Grappling With Privilege: Connor Willumsen’s Bradley Of Him

Privilege, man. We can lament the elevation of mediocrity when we see, for example, the abundance of white men hosting television talk shows, either of the late-night comedy or 24-hour pundit variety, like damn: Surely this is a job anyone can do, but it just keeps being given to people that look the same? Still, when I see a truly idiosyncratic film, one where the director was trusted to deliver a final product without being second-guessed at every turn about whether their choices were the right ones, and an uncompromised vision is brought to fruition, I see the trust people with money put in the hands of the filmmakers, who are usually white men, and I’m less bummed out. The vibe is more: that’s privilege, baby! It’s amazing what you can do when you’re trusted so much you only kind of need to make sense. When you’re struggling, it’s difficult to imagine the moves you could make if given unlimited clout. While it’s easy to imagine saying no to opportunities you would never be offered, the more difficult thought experiment remains: What is the dumb stuff you would do to squander your good will, if you had ever earned any?

Connor Willumsen’s Bradley Of Him is, I’m convinced, in large part about white male privilege. If you’re in a place where you feel like you’re constantly struggling, this book might confuse you with how easily it wears its comfort. There is an audacity at work, earned by Willumsen’s drawing skill, that is spent on undermining traditional expectations of narrative or what it makes sense to make a comic about. It’s a real got-my-rent-covered-and-I’m-not-worried-about-the-cost-of-restaurants kind of performance we’re seeing. This is a hard vibe for alternative cartoonists to pull off! Maybe the last time I read a comic with this specific energy would’ve been what Paul Pope was doing 15 years ago. For as confusing as the plot is, this level of confidence makes the comic even more baffling, like it’s unfathomable what we’re seeing, to eyes raised on anxiety.

First page: Drawing of a car. Don’t like drawing cars? Find them difficult to render? Bet you don’t like drawing backgrounds either, while Willumsen goes on to teach a clinic in drawing different settings (the desert, a casino interior, a series of horizons of changes to the landscape) in a way that is recognizable and immersive without being over-rendered. Despite the comic’s explicitly being about movies, the visual approach feels deeper than cinematography. It’s more like the comic book equivalent of virtual reality, rendered in well-reproduced pencil. Without panel borders, the way backgrounds just keep going while we see these figures at different angles feels like natural eye movement. Meanwhile, the concrete sense of place in any given moment plays off the abstract and confusing narrative, where when we see something we recognize from before, It indicates not just that the setting is the same, but that we are witnessing the same scene, building a mental map of the story’s shuffled chronology. It feels like a new approach to the way comics assemble time into space on the page, and it makes you want to reread the book as soon as you finish it.

This model of physical locations used to keep track of time is comparable to the sighting of billboards on a highway, landmarks on a journey you’ve made before, that remind you where you are and how much farther you have to go. Certainly I am thinking of that because one of the book’s two main narrative threads is a runner, moving through changing landscapes. There is a page here as impressive as the one in Willumsen’s last book, Anti-Gone, where the progress of a boat making its way down a flooded city street was kept track of by a dog, sticking his head out a window, becoming smaller. This is the runner, at the crest of a hill or horizon, and we see a series of cresting hills, each on top of one another, each representing changes in the landscape, distance being traveled. You will never have seen anything like it before, in comics or anywhere else, and the impact it makes defines the book.

