Ralph Steadman says he likes the Ralph Steadman of "For No Good Reason." And that, perhaps, is a problem.
"I think it makes me too nice — too pleasant, yes," says the 78-year-old British cartoonist whose manic style long served as the perfect complement for Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo ravings. "I think I should be a little grumpier. I should say something like Scrooge — you know, 'Bah, humbug!'"
A delighted chuckle follows, leaving it an open question whether the subject of director Charlie Paul's 15-years-in-the-making documentary, which opens today, really means what he says. Delivered in a perfectly charming British accent, it appears unlikely. But Steadman's drawings are truly subversive: It took a truly bizarre and wicked pen to keep up with Thompson as he twisted traditional journalism into something barely recognizable through such clarion calls as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Curse of Lono." Locally, Steadman's artwork decorates the bottles pouring out of Frederick's Flying Dog Brewery.
So maybe he shouldn't come across as cheery?
OK, we'll buy it. Compared to the legendarily cantankerous and proudly unmanageable Thompson, however, Steadman comes across as a veritable pussycat. But both men, it turns out, were drawing their artistic sustenance from the same well, a pervading sense of '70s-era disillusionment with how the optimism of the '60s had soured, plus cynicism over the possibility of things getting any better. If Thompson's writings revealed the soft white underbelly of an age, Steadman's drawings made it visible.
"People have felt I must be an unpleasant person, because the drawings are so nasty," Steadman says over the phone from New York, where he's doing promotional work for the film. "Whatever. But I think they're just skeptical drawings. I felt, if somebody's ugly, I'll make them twice as ugly.
"What I wanted to be was a satirist — I think they call them that," Steadman says of his early days with a pencil, a career he stumbled into after answering one of those "You too can learn to draw and earn thousands" ads. "I went through a phase in the 1960s, the satire boom. And after the satire boom, I came to America. I came with that sort of angry outlook on things."
Which made Steadman a perfect fit for Thompson. Their association began with a 1970 article for Scanlan's Monthly, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," and continued through articles and books that savaged Richard Nixon, Las Vegas, the Super Bowl, the American Dream (which, in their minds, had been corrupted beyond recognition) and plenty of other benchmarks of polite society. Many were published in Rolling Stone magazine, which long listed Thompson as its national affairs editor and Steadman as its contributing editor for gardening (a masthead position Steadman retains to this day).
In conversation, Steadman can sound almost merry. Maybe it's the accent. But it masks a world view that's been decades in the making, one that can trace its origins to a memorable first visit to New York, where the despair he encountered practically overwhelmed him ("I'd seen bums in England, but this was like an institution of bums – New York was like that") and was nurtured through his decades-long friendship with Thompson.
And it continues to this day. His drawings, seemingly haphazard splotches of ink that suggest a world on the verge of implosion, seem as resplendently morose as ever. The world continues to disappoint him, Steadman says, and how can his art not reflect that?
"I think the world is worse," he says, sounding completely — if perhaps off-handedly — serious. "My wife always says, 'Don't be negative, always be optimistic.' I must be optimistic and say, 'What a wonderful future we have!'
"I don't know. One can be optimistic. But why is all this killing going on in the world still? Afghanistan and everything. Dammit, it's terrible."