Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

John Darnielle’s Master of Reality (33 1/3 series)

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I recently wrote a combination review of Dan Clowes’ Caricature (10 years late), Osamu Tezuka’s Apollo’s Song and John Darnielle’s Master of Reality. Look for it in Picturebox’s COMICS COMICS next issue, but here’s some out of context excerpts about Darnielle’s book, which brought to me to tears over coffee in a sunny cafe in Gainesville.


Darnielle’s prose book marks the first work of fiction as a part of the 33 1/3 series of non-fiction books deconstructing or reporting on the making of various famous rock and jazz albums. Darnielle’s book takes as its catalyst and focal point Black Sabbath’s 3rd album, Master of Reality. The story is told in diary form by Roger Painter, lost soul locked up in a juvenile mental ward, trying desperately to communicate to his one seeming reasonably accessible therapist what hearing his heavy metal tapes would do for him. But the ward has locked up his tapes in the nurse’s station (and Roger can SEE them, he knows they are there, and he just wants to listen to them!) In his diary entries to Gary, he pleads to hear his tapes again, specifically Master of Reality, and he attempts to write, in depth, what that music means for him: “So it’s like me and the band are in a hidden cave and they are telling me horror stories and if I even try to tell someone about it there is no way they could understand, because they don’t even know there is a cave…”


Darnielle’s Roger Painter would never say like Rodger Young does, “I was mesmerized by its threadbare earnestness.” These characters are left alone with their thoughts too much and seem to prefer it; they have created comforting, if isolating, shelters there.

Roger is the opposite: he’s dying to evade his own thoughts and the hospital won’t let him. He’s left to hear his own madness constantly. He has no recourse or ability to explore his hatred, no one to hear his opinions and none of the perverse tools the Clowes characters have to wrestle it around. “What I need in my life is to be liberated into feeling bad… What I need is a place where I can spray anger in sparks like a gnarled piece of electrical cable. Just be mad at stuff and soak in the helplessness.”


John Darnielle is best known as the sole (usually) member of the Mountain Goats, and has written, played and sung hundreds of short, fiery songs. His strength as a rock and roll performer has been the percussive force of his sometimes amateurish guitar playing, the ability to tell stories in song about emotionally mangled people, and his need to force those songs out of his lungs. He addresses as his themes the explosive power of mistrusting intimacy, and the grace, beauty and (again) explosive clarity that opening your senses and heart can sometimes offer. He’s at his strongest when his songs address the fact that you can completely love and hate at the same time.

This is the message Roger Painter in Master of Reality was trying to offer to his therapists, and according to Roger, the same message Ozzy is trying to send to his listeners in “After Forever”: “I spent hours every day trying to get you to let me listen to some guy sending me the exact same message that Blue Cross was paying you to sell me all day.”


Darnielle’s Master of Reality uses a similar narrative strategy. Divided into two parts, we hear from Roger Painter at 16 and then again 10 years later. The changes he documents are profound: in the beginning he is desperate for one thing- his tapes, which were never given to him. In the end, he is able to reflect -somewhat unclearly, very angrily and very high- on his experiences and how it has created his current situation. He’s not happy about it, but he can see it.

Weirdly, Darnielle’s Roger Painter is arguably a better person for having gone through all this misery. Deprived and forced to articulate himself to the world, he has become smarter, kinder, more able to see reality and to pierce non-reality. His teenage years were sacrificed, but he has grown emotionally and spiritually stronger: he’s still furious and mangled but he’s less broken. Darnielle know this, and so does Roger, who voices it:

It was like I had a secret that only people who couldn’t do anything to help me could understand… In a way it was you and everybody like you who put the final binding signature on my contract with Black Sabbath. You sealed the deal. Now when I hear them I hear you disappearing into the meaningless passed. [sic.] Too high to write anymore. Still angry. Can’t go back… [ed- add one sentence. Look up.]

Darnielle’s shattering, white-hot understanding of what it is to know what you need but not be allowed near it is so humane and explosive that I can’t imagine reading it and not sobbing for the void of compassionless humanity the book reveals.

Written by hutchowen

September 18, 2008 at 4:36 pm

One Response

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  1. Thank you for writing this review. I’ve been a Mountain Goats fan for awhile, and I just heard Darnielle read some of his book on NPR. What’s more, I am finishing a Masters degree in Counseling Psych. and also doing and internship counseling adolescents. Keep in mind that I haven’t read the whole book yet. I too, found myself sobbing but in amazement, because Roger, even in the state that he is in, still allows us into his life, and with such a nuanced deftness tells us what he needs to develop. What a beautiful gift it is to be allowed to be apart of that.

    Patrick Love

    October 4, 2008 at 6:59 am

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