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“What’s Actually There on the Page”: A Conversation with Brian Evenson about Chester Brown

Brian Evenson is the author of several novels including The Open Curtain and Last Days, a professor in Brown University’s Literary Arts Program, and the winner of multiple O. Henry Prizes and an NEA fellowship. This year, he has also published Ed Vs. Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel, a work of long-form comics criticism from Uncivilized Books. Throughout Ed Vs. Yummy Fur, Evenson traces the evolution of cartoonist Chester Brown’s breakout work, Ed the Happy Clown—the story’s movement through “successive past-lives,” including its beginnings in the mini-comics form, Brown’s transition to serial floppies, and a 1992 collection that preceded the theoretically-definitive 2012 edition.

Evenson confronts the provocative elements of Ed head-on, including its scatological motifs and its ambivalence about religion. But mainly he surveys Brown’s efforts to position Ed the Happy Clown as a finite narrative in a familiar form. Evenson began this work “to give a sense of the different impulses between Yummy Fur [the comic book in which the Ed stories were first serialized] and the consolidation of Ed the Happy Clown later as a book, and through it to learn something about how to use choices… to build significant effects that support whatever genre one is operating in.” We spoke about these effects, the mystery of Brown’s intentions, and the implications of calling anything a graphic novel.

Greg Hunter: The intentionality of Chester Brown comes up again and again in Ed Vs. Yummy Fur. You note, for instance, that Brown sometimes acknowledges, sometimes rejects similarities with the Chet character. Did the amount of credence you gave Brown’s claims about his work stay consistent during the writing of your book?

ed_vs_yummy_fur_01

Brian Evenson: You know, they probably changed a little bit. Sometimes I think he’s fairly straightforward; other times, I think he does have a persona that he’s constructing. Ultimately, I gave a little more credence to the moments where I think he was caught a little bit off-guard. He’s remarkably contrary in some ways—he doesn’t necessarily want to give you what you want to get from him. And in that sense, I think that he kind of creates a self and then explores it. When he does things that are contradictory, I think he very deliberately does that. I think he takes his ideas and gives them this flexibility—and I think it’s a way of not being pinned down, but also a way of letting each reader come to the work in their own way.

Did you weigh differently his endnotes from the 2012 edition and the answers to your own interview with him?

I did the interview after I’d read all that stuff in the 2012 edition and so I had a sense of all those things. I don’t know that I weighed them differently, but I was very interested to find him reticent in the interview about certain things. He was much more interested in talking about the Louis Riel stuff than he was about Ed and Yummy Fur. I think it’s partly that that work is just so much in the past for him, and his work really went in a different direction after that. It may just be that he felt he was talking about work by someone else, almost.

Was he resistant to do the interview in the first place?

He was never resistant to do the interview, and he was completely cordial and generous with his time and everything.

I want to get into the minutiae of the book’s formatting for a second. You write about the significance of Brown’s adding “graphic-novel”, hyphen and all, to the title of the 2012 edition [Ed the Happy Clown: a graphic-novel]. To me, Brown’s titling of the first section, “Introductory Pieces”, was also a little vexing—both disruptive and a little clinical. It doesn’t make reading Ed as an aesthetic whole any easier. So I wanted to know what you made of “Introductory Pieces”, as opposed to “Prologue” or something to that effect, if Brown is framing the work as a single story.

The reason I focused so much on “graphic-novel”, the hyphen, was because it seemed like a way into something. These are small changes that really have a huge effect on things. And because that was something specific to the 2012 edition—something that had come up pretty recently. Those other things, the “Introductory Pieces”, that was a choice that was made, I think, the first time he put the graphic novel together. What I found interesting about that was… this impulse I found throughout his work: he wanted to both make Ed into a graphic novel and resisted at the same time. There was this real tension, I think, for him, in this attempt to have his cake and eat it too. Which kind of became a ‘not having your cake and not eating it either.’

