The Strange, Internal Worlds of Henry Darger

Let’s talk today about Batshit insanity in art. I’m not talking about the usual ‘depression and drink and drugs’ stuff either. No, I mean the manic, crudely-done scratchings on the wall of the cave or padded cell or whatever of the truly, brilliantly insane. The sort of inspired lunacy that can’t be replicated out here, where a line exists between the real and the nightmare. The mad, downward spiral that Alejandro Jodorowski walked with Dune or the trips in the collective subconscious that were the old pre-war Golden Age comics “each panel like some uncanny rebus, all surfaces stirring from beneath with some incompletely disclosed or acknowledged emotional disquiet, a barely sublimated mystical Freudian dream” [1]. The real stuff, strange and driven and completely authentic with the guilelessness of the mad.

Specifically, let’s talk about Henry Darger (1892-1973). There is some vagueness whether Henry Darger was actually, diagnosed, medically insane. He did time in a mental institution, yes, but in the first decade of the 20th Century, not exactly a high-water mark for the science of mental health, and under a diagnosis of “self-abuse” (masturbating). He was 13 at the time. That’s not entirely unlike convicting fish for being too damp. Some have claimed he might have had Tourettes, others that he might have had Asperger Syndrome. He has been accused of pedophilia and lauded as a protector of children. He is a hard man to get to know, having been discovered posthumously after a life lived in the humblest of obscurities.

The reason we’re talking about him here, however, is his writings. His bibliography is either huge or quite small, depending on how you measure such things. He only wrote three books. But between them, he wrote well over 30,000 pages, not words, PAGES of text, small type, single spaced. His magnum opus is the mammoth 15K+ ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion‘ in which seven small girls get involved in a cosmos-spanning epic that includes universal Catholicism, shape-shifting giant monsters (those are the good guys), interplanetary war, a giant planet around which the earth orbits, child slavery, child torture, brutal, graphic deaths, self-insertion into the story, and general madness. He illustrated the books himself, with a combination of watercolors, magazine cutouts, and tracing from advertising. And not just little pictures in the corner of the page, either, but huge, sometimes as big as thirty-foot, canvases, sometimes painted on both sides. And the nature of these illustrations was distressing, ranging from otherworldly supernatural creatures, to naked girls with penises (most of the naked children he painted, which is not a phrase I ever expected to type, had penises. He might have been confused about what girls actually had down there), to vast, Bosch-esque scenes of murder and torture, done in the style of children’s books.

Here’s the thing that gets me about this thing. There’s a sequel. Unfinished, but it exists, he ‘only’ got about 10,000 pages into ‘Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago‘, in which the heroines of his first work try to exorcise a possessed house and rescue Darger himself from the ‘Crazy House’ (a reference to his time in the institution?). He also wrote an autobiography, which spent 200 pages on him and over 4500 pages on a tornado named ‘Sweetie Pie’.

In the end, there are no answers in Darger. Was he the abused children that populated his work? Was he mad? Was he a pedophile or just confused where the lines were drawn? He must have been obsessed to produce this volume of work never meant to see the light of day, but with what?

I don’t know. But there’s something about the thought of a hidden and disquieting worlds spinning alone inside the skull of an obsessed man that intrigues, that piques the curiosity and certainly, warrants further research.

[1] Letham, Jonathan, Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books, 2009.

Some other sources:
-The Wikipedia article:
-A longer, illustrated essay on him:
-A 2008 museum exhibit based on his work:

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