Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel
[The following text has been excerpted from Brian Evenson's forthcoming book on Ed the Happy Clown, to be published by Uncivilized Books.]
The idea for this book started just a few days after Drawn & Quarterly’s 2012 re-release of Ed the Happy Clown. More specifically, it started when I picked up that book in the bookstore and noticed the subtitle: “a graphic-novel”. Chester Brown’s name was in all-caps, the title too was all-caps, which drew my attention to the fact that the subtitle seemed deliberately lowercase. Part of me felt this was simply just a matter of typography, a choice made to distinguish between title and subtitle. But another part of me believed—and still believes—that there are no accidents, and that it is these small, seemingly random choices that accumulate into the larger distinctions that end up shaping not only a book but an entire genre.
Standing there in Modern Times, I found myself wondering what made a ‘graphic-novel’ different from a ‘Graphic Novel’? It seemed a question of simple arithmetic: the subtraction of capitalization and the addition of a hyphen. The first gesture strips away a level of formatting, going against common title capitalization guidelines. The second adds a piece of formatting we wouldn’t expect to be there, a hyphen, and which isn’t there in any other use of the phrase “graphic novel” that I can remember. Both seem incredibly small things. But it is of such small things that greater effects are both built and sustained.
Speaking of Wile E. Coyote falling off cliffs in his Road Runner cartoons, Chuck Jones talks about how the effectiveness of a gesture can come down to a single frame of film. “When the Coyote fell off, I knew he had to go exactly eighteen frames into the distance and then disappear for fourteen frames before he hit.” “It seemed to me that thirteen frames didn’t work in terms of humor, and neither did fifteen frames. Fourteen frames got a laugh.” So, the humor of the Coyote’s landing depends on the camera staying with his disappearance exactly the right amount of time instead of letting it go 1/24th of a second too early or 1/24th of a second too late. 1/24th of a second is a length of time twice as fast as what the eye can process as a separate image—it can’t actually be seen as an image but only as part of a motion. But that imperceptible difference is still what the humor of Wile E. Coyote’s fall depends on.
Why lowercase, then? And what does the hyphen do? Are these choices arbitrary or can they tell us something about Ed the Happy Clown? Can we gain anything from interrogating them closely?
The lack of capitalization, an analyst might tell you, suggests deference, an unwillingness to insist on the term, a minimizing of its importance. You might see it as analogous to what Deleuze and Guattari call writing in a minor language: a refusal to claim the authority that a generally accepted term like “graphic novel” has come to have. With Ed having developed not independently but as part of an ongoing comic, Yummy Fur, the idea that it is a graphic novel can only be a kind of afterthought, and perhaps is not to be insisted upon.
Before it was a “graphic-novel”, from 1983 to 1985, the first parts of Ed were part of a seven-issue mini-comic called Yummy Fur. Then from 1986 to 1989 all of Ed—including all the mini-comic material and Ed-related material that was to be later deliberately left out of the “graphic-novel”—was part of the first 18 issues of a 32-issue comic book series also called Yummy Fur (December 1986-January 1994). Then in 1989, the Ed material from the first twelve issues of the Yummy Fur comic book series was collected as Ed the Happy Clown: A Yummy Fur Book. Instead of being identified as a graphic novel, there was still a sense at this time of Ed and Yummy Fur being connected, and that connection was something to be asserted in the subtitle. That 1989 book, when it was published, was considered by Brown to be incomplete, and Brown spoke in January of 1990 of printing the rest of the Ed material as a second volume, an idea that he quickly dropped.
Instead, in 1992 Brown brought out Ed the Happy Clown: The Definitive Ed Book. This is the edition that established what he felt to be the definitive narrative of the Ed story. To do so, Brown deliberately abridged the Ed story as it had appeared in Yummy Fur, getting rid of the majority of the Ed material from Yummy Fur issues 13-18, and cobbling together a new ending. All the editions of Ed since, whether the 2012 book or the 2005-2006 Drawn & Quarterly 9-issue reprint, stick to this abridgement and alternate ending.
