48, began his career in the 1980s handing out cassette tapes of his self-recorded songs on the streets of Austin and exclaiming, “Hi, my name is Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous!”
Over the last several years, even as he has struggled with his health and been hospitalized, his work and life have been at the center of a flurry of attention. He was the subject of a well-received 2005 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Kiki and Herb have covered his songs. His drawings, which he once gave away or traded for comic books, have been commanding thousands of dollars each in the art world; several were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
For many years he lived with his elderly parents near Waller, Tex. But enough money has been generated recently from the sales of his drawings and music — and from licensing agreements like the kind his family made with the video-game makers — to allow him to move into the small ranch-style house that his father built for him next door.
His brother, Dick, who is his business manager, said Mr. Johnston had quickly transformed the house into a museum for his prodigious collection of pop-culture kitsch, which has overflowed most of the rooms and taken up residence in the kitchen, where all the doors have been removed from the cabinets to create display shelves.
“He’s really settled down well there and he’s happy,” Dick Johnston said. The artist now has a cat, Spunky, and even a computer, though he has refused to learn how to do much with it, his brother said, adding that Mr. Johnston briefly played the iPhone game while it was being developed and seemed to like it.
Reached at his father’s house recently after he had returned from a concert tour in the Midwest, Mr. Johnston did not seem to remember much about the game or having played it. Asked what he thought of his work serving as the basis for a video game, he sighed and said, “Just another milestone in Daniel Johnston history, I guess.”
But he added that he had come of age when a video game was played with a joystick, on a television screen, usually one encased in a large wooden box with slots for quarters. “If they make it into a real video game, it might work out, I guess,” he said. “I don’t even know what an iPhone is.”
Daniel Johnston / Is And Always Was (854882201235 / EYE125 / C12) – Available 10/6