The black-humored art of Ralph Steadman is forever linked with the outrageous writing of the late Hunter S. Thompson, the dean of gonzo journalism and a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone. Steadman, an English cartoonist and painter, first accompanied his friend to the Kentucky Derby at the end of the Sixties – an assignment that infamously helped Thompson create his unique style of writing, which ran roughshod over any pretense of objectivity and evenhandedness. Steadman, now 77, drew in a slashing, gleefully spattered style rooted invariably in the notion that it's all unremittingly horrible. . . so let's have a drink. His work is collected in the magnificent new book Proud Too Be Weirrd, excerpted here for the first time. —James Sullivan
Horrors and nightmares have plagued (and inspired) Steadman's work from the very beginning. The artist's worldview was shaped during the 1940-1941 Nazi blitz on London, when the four-year-old was routinely woken up by the sounds of air-raid sirens and his mother hustling him to bomb shelters.
Later, while serving in the Royal Air Force between 1954 and 1956, Steadman worked as a radar operator and learned technical drawing, which would help define his unique style.
Studying graphic art in the early Sixties, Steadman eventually had his work accepted by Punch, the U.K. magazine that was an equivalent to the New Yorker.
In 1969, Steadman was assigned by Warren Hinckle's short-lived Scanlan's Monthly to accompany Hunter S. Thompson, the acclaimed author of Hell's Angels, to cover the Kentucky Derby. The piece they produced, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," focused on the parties surrounding the race in Thompson's hometown of Louisville. Steadman later recalled their introduction, when he was accosted by "two fierce eyes, firmly socketed inside a bullet-shaped head. . . damn near 6-foot-6 of solid bone and meat."
Over the years, as Thompson built his legend on Rolling Stone's National Affairs Desk, Steadman's hallucinogenic illustrations were right there alongside, riding shotgun. "Hunter was part of the DNA of Rolling Stone, one of those twisting strands of chemicals around which a new life is formed," wrote editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner when Thompson died by his own hand. To this day, Steadman remains the magazine's gardening correspondent.
Animals of all kinds fascinate Steadman, who has published collections on dogs, cats and "extinct boids."
A year after Thompson's 2005 suicide, Steadman published The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me, a memoir about their time together.
As evidenced here and throughout Proud Too Be Weirrd, Steadman's art has taken many fantastic turns over the years.
In addition to his work for Rolling Stone, Steadman has illustrated dozens of books, including new versions of Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451, as well as books about Sigmund Freud and Leonardo da Vinci.
"We seem to think we have some control over this planet" is Steadman's most celebrated quotation.
Regarding his work, Steadman has also said, "I see if I can make human beings look like reptiles."
"God invented mankind because he loves silly stories."
(c) 2013 Ralph Steadman, used under license by AMMOBooks.com.