You could argue that Ed the Happy Clown: The Definitive Ed Book is the moment that Ed the Happy Clown becomes a graphic novel—in 1992, nine years after the first mini-comic containing Ed was published. But it wasn’t called one at that time. It doesn’t get that subtitle until 2012, 29 years after Ed the Happy Clown first appeared in Brown’s comic. It’s also important to remember that Ed became a graphic novel by letting go of its three successive past-lives as 1) a part of a mini-comic, 2) a part of a comic book series, and 3) a book with a different ending. Ed the Happy Clown: a graphic-novel is a very late incarnation of Ed. What was stripped away with each incarnation is as important in establishing what Ed was and now is as what remains.
As Brown suggested to me: “I’ve never been happy with the term graphic novel. It’s too obviously an attempt to sound respectable. But it’s caught on now, for whatever reason, so there’s not much use in fighting it.” And yet the way Brown writes the term on the cover of the 2012 edition, as “graphic-novel”, suggests that he still has at least a little resistance and fight left in him.
Brown joins the two terms with a hyphen: “graphic-novel”. That’s not the way the term usually appears, and grammatically it’s a little strange. Usually the term is “graphic novel” with “novel” being the main noun and “graphic” the adjective that modifies it—one term is clearly secondary to the other. That also suggests something about the prominence and importance of the one rather than the other. It’s not a “novelized comic”, it’s a “graphic novel.”
Phrased as “graphic-novel,” however, it feels like a compound word is beginning to form, one in which each term has equal weight, equal importance. It’s a step on the way to “graphicnovel” (at least it would be if we were German), where there’s no longer a separation between the graphic qualities and the novelistic qualities, but each is seen as integral to the other: one word instead of two.
Of course, as a reader, when I read “graphic-novel” I know I’m basically being told something is a “graphic novel”, but there’s that little tick of difference, that little tick of offness, that I think characterizes Brown’s work as a whole. To experience both Yummy Fur and Ed The Happy Clown as productively as possible, you have to be willing to think a little differently than you usually do. The hyphen in the subtitle queues that.
I mean this not only in terms of Brown’s content, which is often strange and challenging—disturbing enough that it’s hard to recommend Yummy Fur or Ed the Happy Clown to just anyone without offering a few caveats/qualifiers/warnings (for instance, “If you won’t be offended by a comic that has a clown’s penis replaced by President Reagan’s head, you’ll find this an amazing story”). I mean it also in terms of form. Generally, we think about comics as functioning not only as a series of panels implying a progression of time, but as a sequence of pages: the relationship of the panels on the page can be as important as the sequential relationship of the first panel to the second to the third, and so on. Brown, however, draws each panel individually. (see Fig. 1) Says Brown, “Unlike most narrative print cartoonists, I never think about the page as a whole when I’m drawing. I think either about the individual panel or how it will work in a scene, but never about the page because I won’t know which panels will go on which pages until I’m finished with everything and I’m assembling the work for publication. I guess I think of each scene as a central unit.” In other words, Brown is very concerned both with the panel as a unit of meaning and an entire scene as a unit of meaning, but the intermediate stage, the pages made up of panels that form the scene, is not something he considers while he is drawing. This allows him to feel that he can shift a panel’s position, say, from page 3 panel 6 to page 4 panel 1 without any repercussions. Indeed, he makes many such changes between Yummy Fur and the 2012 Ed book.
And yet, we as readers of comics have been trained to think of the page as important, because we’ve read so many comics in which it is important. Whatever Brown’s intention, the page still remains a unit of meaning that readers can and will draw on. Shifting the panels slightly, then, will, for most readers, have an impact on the effect of the whole in the same way that that extra frame of film can make the Coyote’s fall either less or more funny.
DISTINCTION & MEANING
What I’ve been talking about so far are largely questions of precision, small choices that can bring the right or wrong amount of focus to bear on a story. But since they are choices, there is also a question of distinction: making one choice, whether arbitrarily or not, means that you are not making another choice. Each choice takes a path and a direction. The aggregate of choices either adds up to something like a roadmap leading the reader somewhere or makes the reader feel adrift, unsure of where he or she is heading.
Even a small choice can shift the meaning in a way that has quite a large impact. If I’m standing beside a light switch in a pitch-black room, the small choice of whether to flick it before I cross the room will have a major impact on every step of the journey thereafter (see Fig. 2).
Meaning, structuralism suggests, resides first in the phoneme, the smallest bit of meaningful sound in the language. A shift in phoneme shifts the meaning of a verbal utterance—which is why we can distinguish between the word “cat” and the word “cot” and know which one refers to something we’d prefer to sleep on. If you can’t recognize the shift in phoneme, you don’t recognize the shift in meaning, and you end up thinking someone is talking about one thing when in fact they’re talking about another. If you come from a place where the short i in “pin” and the short e of “pen” are pronounced the same, you well may not be able to hear, or even replicate, a difference when you are around people who do pronounce “pin” and “pen” distinctly differently. You’re in real trouble if you can’t hear the difference between “Fore!” and “Fire!”—you may duck when you should instead stop, drop, and roll. One letter shifts, one sound changes slightly, and a meaning can become something else entirely.
This book is not a work of bibliography. It does not intend to catalog every change between Yummy Fur’s Ed and the 2012 Ed edition, but it will examine different types of changes that occur, consider what these changes mean as Ed moves from mini-comic through comic-book series to graphic-novel, and ultimately try to give a sense of how the graphic novel differs from the Yummy Fur material that gave birth to it.
Those changes come in all magnitudes, ranging from the very small to the quite large. On one end of the spectrum we have a slight or large change in a panel—the redrawing of a panel, say, or a modification of it (as with the famous censored erect penis in Yummy Fur #4 and its restoration in the 2012 Ed). That’s followed on the spectrum by the shifting of the placement of panels on the page, for instance. That’s followed in turn by massive narrative re-organization, such as the cutting of most of the material in YF #13-18 and the modification of the ending. At the far end of the spectrum is the formal/generic shift of moving from a mini-comic to a multi-issue floppy to a book. The experience of reading Ed changes with each shift, particularly in its distillation into a single independent story in book form, which moves it away from its quite troubling serial interaction with the gospel tales in Yummy Fur.
We’ll look too at a few moments that make a different kind of sense in Yummy Fur than they do in Ed. For instance, we have more of a context for understanding who Christian is in Yummy Fur than we do in Ed. Same goes for Bick Backman and his family; we can only understand what might be at stake for them if we have the additional material that Brown chose to cut. Otherwise, they remain flat, minor characters.
For me, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur/Ed the Happy Clown is important not only because it’s a great (albeit disturbing) story drawn in interesting ways. It’s important in that it is one of the few works that spans all the formal developments of independent comics (except for the latest one, the web comic). It began as a mini-comic and has ended up as a “graphic-novel”, and in between was a multi-volume floppy and a multi-volume single story re-issue. Ed the Happy Clown is a story that seems to have responded to these shifts in form by changing to accommodate them. As a result, looking closely at the differences between Yummy Fur and Ed is a way of reflecting on shifts in format and genre as well, thinking about how they change the story. Both form and genre are systems of organization and, thus, are systems of control. As such, they shape the way in which a story can be told. Ed is interesting because it starts out as one thing in one form and then becomes another thing in another. Not unlike the Ed in the Yummy Fur version, who ends up poorly impersonating Bick Backman, the later version of the story itself shows the marks and scars of its origins if you look closely. How we talk about something, how we define it, what we see as the ultimate end-product, determines how we see it as readers, and how we think about it as writers.
THE DEATH OF YUMMY FUR
At the time of this writing, copies of Yummy Fur are harder and harder to find. Those of us who first approached Ed through that version are reaching (or passing) middle age. The comic writers and graphic novelists who were influenced by Yummy Fur have gone on to influence budding comic artists themselves. It seems more and more apparent that the version of the Ed story found in the 2012 Ed the Happy Clown is how Ed will be remembered rather than through the version that appeared in Yummy Fur.