And so, with the “Introductory Pieces”, I agree—they’re such a weird way to start into the Ed story, so different from some of the Ed stuff that comes later. Once you get to “Chapter One”, it’s a unified story that’s moving forward. But all the “Adventures in Science” stuff seems very strange. And it’s curious when you start looking at the original Yummy Fur stuff—why wasn’t this other piece included? Why not this? And I don’t know. I don’t think he really has an answer to that. He made a choice at a particular moment, and he’s just stuck to it.

The 2012 edition was how I first experienced the Ed story. And the opening pieces are disparate enough that the process of reading them together wasn’t a neat one. Is it an oversimplification, you think, to call new readers the best testing ground for whether Ed succeeds as an aesthetic whole?

I don’t think that’s a simplification. I do think the way Ed‘s going to be remembered is by the 2012 edition. And so, as a result, there’s nothing wrong with thinking that that should be the marker—what determines whether the book lasts. Readers who are coming to it, their experience is going to determine whether the book succeeds or not.

But having said that—it’s such a different experience if you’ve read Yummy Fur. My feeling all along has been, it would be great if you had both that complete Ed the Happy Clown and a repackaged version of Yummy Fur out there, so readers could have both experiences and really understand how this book developed.

ed_vs_yummy_fur_05

For you individually, how did your familiarity with Yummy Fur—the gospel adaptations, for instance, Mark and Matthew—inform your reaction to the revised, fire-and-brimstone-type ending we get in the 2012 edition?

I’m not—[laughs]—I’m not totally crazy about that ending. The 2012 ending is not my favorite. It’s partly because I like the way the story goes on. I think Yummy Fur, after where the [2012] graphic novel ends, is a bit of a mess, but at the same time, there’s just really interesting things going on. I think the way to justify that ending is—I talk about this a little bit in the book—is that it does kind of balance out the [absent] religious material, maybe substitute for the fact that the gospels are missing. But I don’t know that I’m completely satisfied with that response. It does—it ends things, gives it a sense of finality. The mood changes.

That was exactly my reaction. The sense of finality—you can’t say it lacks for that.

Yeah. And there’s something to be said for that. It’s funny—people sometimes talk about the fact that Ed can’t be finished, can’t be finalized, and that seems to me a misreading of it, just because Brown, with that ending, makes it feel finished.

Brown has redrawn panels of his comics as he prepares them for collected editions, and the variations in draftsmanship throughout Ed are pretty easy to notice. The stylistic continuity is disrupted many times. What was the effect of that on you as a reader?

I think it’s something I noticed a lot more in the earlier issues than in the later issues. But you can’t help but notice it. As an initial reader, it just added to the kind of added to the surreal quality of the world and the feeling that he was making things up as he went. It felt like it was happening very quickly in some ways. For me, the fact that he didn’t draw Ronald Reagan as anyone who looked like Ronald Reagan felt significant. I would say those things linger as you spend more time with the book—those changes make it feel more provisional, I suppose. There are these different impulses in the book which make you feel like you have something that’s complete and finished, and on the other hand something provisional. [The Reagan likeness], for me, is on the provisional side of things.

I’d like to tug at one of the notions in your book. Specifically, can we overstate the importance of a transition to a comics culture that includes the graphic novel? Since most young cartoonists still publish mini-comics or single-issue comics before moving onto larger volumes of work. Publishing in the graphic novel form can be as much a matter of resources and profile as it is an aesthetic choice. I think the graphic novel does come hand in hand with a greater respectability for comics, but is the shift in form as substantial as the shift in perception?

I think the shift in form—you’re completely right, that there’s all sorts of ways, web comics and other things, to get your work out as a comic artist that really have nothing to do with the graphic novel. But at the same time, when Chester Brown was publishing Yummy Fur, there was really a robust culture of independent floppies. So you could go out and you could count on selling quite a few issues. I think he lived on his comic books for a while, and I think it’s very hard for most people to do that at this point.

