Does the name William Seabrook sound familiar to you? It’s entirely possible, and probably likely, that it doesn’t. At the height of his popularity as a writer, Seabrook was properly famous: the sort of scribe whose image and endorsement might show up in high-profile advertisements. He was a contemporary of the likes of Aldous Huxley, Maya Deren, Man Ray and Gertrude Stein, but while their work continues to be lauded today, Seabrook’s has largely fallen into obscurity. That story—and the implied case that his bibliography deserves wider attention—lies at the heart of Joe Ollmann’s lengthy biographical comic, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.
Initially, that title adjective seems ironic: the Seabrook glimpsed in the book’s early pages, covering his emergence as a writer and his willingness to go to absurd lengths in search of a story, comes off as a largely sympathetic character. For a white American born in 1884, he held relatively few racist beliefs and had an openness to experiencing other cultures. He participated in Voodoo rituals and popularized the term zombie for Western readers. (Olllmann points out that this changed over time as Seabrook began to act like, well, a privileged white American.) As such, Ollmann argues, that adventurous mindset led to Seabrook’s accounts aging well—though he does raise questions of representations throughout the book. This is far from a hagiography.
In other words, Seabrook lives up to his “abominable” title. Alcoholism led to a decline in his craft and the implosion of personal relationships. Much of this book is structured as a series of flashbacks as Seabrook sits down to write; his arms are heavily bandaged, but it isn’t until much later that the reader learns why. (The scene revealing the reason is one of the book’s most harrowing, illustrating the delirium that had come to dominate his life.) Ollmann also explores his lifelong interest in bondage, which often dabbled in a sadistic side and remained a mystery even to those closest to him.
Ollmann’s artwork is stylized, and, taken over the course of the book, demonstrates the ravages of time and heavy alcohol consumption on its subject. The book notes that Seabrook was drinking “two bottles of brandy daily.” Seabrook ages into a broken man, a far cry from the earnest and enthusiastic journalist and explorer seen earlier. Ollmann also makes fine use of nine-panel grids, sometimes zeroing in on the minute body language and interactions of Seabrook in a domestic context, and juxtaposes moments from his life through similarly constructed panels at a temporal distance from one another.
Ollmann also uses various documentary techniques as well, from the incorporation of quotes from the memoirs and papers of those who knew Seabrook, to Ollmann’s own commentary. The graphic biography goes beyond a straightforward narrative, investigating the larger artistic and social context in which he wrote and lived, and gives a fuller sense of the literary and artistic scene in and out of which Seabrook drifted.
In his introduction, Ollmann writes movingly about what attracted him to Seabrook’s work: his honesty and his insecurity. (Though Ollmann also notes that both he and his subject have struggled with alcohol, and both blended/blend a desire to believe in the supernatural with an inherent skepticism.) Above and beyond, this volume, which encompasses the scope of a life, makes the case for Seabrook’s continued relevance as a writer, and charts an unsettling decline and fall. Ollmann has been involved with continuing Seabrook’s legacy in other ways as well, helping facilitate the release of new editions of Seabrook’s books Asylum (about his efforts to get sober) and The Magic Island (an account of his visit to Haiti). Before reading Ollmann’s clear-headed and empathic account, the name William Seabrook may have been foreign; by the end of it, readers will likely want to order one of his books—the mark of a comprehensive and compelling literary biography.