The purpose of this book, ultimately, is to think about what will be gained and what will be lost as Yummy Fur slips out of the cultural consciousness and Ed the Happy Clown takes its place. To think closely about the small and large distinctions between them and the way these add up to something quite a bit larger, and quite significant. To try to understand the reason Yummy Fur had the impact it did, and to try to understand the way in which its ghost still haunts Ed the Happy Clown. And, indirectly, to think about what it means for floppy single-issue comics to have receded from prominence and for “graphic novels” (whatever that means) to have taken their place. The transition from Yummy Fur to Ed the Happy Clown marks an important transition in independent comics, and understanding what is gained and lost might well help us understand how our thinking about the field of comics has both consciously and unconsciously changed as well as predicting how it might continue to change in the future.
1 Quoted in Hugh Kenner, Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 64, 47.
2 From the letters pages (called by Brown the “Fur Bag”) of issue #19 of Yummy Fur: “I only realized I was wrapping up the Ed saga while I was halfway through writing and drawing YF#17. (I think I was on page nine.) This would have been late June and the Ed book was too far into production to pull. Still we can always print a second Ed book reprinting 13-18 sometime or other. The orders for the book at hand, though, have been so ridiculously low that we’re not anxious to rush into print with another one.”
3 Says Brown about Yummy Fur, in response to Scott Grammel’s question in a Comics Journal interview, “Where do you draw the line as to where an ongoing graphic novel ends”: “…when you’re doing a comic book as an ongoing series… if I had started doing this as a graphic novel—as a novel—then I would have no trouble with it. But I don’t think of it first as a novel.” (90). See Scott Grammel, “The Chester Brown Interview”, in The Comics Journal 135 (April 1990), 66-90.
4 Douglas Wolk speaks, relatedly, of the problems of using other forms or genres as modifiers for comics, objecting to the way this sometimes ends up being a valorization: “Good comics are sometimes described as being ‘cinematic’ or ‘novelistic’… These can be descriptive words when they’re applied to comics. It’s almost an insult, though, to treat them as compliments.” (13) Cf. Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2007).
5 Douglas Wolk affirms: “Brown is less concerned with the page as a visual or narrative unit than almost any other comic book artist.” (152) Brown has been working this way since very early in his career, starting with “Walrus Blubber Sandwich.” As he says in the notes for The Little Man, “Later, when I started drawing longer strips, I realized how convenient this technique is for editing a strip. Adding, removing or rearranging individual panels or whole scenes is easy when pages don’t have a fixed arrangement.” (162)
6 And yet, only rarely does Brown present work in a way that isn’t laid out like a traditional comics page. He does, however, in The Playboy and a few other pieces, offer fewer panels per pages, two or three mostly, though sometimes single-page panels as well, which perhaps allows the reader to experience the work in a way closer to how Brown draws it and thinks about it.
7 In addition, in his notes on the 2012 Ed he comments on a moment when this way of working ends up being detrimental. “In creating strips this way, there is the danger that panels won’t ‘work’ together” (221). On pages 223 he shows an example of the way that a particular juxtaposition places a panel depicting Josie’s head and shoulders almost directly over a panel depicting Ed’s chest, torso and legs, including the exposed Reagan-headed penis, creating a hermaphroditic exquisite corpse. Brown found this particular juxtaposition unfortunate enough that in the 2012 version of Ed he cropped one of the panels to shift it slightly and avoid it (see 89:1 and 89:3).
8 Linguists call this the “pin-pen merger”. If you’re from the Western half or upper half of the country, chances are you pronounce “pin” and “pen” differently. If you’re from the South or Southeast you probably don’t, and have developed ways of making that distinction clear from context (i.e. “You mean the one you write with? Or the one you sew with?”).
9 Brown seems to prefer this. When I asked him, “How do you feel knowing that the Yummy Fur version might be lost to most readers?” he responded, “Happy.” There’s a playfulness to this response, considering Yummy Fur is being replaced by something called Ed the Happy Clown, but it does seem to be Brown’s honest opinion nonetheless.
Brian Evenson is the author of eleven prize-winning books of fiction, including The Open Curtain, Last Days, Windeye, and Immobility. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. Brian lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches at Brown University.