So I think that’s it. It’s not that that a culture [of independent floppies] doesn’t exist; it’s not that you can’t use it, as a comic artist, as a testing ground; that you can’t do some really amazing things with it. It’s just that it no longer has the kind of prominence—it’s not a kind of necessary step that everybody goes through. And it’s also not something that—I think it’s less likely to lead naturally do the graphic novel than it used to be. A lot of people publish first as a graphic novel, but of course that has a lot to do with finding the right editor and things. And then a lot of people who publish comic books just never get to that point.

In a footnote, you say that ‘perhaps the best definition [of graphic novel] is Will Eisner’s: “book-length comic books that are meant to be read as one story.”’ Even this is less straightforward than it first appears, though—we can ask, how long is a book-length comic book? My question is, how important was a stable definition of the term for you when writing Ed vs. Yummy Fur?

I had a very hard time pinning down a stable definition for that term, and I think I say in that same footnote that I know no comic artists who are happy with that term. Everyone seems to feel that graphic novel is a term they’re using because they can’t come up with a better term. And so I felt it was important to talk about how people had thought about the term, and then also to acknowledge the flexibility of it, also to acknowledge the alternative terms that people have put out—thing like calling something a phone book.

But I think that in terms of starting with a definition of graphic novel, I felt like I was more interested in trying to tease out how Chester was thinking about it in the book itself, in his comments, in how he talks about it. And you know, I think, like so many graphic novelists, he feels like the term is problematic, but he doesn’t know what else to do with it.

Photo by Valerie Evenson

Photo by Valerie Evenson

One thing I thought was funny about the book is that it reveals some limitations of the term graphic novel, but it reveals something about the term comics also—that we need stable, recognizable terms to differentiate floppies and longer works because readers do receive these types of work differently.

Yeah, they do. So I guess formally, for me, the important thing was thinking about—floppies was a word I used a lot rather than serial comic, because it just visually makes you think about what you’re getting. And I totally agree with what you said earlier: when you say something’s a graphic novel, ‘How long is a book?’ becomes a huge issue. There’s no real agreement about that either. So I was more interested in focusing on it as much as a formal quality as a generic quality. So graphic novels are often—they’re larger; they’re a little less portable; they’re also more stable; they don’t decay quite as much in terms of the paper. Things like that—you can take them to the beach and not destroy them, that sort of thing.

The formal-generic binary is interesting. You know, “graphic novel” is perhaps most successful as a marketing term. And marketers and booksellers rely on a broader definition than the one you might use. A collection of the most recent issues of Uncanny X-Men would be called a graphic novel by lots and lots of people. If the term is—I don’t want to say misused—but if the broadest possible version of the term has the greatest utility, what are we left with?

This is one of the problems between the collision of aesthetics and marketing. I think that marketing is rightly using those terms in ways that support it in the strongest possible way. There’s no advantage for them to having a really small graphic novel section and then having all sorts of other sections that divide things out. They’d rather have independent comics and Marvel and DC, and have those sections within a graphic novel section. And it’s because they’re really trying to get people to the same place; they’re trying to minimize confusion in some ways; they’re also trying to just make it less complicated if people are trying to find something.

And, you know, aesthetically the problem with that is, it’s not precise. Aesthetically, I think you don’t gain anything by casting such a wide net. Again, I think this is going to be a problem with any kind of generic or formal term, because marketing is so prone to appropriate it.

Could you remind me how you feel relative to someone like Douglas Wolk about the inclusion of the word “novel” in the term, the implicit comparison to prose?

Well, since I’m a fiction writer and a novelist [laughs] I don’t mind the term. I don’t necessarily see it as problematic to the same degree that Wolk does. Basically he says that if it’s descriptive, that’s great, but when it starts to be a kind of judgment or starts to suggest it’s better because it’s a novel then it’s problematic. It’s like you’re saying, ‘Oh, it’s a comic book, but it’s really literature.’ And I agree with him that that’s problematic, but I think that the term has been used enough at this point that it’s become a more neutral term, just because it’s in the air, it’s out there, and people don’t think about [the comparison] nearly as much as they used to.

