There’s good reason for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas being regarded as a great work of twentieth century literature; Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 experiment in Gonzo journalism captured the end of ‘60s drug culture in an unforgettably visceral way. If you haven’t read the book (you should) or seen Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film (ditto), you may want to seek out Troy Little’s new graphic novel adaptation.
The story (if you can call it that) sticks very closely to the original, right down to chapter titles and dialogue. Journalist Raoul Duke (a fictional version of Thompson himself) is sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. He takes along his attorney, a rented convertible, and a trunk full of “every kind of drug known to civilised man since 1544 AD”. For Duke (slash Thompson), this is no simple sports journalism assignment but an opportunity to chronicle what’s become of the American Dream – in the least sober way possible.
While this objective may seem somewhat narcissistic, the chaotic events that befall Duke in Vegas make for compelling reading, and Thompson’s manic commentary on society is just as funny as ever – who can forget the irony of Duke being reassigned to cover a national police convention on narcotics control? And in among the insanity, Fear and Loathing has some deep insights into the rapid changes in American society at the time, with the thriving capitalism of the casinos replacing peace and free love as the epitome of the American Dream – the famous passage describing Vegas as “the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back” is a fascinating piece of historical document.
But with the well-established story sticking close to its source material, the success of this volume rests on Little’s artwork; his vibrant, cartoony style doesn’t always capture the depressing, messy depravity of Duke’s journey quite as well as Ralph Steadman’s sketchy illustrations from the original book, nor is it as grotesque as Gilliam’s cinematic version. Nevertheless, the book’s constantly a joy to look at, with the two volatile lead characters extravagantly stylised and with the more surreal hallucinations depicted like a twisted take on a Saturday morning cartoon – Little’s take on the ‘bar full of lizards’ scene is somehow both colourful and grim.
What’s particularly impressive is the way Little uses the comic format to enhance the drug-addled mayhem; as Duke and his attorney get high on various mind-bending substances, the panels stretch and warp appropriately, and very clever use of lettering enhances the erratic tone.
The overall effect is a graphic novel as vivid and manic as the book it adapts. Its strict loyalty to its almost 45-year-old source means there’s nothing particularly surprising here, but it’s nonetheless a thoroughly entertaining adaptation of a fascinating and wonderfully depraved classic. As your attorney, I advise you to read this comic.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS / AUTHOR: HUNTER S. THOMPSON, TROY LITTLE / ARTIST: TROY LITTLE / PUBLISHER: TOP SHELF PRODUCTIONS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW