Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ed the Happy Clown (1982-2002) and I Never Liked You (1991-93) by Chester Brown

Ed the Happy Clown: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1982-2002; This edition 2012): The absurd, weird, violent, and disturbingly funny graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown got Canada's Chester Brown critical raves almost from its beginning as a self-published mini-comic. Brown would eventually get a publisher (Vortex Comics) and then another publisher (Drawn and Quarterly) as the strip wound down in the pages of Brown's Yummy Fur comic. 

Ed the Happy Clown may not be Brown's most nuanced or artistically complex work, but it may be what he's remembered for 100 years from now, if people still read comics then. It's a horrifying, absurdist comedy, or maybe a comic, absurdist horror work. Or something. Brown was interested in the psychology of surrealism at the time, and so he tried to go with whatever his Sub-conscious and his Id spewed forth. The result is an arresting, page-turner of a nightmare.

Ed is a lovable figure who pretty much defines "acted upon, rather than acting." In a Toronto that vaguely resembles our Toronto, only with more malevolent disembodied hands, vampires, and evil pygmies, Ed finds that Ronald Reagan's head has replaced the head of his own penis. This Reagan is from a world where the people are much smaller, so, um, the head fits. And talks. And vomits. 

This is neither the oddest nor the potentially most offensive thing in Ed the Happy Clown. It's also hilarious, the hilarity augmented by Brown's choice to not make the head look like Ronald Reagan (and when then-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shows up, he doesn't resemble his namesake either, though he is rocking a gnarly beard that makes him look like a somewhat lumpen version of Thomas Mulcair). 

Brown would leave this sort of weird horror comedy behind for the most part in the early 1990's, turning instead to memoir and Canadian history in his subsequent graphic novels. I understand his decision, but lament it too. Ed the Happy Clown is just so gigantically, monstrously weird and entertaining, one wants more when it ends.

Of course, there actually was more. Brown continued the story for several more chapters after this graphic novel ends before abandoning Ed for autobiography. This definitive edition omits those last chapters and adds a new ending, as Brown decided that Ed's story had reached a natural conclusion. I've got no problem with Brown going all Wordsworth's Prelude on us, though I'd like an edition that at least puts the other chapters in an appendix. These aren't easy comics to find at decent prices.

This 2012 edition does give us a lengthy appendix written by Brown. These notes range from explaining emendations to apologizing for the somewhat racist caricatures that are the pygmies (though the pygmies are so ridiculously out-there that it's hard to view them as racial; some, including Brown, would disagree). 

Some of the notes are quite hilarious in and of themselves. For example,  former national NDP leader Ed Broadbent was originally supposed to be the head on Ed the Happy Clown's penis. Others show how much Brown's politics have changed over the decades. When he opines that Ronald Reagan was actually the second-best 20th-century U.S. President after Calvin Coolidge, one wishes that this were just more absurdism. But like Brown's oft-stated belief that mental illness is not an illness and only exists because the medical establishment wants it to be an illness, this is all dead-serious. In any case, highly recommended.

I Never Liked You: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1991-93; collected 1994): Chester Brown's second attempt at long-form comic-book memoir is a much sadder, self-lacerating work than his first (that first being The Playboy). Completed and collected in the early 1990's, I Never Liked You follows Brown's relationships with girls from Grade 3 or thereabouts to the end of high school. 

While there is an overarching structure to the book, it's very faint -- I Never Liked You is as much a series of vignettes as it is a graphic novel. Brown's style is relatively naturalistic for him, though there are some physical exaggerations for some characters. As in The Playboy, Chester Brown as a character has a head that looks an awful lot like an orange on a toothpick. And the girl who utters the title line has gigantic Bambi eyes. 

Most of the vignettes will pack more of a punch for those readers who've consistently felt like outsiders, especially when it comes to gender relations as a teenager. Threaded through the tales of Brown's missteps with girls is the story of his mother's encroaching madness, mental illness that will periodically lead to her hospitalization. 

Brown-the-character's inability to show empathy to his mother (or be nice at all) is an integral part of the book's depiction of his social awkwardness. A scene set in a hospital room as Chester, his father, and brother visit his contorted, near-catatonic mother is the novel's best. That Brown's version of himself at that age makes the moment all about himself and his inability to simply tell his mother that he loves her ties beautifully into the book as a whole, and into the larger body of Brown's autobiographical work. Brown's work often functions as a caustic evaluation of what he perceives as his own consuming self-involvement at various points in his life. But creating a memoir is by definition to be self-involved. There's something of a closed loop involved. 

That Brown would turn to a combination of history and historical biography in his next major work, Louis Riel (Collected 2003) certainly indicates a shift outwards from his contemplation of himself. However, one who reads Brown's Appendix to Louis Riel discovers that part of Brown's interest in the controversial rebel came from Riel's own audio and visual hallucinations, things which reminded Brown of his mother's madness. I Never Liked You is a solid piece of graphic storytelling, unsentimental and almost morbidly self-revelatory. Recommended.

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