Michael Bierut | Essays

Fear and Loathing in Pen and Ink

Ralph Steadman, Drawing from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson, 1971

When I learned last week of the death by suicide of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the first thing that came to mind wasn't a piece of writing, book title, or turn of phrase. It was the work of his longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman. I'm sure I wasn't alone. Violent, anarchic, hallucinatory, Steadman's vivid drawings always seemed to me to capture Thompson's psyche better than his own prose did.

Has there ever been a writer so indelibly associated with one artist's work, or vice versa? Given the association of Thompson's brand of Gonzo Journalism with the world of rock and roll (Rolling Stone was a favored outlet), this may not be surprising. In recorded music, those kinds of partnerships are commonplace: think of Neon Park and Little Feat, Pedro Bell and Parliament/Funkadelic, Roger Dean and Yes. As Hunter S. Thompson mutated from writer to rock star, it was Steadman's inky hand that provided the gaudy costumes.

The two first met when the editor of Scanlan's decided to pair them for a story on the Kentucky Derby. At first Thompson was startled to find himself saddled with the dyspeptic twenty-something son of a Welsh miner's daughter and an English traveling salesman. (Thompson later told an interviewer, "I don't think he even liked the idea of this country, much less the reality.") But the combination was fruitful. As Steadman told the Guardian last week, "He realized that I was looking through a glass darkly, seeing things I'd never seen before, like southern people enjoying themselves in a weird and wonderful way. It was fresh and alien to me, so I became a conduit for him. That's how Gonzo started."

Ralph Steadman transformed Hunter S. Thompson from a mere writer you could read, to a brand you could experience, to a lifestyle you could — at your own peril — call your own. Steadman's legacy of drawings provide the perfect wordless epitaph.

Comments [22]

If illustrators (artists in general) are there to create brands out of writers, I think we are reaching a dangerous place.
felipe gil

Other dymamic duos included John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll, E. McKnight Kauffer and T.S. Elliot (paired by editor/art director Frank Zachary, for a Portfolio magazine feature (the piece never ran, however, they continued to work together), and both Ben Shahn and Al Hirschfeld were alternatively paired with humorist S.J. Perlman.

The one who paired Thompson with Steadman was Scanlan's art editor/designer, J.C. Suares, who also later became art director of the Times OpEd page in its formative years.

The pairing (or branding) of illustrators and writers stems from a long and, sadly, lost tradition.
s heller


Steve, thanks for reminding us about those previous pairings. I hope the tradition doesn't end with Thompson and Steadman. And I didn't know that it was J.C. Suares who called in Steadman for his first U.S. assignment. It was a brilliant move.
Michael Bierut

I think illustrated literature in general is a tradition on the wane, right? Although who knows, this may be a cycle that comes back around -- certainly most text on the internet comes with pictures.

A few more examples I can think of: from the field of comics (er, sequential art), McKean and Gaiman have paired dozens of times. From children's literature, Quentin Blake is distinctly the look of Roald Dahl.

In music, (I know this one shouldn't count since I think she's the frontman's girlfriend, but...) the amazing illustrations, typography and paintings of Carson Ellis have been the consistent face of the Decemberists; inseperable in my mind.

Sorry about my examples getting further and further from the point. It's a tough trick trying to follow Messrs Beirut and Heller.


"Has there ever been a writer so indelibly associated with one artist's work, or vice versa?"

E.H. Shepard/A.A. Milne - Conan Doyle/Sidney Paget - Dickens/Boz - Stan Lee/Jack Kirby - Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake - New Order & Joy Division/Peter Saville...

Perhaps not as complex a tandem as Steadman/Thompson, but the Heller/Victore combo - the closest analogy in our profession - through Allworth Press should be acknowledged.

An example from the world of music would be the longtime (20+ year) collaborations between Anton Corbijn and U2.

>>If illustrators (artists in general) are there to create brands out of writers, I think we are reaching a dangerous place.
Posted by: felipe gil at February 28, 2005 07:26 PM<<

The danger is not that illustrators (or designers and photographers) exist to "create brands" out of writers, it's whether writers assume ownership of that creation. In Hunter Thompson's case, he acknowledged what the collaboration gave him, and ran with it for the rest of his career and we, the public, have benefitted. That's different from a writer assuming that his chicken comes before the artist's egg, as it were, lacking appreciation what the artist brings to the table to create that (visual) image of the writer in the minds of the reading public.

The fact that these collaborations occur less so now than in the past reveals more about how writers view themselves as a brand/product that they must somehow control and receive sole profit from. Not gonzo at all.

If anything, it's notable that the Thompson/Steadman collaboration began in magazines--not in book publishing--where a writer is less of a brand and more of a contributor to a larger whole.

