Chester Brown’s Ed is a clown, yes. Happy? Well, uh…
I’ve taken the zig-zag path into Montreal-born cartoonist Brown’s work, having gotten caught up in the general acclaim for Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, then worked my way back into the autobiographical I Never Liked You before finally getting current with Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John (my interview with Brown around that book can be seen here). All those books were enormously impressive, and all in different ways; it was almost as if Brown had set himself the challenge of never remotely repeating himself. That was what I thought before I had set eyes on Ed The Happy Clown, a work long spoken of in hushed tones but heretofore available only in impossibly rare early numbers (and occasional reissues) of Yummy Fur and an increasingly scarce book from the now-defunct Vortex Comics. Now, with their customary curatorial diligence and immaculate production values, Drawn & Quarterly have brought out a definitive hardcover edition with a new foreword and extensive end notes from the author. And the depth and range of Brown’s oeuvre is even more undeniable.
Ed The Happy Clown’s general premise and plot pretty much defy describing in a family-friendly publication, and that’s probably just as well. A state of unfolding surprise and increasing amazement (disbelief? incredulity?) is by far the best state in which to attempt to absorb it. It’s also the closest we newcomers can come to replicating the way the work’s original readers came to Ed when it began appearing in installments back at the dawn of Canadian underground comics culture. So if I say that the story centers on a man’s discovery that the head of a major head of state has appeared on his, ahem, reproductive organ, and that a portal has been discovered into a parallel dimension whose accessing involves passing through another man’s, ahem, digestive tract, and that pygmies and vampire hunters and avenging medieval housewives are involved…you might well throw up your hands and say something like “Sorry, just too weird.” And that would be a shame. So I won’t.
It would be a shame because we know by now that Brown tends to work on several levels simultaneously. Paying For It was an exercise in frank personal sexual memoir, yes. But it was also a soundly presented case for the reform of Canada’s prostitution laws. Similar with Ed The Happy Clown. Yes, it’s a wild, joyously transgressive, sometimes gratuitously revolting roughshod ride over any and every taboo you can think of. (If my teenage self, just awakening to notions of rebellion and subversion, had discovered a book like this, it would have well and truly rocked my world.) But it also serves as a Trojan horse for some serious–and, in the end, highly ethical–disquisitions into religion, politics, history, sexuality, identity, and the ever-popular “more.”
In his notes, easily worth the price of the book on their own, Brown describes an epiphany when, inspired by the scatological element in Japanese manga, he was moved to cast aside conventional Western notions of taste and give full rein to a scatological motif in Ed. He also describes how a reading of Wallace Fowlie’s Age Of Surrealism inspired him to follow the example of French surrealist writers like Breton and Lautreamont by giving free rein to his subconscious, political incorrectness be damned. Here’s a funny thing, though. The first of those epiphanies turned out to be based on a mistake (Brown was acting on a friend’s comment, and never did find evidence of the supposed “fondness” for scatology when he later looked for it) and the second was, at best, half-informed, since Brown never did read the actual work of those surrealists. All of which goes to show that inspiration is where you find it. If it works, it works.
Brown also goes into some detail about his personal circumstances at the time of Ed‘s conception and slow rise to comics-world popularity in the mid- to late 1980s. While this makes for fascinating reading, and functions as a history-in-miniature of the dawn of graphic-lit culture in Canada, it’s a bit odd thinking about this work in historical terms, simply because it still feels so current. Sure, there are period-specific elements like the appearance as characters of Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney*, but on the whole this work feels like it could have been made last week; its uncompromising vision gives it an otherness but also a timelessness. What our descendants might think of it, Lord only knows, but they aren’t likely to find it old-fashioned.
* * *
A few weeks back in this blog I wrote about Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City, the latest and probably best in a sui generis series of personal memoir/travelogues from some of the world’s least visited (Shenzhen) most secretive (Pyongyang) and most misunderstood (Jerusalem) cities. The books have garnered worldwide acclaim and given Delisle a niche all his own on the international graphic-lit scene. In what promises to be one of the highlights of the local literary summer, Delisle will be appearing at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly at 7pm on Friday, July 20.
*Though no attempt is made to have Reagan and Mulroney resemble their real-life counterparts, and Nancy Reagan, for her part, is a temptress who looks young enough to be her husband’s granddaughter.
Ed the Happy Clown reviewed in The Montreal Gazette
Chester Brown’s Ed is a clown, yes. Happy? Well, uh…