If Radiohead cover art were a wordless graphic novel
Sixteen more words appear in this sentence than in Stanley Donwood’s new graphic novel, Bad Island. Donwood, the British artist best known as the visual collaborator for the band Radiohead, is the guy whose disturbing work appears on the album covers for ionic albums like OK Computer and Amnesiac. Now he’s published a wordless picture book.
Like a lot of Donwood’s Radiohead work, Bad Island is moody. He tells it as a series of black-and-white linocut images, each on the right side of each two-page spread. Gone are noise and clutter and overlays; if there’s digital trickery at work here, it’s subtle. The inky drawings look like Donwood could have made them centuries ago as a warning to future generations.
Beginning with a series of wavy sea lines, which will remind fans of the Thom Yorke album cover for The Eraser, Donwood soon reveals sinister clouds and black mountains. As the story progresses at whatever pace your hands can flip the pages, evolution begins, from toothed dinosaurs to the beginnings of villages. Volcanoes silently spew and natural disasters tear at the island, but civilization continues over 176 pages. Until, of course, humans destroy it all, entering it into a ouroboros of destruction and rebirth.
As dark visions go, this one lines up with a lot of Radiohead material associated with Donwood’s art. Not for nothing have critics described the band’s ouvre as “songs to commit suicide to.” But Radiohead’s music can also be arch and funny, ironically wallowing in emo. In the band’s latter years, Yorke and the rest of the band appear to be engaging and grappling with more emotional quests for meaning.
Donwood’s new book, meanwhile, lacks those mature dimensions, keeping to a simple apocalyptic track that doesn’t illuminate or add context to nihilism. If you’ve seen a high-school kid’s notebook drawings of jet fighters raining bullets on fiery cities, you’ve seen a lot of Bad Island already.
The only difference is that Donwood’s visions, one-dimensional as they are, have a way of sticking in your brain, stamping their bad feelings on the observer. “Things are bad,” these pieces of art seem to whisper, “but they can always be a lot worse.”
Hamish Hamilton (February 6, 2020)