For my part, it is a collaboration that will be missed.
Jesse Marinoff Reyes

Fascinating idea, Mr. Beirut -- that an illustrator could have created the brand for the novelist. When book design pushes popularity of the books and illustrators accidentally create a writer's brand, it is an interesting world.
Isaac B2

Words truly paint only half the picture.
The article that got me searching the internet for a visual was an account I read, in ink on paper, of the campaign poster that LA Times writer Scott Martelle has in his home. The headlines had announced Hunter S. Thompson's suicide and a few pages over I read "... a red, inexplicably two-thumbed fist holding a bluish peyote cactus and flower."
Curiosity led me to it on my screen and only then did I know that it was a fist mirrored on a vertical median to have the look of a second clasped thumb thereby omitting the 'little finger' which is usually tucked tightly next to the 'ring finger' -symmetry was the effect they were going for...
In the article referenced above, Steadman states his puzzlement over the gonzo journalist's quip, "Two thumbs! Always remember, two thumbs!".
And no pinky.

I know this is a visual art forum but I find it cliche to focus on Ralph Steadman in commenting on the loss of Hunter Thompson. Steadmans drawing are fantastic and he is of course part of Thompson's legacy, but as thinking designers we should be able comment on a great writers work without having to immediately rush to a visual association.

I also find the idea of Ralph Steadman's work creating "a brand you could experience" pretty darn cynical.


I think that Steadman's vision was not only complementary to Thompson's, but actually an element that helped HST refine his very distinctive world view. I did not mean to take anything away from Thompson's originality. Thompson's introduction to Steadman's book America, now sadly out of print, makes his debt to the artist clear.

I did not mean to be cynical when said "a brand you could experience" but was trying to express that Steadman's visual contribution expanded of the "idea" of Hunter S. Thompson beyond the sum of his written words. Forgive the inexact language then and now.

Not mentioned here is Garry Trudeau's invention of the Doonesbury character "Dr. Duke," still another version of the HST myth in still another medium.
Michael Bierut

Brandon part 2:

I think the problem here is semantic:

Too often and too easily the "b" word is invoked because it has become shorthand for almost everything that implies commercial "identity."

Since when did artists have "a brand?" Well, strictly speaking anyone with a recognizable style is "branded." Sadly, the word has negative connotations as well as practical ones.

So as far as I'm concerned Steadman did not "brand" HST, but complimented his talents in such a way that the two became one (at least when they worked on the same projects). But far from it being a calculated branding strategy it was a creative pairing of two wild men to create editorial excitement.

If art directors serve no other function in life, it is to forge these relationships. When they click, the results are memorable. And yes, when they click it might be call it a brand.

BTW, another great pairing was Bukowski and Crumb. But this kind of editorial fusion is not as common today, and I'm not quite sure why.

It is clear, though, the Thompson/Steadman relationship was such a brilliant match that even though the two went on to do many things independent of one another, their work together is something of a legend. BTW, Steadman used to tell me stories about his and HST's exploits, and I can say what you see on paper is just the tip of an amazing ride.

s heller

True, the word "brand" has gained a negative connotation- but only relatively. Yes, anything recognizable is technically "branded" but that word is so mechanical. When talking about a product, or even an art museum it's appropriate. But when referring to an artists words or brush stroke it comes off a little cold. I don't want to make to big a deal of this because I know this was not the intention. We're clearly all fans of both men's work. I think as people working in the field of graphic design it's easy to blur the lines between art and product (we do it every day), so it's important to stop every now and then and simply feel something emotional in response to art.

Thanks to Mr. Bierut for posting on HST / Steadman. Ralph Steadman is by far my favorite illustrator, and has influenced my painting quite a bit (more than my design, I guess). I think the height of their collaboration was "The Curse of Lono", which, though not HST's best work, really paired the two as equal collaborators (though perhaps that wasn't the original plan).

Another pairing that comes to mind is that of John Bellairs and Edward Gorey in Bellairs' adolescent horror novels (i.e. The Curse of the Blue Figurine). Illustration is obviously much more common in youth literature, but Gorey's works seemed to capture the feeling of Bellair's novels in the same elemental way that RS captured HST's.

Or something.

Matthew Hale

You can also add Edward Gorey and the poet and children's book writer John Ciardi. Or Edward Gorey and the poet Felicia Lamport.

Perhaps as iconic as HST/Steadman in certain circles, Leonard Baskin and Ted Hughes.

NB: Baskin and Gorey were bullpen mates designing and illustrating covers at Anchor Books in the 1950s.
Jesse Marinoff Reyes

BTW, another great pairing was Bukowski and Crumb. But this kind of editorial fusion is not as common today, and I'm not quite sure why


This is only a semi-educated, cynical opinion, but maybe this kind of fusion no longer occurs as much anymore because non-editorial, or more specifically, non-art directorial people are calling the shots now, and are afraid of anything that smacks of risk-taking (even if you or I find the notion as old as the hills), or rather, are uncomfortable with ceding that kind of power over the printed page to "the art department."

When you were the AD of the op ed page at the Times back in the day, you did things with illustrators and broke out talent in a way that just doesn't happen anymore. Surely stuff that gets accepted through the editorial filters there now obviously pales in comparison, the art is compromised but for the occassional nugget. Looking back (in THE ART OF THE TIMES), makes one think one were looking at some kind of avant garde counterculture rag compared to now--and it was "The Grey Lady" more so then than it is now!

Why is that? (Did the spirit just die with Nixon's resignation?)

Jesse Marinoff Reyes
Jesse Marinoff Reyes

in those proverbial golden old days there were more magazines interested in devoted space to visual (ilustrated) essays:
Frank Zachary's Holiday, Richard Gangel's Sports Illustrated, Henry Wolf's Esquire, Walter Bernard and Milton Glaser's New York, to name a few. These were breeding grounds for author/artist collaborations. Similarly, book publishers were also more vociferous about pairing artist to writer. I suppose McSwny's does this in a way today.

But now perhaps photography is considered by editor and art director at once more real and artful than illustration. Or they think illustration as too abstract.

But one thing about now, as opposed to then, has been the rise of graphic novels, and comics biography and autobiography. There may not be a Steadman/Thompson or Baskin/Ciardi nexus today, but there are many more auteurs, writer/artists. And, as someone mentioned above, the children's book field continues to keep the tradition going, Bret Helmquist and Lemony Snicket is a case in point. But there are others too.

It only takes a few art directors and/or editors, and only a few visible venues to keep the tradition alive. Remember there are actually comparatively few duos mentioned on this post because in a 200 year history of American publishing, there were only a few dozen that truly were successful.
s heller


JC Suares was the art director for the Art of the Times era. I inherited that legacy, and other art directors went in other directions.

As noted the Times was the Old Grey Lady back in the late 60s. The OpEd was the first venue for graphic commentary of its kind. But it was never a breeding ground for author/artist collaborations. Magazines had more space and could accommodate more expansive text/art features.

I do believe that photography has taken away some of the thunder from illustration.

The author/illustrator collaboration, however, certainly continues as one shot affairs. There are various books, as you know, that are totally illustrated by one artist (Barbara Kruger even illustrated My Pretty Pony by Stephen King). And the artist as author continues - Henrik Drescher is a great example of a visual storyteller. Maira Kalman has done exciting things (and is working on an opus as we write). And Christoph Neimann and Nicholas Blechman's new book, "Evil" is a good example of visual storytelling/commentary. Precedents abound.

Jesse, perhaps as an a.d. at a respected publishing house your mission should be to jumpstart the tradition again.
s heller

Steven -

You are correct, J.C Suares was the point man at OpEd before you and I was remiss in blanking on that fact (must be the deadline, or the cold medicine...). However, your contribution there is not to be dashed off so easily. The arc that began with J.C. and carried on through your participation (and thereafter for a time) was one of the outstanding achievements in editorial art direction--especially in newspapers, period. It may not have been a breeding ground for the kind of collaborations that we've discussed at this post, but a terrific achievement all the same.

We had something like that (or we tried to), but on a much smaller playing field in Seattle at The Rocket (r.i.p.), with a string of young art directors one after the other over a sustained period trying to innovate and make a visual statement with a great cadre of young illustrators, cartoonists and photographers. But I digress...

As an a.d. at a respected publishing house, it would please me to no end to attempt to stimulate the kind of artist/writer collaboration that could evoke what HST and Steadman were. Regretably, my comments over "non-art directorial types calling the shots" plays an even more destructive role here and in book publishing in general than my gripes over today's OpEd page process.

But I appreciate the encouragement. It's a struggle to crank out a decent cover or jacket now and again let alone sustain a period of excellence. It's a radically different publishing environment now than when I segued into the field from magazine publishing a little over a decade ago. But we try.

Thankfully there is an all-too rare collaboration of sorts being produced here (in adult trade, as opposed to children's) thanks to one of our brighter editors, as the wonderful Peter Sis has illustrated "The Book of Imaginary Beings" (by the great South American writer, Jorge Luis Borges). It may not be a true collaboration (as Borges is long passed away), but a wonderful combination all the same. I just wrapped up the (front of) jacket and it'll be a nice little item later this year when it's released.

Jesse Marinoff Reyes

Funny, I use the old paperback cover of Fear and Loathing (which included the art reproduced here) in my publication design class as an example of a great combining of various elements - graphics, typography and color - to provide a feeling and communicate the sense of the book so well. Steadman's illustrations are what I see when I read Thompson - their pairing was inspired.

But I'm with Jesse. I almost choked on the word brand. Must we "brand" everything and everyone? And before Steadman, HST was a "mere writer you could read?"

Each and every writer aspires to create sentences and paragraphs which carry the reader away into a new place, to access their own imaginations in fleshing oout the word pictures painted by the writer. Steadman's art certainly gave vivid shape to HST's words, but in HST's case, those words were pretty freaking vivid to begin with.

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