The runner is just one narrative thread, and as I mentioned before, the book is explicitly about movies. The other narrative thread of the book follows an Academy-Award-winning actor. The text on the back of the book distinguishes between these two figures, as if they are two different people. However, their character design is exactly the same: Cap on the head that wicks away sweat, sunglasses, a Toy Story 2 t-shirt. They are meant to be confused with each other. Again, I see the book as being about white male privilege, and the interchangeability of the runner and the famous celebrity actor then becomes part of the point: Both are treated very well through the outside eyes of the supporting cast, and the reader associates them with one another. There are moments when this figure does things that are sketchy, claiming to have a room in a hotel though he lacks any ID. The people working at the hotel have no objections to this, which makes sense if the figure is easily identifiable as a celebrity, but in the eyes of the reader, there is no reason to assume this. It is possible to read these interactions instead as the runner, no longer running, but up to something maybe sinister, as while running, he seemed anti-social, averse to offers of help. Either way, he’s winked at, the beneficiary of an implicit trust. It makes sense for a celebrity to be treated this way, although the runner, on his run, is also treated very well, including by the police, who the runner ignores in a way it would be fair to expect would escalate to a conflict. The book, however, is basically conflict-free; both runner and actor enjoy a frictionless existence. The actor loses his Oscar, and someone else retrieves it at the lost and found for him, both police and EMTs go out of their way to give the runner bottles of water.

The runner, if considered a separate person, is nameless, though the actor has both aliases he travels under and a name by which he is recognized and given his Oscar. That name, as the title of the book alludes to, is Bradley Cooper. Is Bradley Cooper a well-chosen figure to be emblematic of white male privilege? I think so! I don’t hate the guy, he’s been in some good stuff, but he’s a pretty bland romantic comedy lead who both got named People Magazine’s “sexiest man alive” and was the star of the right-wing masturbation fantasy American Sniper, and those are the sort of dubious honors only conferred upon a specific type of person. Still, Willumsen’s invocation of the name of a real Hollywood celebrity as the main character of his graphic novel is a bold move it takes confidence to execute. There’s an element of “Can he do this? Is this legal?” incredulity that emerges as a reader’s response. I don’t even know if I should bring it up in public, even though a basic knowledge of the law has this easily fitting under the heading of satire.

Willumsen’s place in society is in no way comparable to Cooper’s, in that he’s an alternative cartoonist who has mostly self-published his work, and the publisher he works with for his books is going out of business. What connects the cartoonist to his fictionalized depiction of the actor is that both are at the top of their game. This book showcases Willumsen as something like a post-Picturebox David Mazzucchelli, adept at playing off tiny subtleties as exciting. There’s a little gremlin that presents an award, in a sequence that recall both “The Narrator” from Paper Rad comics and videos as well as the tv hosts from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. While the book’s version of Bradley Cooper is basically unrecognizable as such, there’s also a cameo appearance by an Oscar-winning actor whose father was a onetime distributor of underground comics, who you might recognize by his posture. He’s named not in the scene in which he appears, but later, as a nominee for the same award Cooper is up for, alongside Robert De Niro.

A portion of the book’s sequences depicting the runner are accompanied by text from a letter the actor writes to De Niro, as if it were the runner’s interior monologue, further braiding these two narrative threads into one protagonist. The use of famous names is underplayed, and I don’t think of it as gimmicky stunt-casting. It’s not a book about celebrity. It’s about being in a place where you have so much money you don’t need to spend it, and the only things you want you can’t buy. This is why attention is paid to the setting, Las Vegas, a place whose very existence demonstrates the hubris of what money can do essentially in defiance of God, building an air conditioned shrine to mammon in the middle of the desert, building casinos without windows so people lose track of the Sun and the ability to tell time’s passage from it. The desert and the casino are as intertwined as the actor and the runner are.

One of the games inside the casino is Family Guy themed. I’m sure part of the reason for this is it’s amusing to insert such a thing into the book as a plot point. Although it’s notable that Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is a pretty obnoxious figure, much loathed for having hosted the Academy Awards and having performed a song about how many of the nominated actresses had bared their breasts: He’s an exemplar of the opportunities afforded white men who are then empowered to act casually, to the detriment of other people. They’re basically allowed to act like children, which is a point hinted at through a series of tiny details: The actor both dedicates a portion of his speech to shouting out a person named Murray, which is also a name he’s used to identify himself in the past, and this is spelled out in another scene as the name as his nephew, a young child who, unsupervised, gets to play with the actor’s collection of priceless movie memorabilia. The book concludes with Cooper’s acceptance speech for best actor, but the reader will have long before realized that Willumsen is giving a bravura performance. I’m applauding.