Notes to a Note on the Notes of Chester Brown

2. When The Little Man anthology was republished in 2006, Brown took the opportunity to expand the already extensive notes, adding four pages. The new first note is ostensibly about the book’s dedication, which mentioned that his father “convinced the editor of the local paper to print one of my strips when I was 12.” In the years between editions, Brown found a copy of the strip, previously thought lost, which he includes here. The Little Man and I Never Liked You rarely depict his father; it’s Brown’s schizophrenic mother who dominates. Here the cartoonist shades in this missing part of the family portrait, revealing paternal encouragement to be as instrumental in his development as his mother’s tragic madness.

Even at this early stage of Brown’s career, his comics themselves start functioning as notes. In “Helder”, his first foray into autobiographical comics, drawn in 1989, Brown depicts some run-ins that he had with an abusive, controlling freeloader at the roominghouse where he was living. A few months later, he drew a strip called “Showing ‘Helder’”, composed in a loose, frameless style. In this strip he seeks advice from some cartooning friends (including Seth) and his girlfriend, the aforementioned Kris, who complains about the way he’s drawn her clothing in “Helder”. He’s working out the kinks inherent in representing something that really happened. One friend tells him to cut two panels in which Chester is talking directly to the reader; he follows this advice, and shows us the rejected panels later, in the notes. In the notes we also discover that Kris disliked the way she was represented in “Showing ‘Helder” as well, and one can imagine an endless regress of strips, Brown critiquing his own method in “Showing ‘Showing “Helder”’” and “Showing ‘Showing “Showing ‘Helder’”’”…) It should be noted that at 33 pages, the strip “Showing ‘Helder’” is 13 pages longer than “Helder” itself.

Another sort of vertiginous commentary is at work in the heavily annotated 1995 strip “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic”. Apart from its title, there is no mention of his mother, as Brown (who appears as the narrator) takes a superficially clinical approach to the subject of whether schizophrenia constitutes a disease. The notes to this purposely heavy-handed strip begin, “My mother died in an institution in 1976. (See I Never Liked You for more—though not much more—on this.) I became curious about what mental illness was—about what had happened to her.” [167] “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” thus functions as an extended, illustrated riff on I Never Liked You—a matter-of-fact presentation of theories and thinkers, in sharp contrast to that emotionally nuanced book.

The notes to this strip are also blunt, and despite the intimacy of the first sentence, he never mentions his mother again. The notes would appear to merely extend the tone of the strip, but in their organization and appearance they serve another function. In a couple of the strip’s panels, the Chester Brown narrator stands next to a list of the five symptoms of schizophrenia: delusions, hallucinations, thought disorder, loss of motivation, and flat emotional response. The extremely ordered presentation of the strip and in particular the notes suggests, paradoxically, a negation of one symptom (thought disorder) and a form of another (flat emotional response). Indeed, viewed as marks on the page, the notes have a crowded, graphomanic aspect that simultaneously projects order and loss of control.