Daniel Johnston, whose bluesy, soulful songs and out-of-this-world art are influenced by his ongoing struggle with manic depression and other mental illness, is famous for the endearingly lo-fi approach to all that he creates. Now Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment has ushered him into the digital age via a multimedia experience that embraces his pure, childlike aesthetic.
It all began with a website redesign. W+K Entertainment was initially asked to simply rework Johnston’s Hi, How Are You. But the creative team quickly realized it could do so much more if Johnston was game. He was, and a year-and-a-half long collaboration began. “We got to hang out with Daniel last year for a few days on his birthday,” W+K creative director Don Shelford says. “We went to his house [in Texas], did some comic book shopping and ate loads of tacos together. That time spent together was a huge help in creating the right tone and sense of humor for everything we made.”
The collaboration ultimately yielded a graphic novel, an app (now live on ), an album titled Space Ducks: Soundtrack and a SpaceDucks.com hub. “We were hoping that if done right, [the project] could build Daniel’s fan base, make him some money as an artist, and at the same time be something that we could be proud of as an agency,” W+K copywriter Dan Kroeger says.
The graphic novel, Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness, is at the center of the experience and will be launched at SXSW on March 13. Written and illustrated by Johnston, it tells a classic good vs. evil tale, pitting a troop of heroic space ducks against Satan and his spaceship of flying demons. Kroeger describes it as an “intergalactic saga of epic proportions that will make you rethink life, death, existence, and your place in it.”
W+K didn’t give Johnston any guidelines or story ideas–every word and image in Space Ducks, published by BOOM! Studios and available at comic shops worldwide, is straight from Johnston’s imagination. “He knows comics way better than we do, and we knew whatever he came up with we could make into a unique [digital] experience,” Shelford says.
Johnston’s space ducks and flying demons do battle on the iPad app, built in conjunction with French digital developers les éditions volumiques. “We didn’t want to make a straight digital version of the comic book,” Shelford says. “We wanted it to be more inventive than that.”
The app–purposely designed not to look too slick in keeping with Johnston’s homemade aesthetic–offers an interactive way to delve into the story told in the graphic novel through mini movies and games. The app is divided into levels, and when you clear a level, you are rewarded with the ability to unlock and listen to songs from Johnston’s new album. Artists including Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Deer Tick, and Lavender Diamond were invited to create songs based on Johnston’s comic book, and those songs are playable on the app, too.
Bridging traditional and digital media, people who own the graphic novel can tear out a character or spaceship from the last page and place it on the iPad to take gameplay to a higher level. For example, if you move a spaceship from the graphic novel around on the iPad, flames will burst out of the back, you can fire lasers from the front, and other characters on the screen will actually react to it. (FYI: You don’t have to own the graphic novel to be able to enjoy the app and play the games.)
Voices of the some of the characters featured on the app will be recognizable to indie music fans. James Mercer from The Shins, Chris Funk from The Decemberists, and members of Yo La Tengo are among the musicians who lent their voices to the project. (Search Party Music and Brooklyn Vegan curated the music and VO talent.) “This is one of our favorite things about the app. We have some amazing artists doing the most ridiculous things,” Shelford says. “We wanted to keep all the animation very homemade, so every character’s voice, laser noise, spaceship, explosion, devil voice, was created by some of our favorite artists. It’s really fun to guess who did what, and it was a fun way to collaborate.”