Again, it’s not the perfect term, it’s a problematic term, but so far no one has come up with a better term that people are willing to buy into.

Yummy Fur #18

Yummy Fur #18

I want to loop back to questions of Ed and posterity for a second. As long as we have access—theoretically access—to earlier versions of Ed, you could argue that there isn’t and can’t be a definitive Ed story. Maybe Brown can make one option more appealing than another, but he really can’t force readers to choose. So if we can understand Ed as a series of revisions and shifts, can we also understand it in terms of futility? In terms of a struggle for ownership between Brown and the reader?

Yeah, I think that’s an interesting way to think about it. I think a similar kind of thing happens with director’s cuts on DVDs, things like that. Where you have a DVD like Blade Runner that has five different versions, and there is this strange struggle between what the director thinks the movie should be and what you as a viewer experienced and really prefer. So with Blade Runner there’s the voiceover version that Ridley Scott was forced to do, and which people either loved or hated. And so really there’s a similar thing going on with Ed and Yummy Fur, where there’s these different versions.

I think you see an anxiety on Chester’s part when he chooses to call one of the early collected versions of it The Definitive Ed Book. That’s a way of saying, ‘All right, this is what I really want it to be,’ and yet we go on past that, to the 2012 one, which is now definitive.

Right. [laughs]

And at the same time, there are readers such as me, who have preferences for other things. You know, part of it is your experience the first time you read it. It may feel more definitive to you if you came across the 2012 version first than it does to me, where I still have all these memories of the experience of reading the murder scene in Yummy Fur and then suddenly turning to the Gospel of Mark on the next page—the shock of that.

There is something that’s futile about it. And I think Chester is smart enough that he recognizes that in some way, at the same time he’s really insisting on it. I think he keeps on doing these versions—[but] he’s not as insistent as he could be about getting rid of the early versions. Probably he’s been most insistent with me in those interviews. He says, ‘Why not publish [the rest of Yummy Fur]? Because it sucks.’ But other than that, I think he’s a little more open about just letting readers make up their own minds about things.

The other thing is, he made this deliberate decision not to include any panels from the discarded Ed material in the 2012 version of Ed the Happy Clown [even in the endnotes], and for me, that’s a way of trying to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to talk about some of this stuff a little bit, but I’m not going to give you images. If you want to find it, that’s fine. But this is what I’m giving you.’

If you could locate the 2012 version of Ed on a continuum where, on one end you have the final version of Leaves of Grass or Ridley Scott’s preferred cut of Blade Runner—these works that have sort of won out, have more or less seized the title of ‘definitive version’—versus George Lucas’s revised original Star Wars trilogy, where do you think the 2012 Ed lands on that continuum?

I think that as Yummy Fur becomes less and less available, that [the 2012 Ed] really will become the definitive version just by default. Those who read the Yummy Fur version first are aging, and kind of letting it go.

The Definitive Ed the Happy Clown

The Definitive Ed the Happy Clown

You know, one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is, I love the 2012 version. I think it’s really great. I enjoy it quite a bit. When I started writing, I had the idea in my head that the Yummy Fur version was better than the 2012 Ed the Happy Clown. But through looking at it carefully and from my conversations with Chester Brown, I found I had to revise that opinion. I still wish that Yummy Fur would be reissued. I think that Chester’s probably right in thinking that the 2012 Ed is the superior version, but I also really love the earlier version as well. [Ed Vs. Yummy Fur] is a way of trying to preserve the memory—and maybe resist, a little bit, the idea that we can have that single definitive version.

To what extent do you consider ideas like these in your own work as a novelist?

