In June, 1970, the magazine SCANLAN’S MONTHLY published “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The piece was written “under duress” by Hunter S. Thompson and sketched “with eyebrow pencil and lipstick” by Ralph Steadman. It was the suitably bizarre double birth of gonzo journalism and gonzo art and both came to full flower a few years later with FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1971), the slender, brilliant book which might seem to be the definitive work of gonzo.
Only it wasn’t, because gonzo can neither be defined nor definitive. In the hands of a talented artist such as Ralph Steadman, gonzo is more than a style: it is a response and reproach to a culture that has produced pollution, poverty, prejudice, politicians and—above all—indifference to all of these. Society may have learned to turn a blind eye, but when these are brilliantly presented by Ralph Steadman, no one can fail to see, nor can anyone remain indifferent.
Steadman’s vision, while uniquely that of the twentieth century, is rooted in the great artistic moralists and satirists of the past. Steadman’s grotesque creatures, part human being coupled with a smear of beast and a plating of machinery, remind readers of Hieronymus Bosch’s surrealistic visions or Francisco Jose de Goya’s nightmare monsters swarming from the dreams of reason. These drawings indeed express the classical definition of satire as an expression of moral nausea.
They are also, incredibly and undeniably, outrageously funny. They defy the viewer not to laugh at their broad exaggerations, their sweeps of color and excess of line. In the end, they are precisely gonzo because they go (as gonzo always goes) too far for good taste, but never too far from common human reality.