A lot, as a writer and a novelist. You know, I’ve revised stuff from magazine publication to book publication, and there are differences that are sometimes more and sometimes less significant. I’ve even revised things in a second edition of a book. So I think it’s something that’s very present. It’s not as present to the same degree as Brown, just because it’s so visible in Brown’s work. Such a large percentage of the original Ed story is cut. But yeah, I definitely think about it, and I think a lot of writers do this, whether they’re comic artists or fiction writers. But very few people do it to the extent that Brown did it.

In the book, I talk about Henry James and how he has five different versions of Roderick Hudson, and critics have very different feelings about which are better. James being James, those are all things that are easy to get—they’re preserved in libraries, they’re digitally available. With Yummy Fur, it’s just not quite the same accessibility. It’s possible that, maybe Brown will be willing to reissue Yummy Fur. I wish he would. It’d be nice to have those two books together.

I loved your book’s comparison of Ed to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. That’s a favorite novel of mine. The sense that anything can happen, even though a book like Red Harvest gives way to a heavily codified form of storytelling. Can we further consider Ed this way? Are there cartoonists you’d identify as the spawn of Chester Brown?

Red Harvest is one of my favorite books too. It’s amazing, these books that occur on the cusp of a genre. In terms of people who kind of follow Brown, he may be more influential in terms of his autobiographical work. He seems very much a part of a school of people doing that. In terms of young comic artists doing surreal work—I’d have to think about that. Since I’m traveling, I don’t have my books around me to glance at.

I do think you see his impact on people like Zak Sally. I definitely think that Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions has a strange relationship to Brown. It’s not surreal in exactly the same way, but I can see a certain influence there. There’s probably many, many people I should be thinking of that I can’t.

It’s funny—I think the Louis Riel shift is a very different shift as well. And I haven’t really seen people picking up stuff going on in that exactly. Even though everyone seems to like that graphic novel quite a bit.

Do you have larger hopes—or prescriptions, for that matter—for comics criticism?

Yes. I don’t want to speak for Tom [Kaczynski], but I would like to see comics criticism become more attentive to what’s actually there on the page. I think that right now there’s a lot of comics criticism that ends up being fairly large in terms of how it’s approaching a genre or trying to definite a genre. Douglas Wolk’s book [Reading Comics], for me, the problem with it is that it’s fairly general when it starts to actually talk about the specifics of a work. I feel like it often misremembers the work or gets it wrong. So I would really like [comics criticism] to be more precise and more attentive to individual works. How it’ll develop and grow is really looking closely at what’s there, rather than trying to make these huge definitions of things.

I think in my book, what I was trying to do was really focus in on details. And you can’t focus in on everything. But you can focus in on quite a bit. At the same time, I do have these questions about genre, the form and how it works—but those always have to be answered in regard to very specific works. [Comics criticism] can be a real, serious criticism. For me, one of the issues, when I started looking at a lot of comics criticism, was that very often the interviews were the most interesting, because the interviewers read the work incredibly specifically, and asked specific questions about individual pages and panels. It gives much more insight into the work, I think, than the much more general, larger responses.

How challenging was it writing about Ed knowing that in the shadow of every incident or detail or effect was Brown’s intentionality, the question of that?

It was difficult, because I don’t want to attribute to him anything that he doesn’t actually intend. But I did try to rely a lot on things that he’d said and things that he seemed to believe. As I said, the more specific I became in asking things, the more evasive I felt like he became. And I don’t think that’s a bad strategy—I think as an artist, there’s no reason to allow anyone to completely pin you down. Partly because I think there’s something subconscious or unconscious that’s motivating a lot of what you do. [laughs] But I think I make a big point in the book about when he talks about the intention to end as being one of the things that defines the graphic novel. And so obviously intention is something that’s key to my argument. But also, talking to him, several times he said, ‘This is over thirty years ago. It’s a little hard to figure out what I actually intended.’

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