To Hell and Back

Having to write a story twice means you couldn’t write it once. So pronounced the first novelist to teach me, inveighing against those who sought careers in the safety of the formulaic. But that was 1963, when High Art was the only Art; Low Art went out in the trash; comic books were below contemplation, and graphic novels not in the most heated imaginings of Isaac Asimov or Timothy Leary.

Chester Brown has tested my teacher’s maxim more than most. His character, Ed the Happy Clown, first appeared in a series of stories in Brown’s comic Yummy Fur (1983 et seq.). They were collected into Ed the Happy Clown: A Yummy Fur Book (1989), which eliminated several episodes which Brown said he drew after the story’s “‘natural’ end,” before he decided to take his cartooning in a different direction, but added an introduction written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Brown. Three years later,  The Definitive Ed Book: Ed the Happy Clown: A Comic Book appeared. It added 17 pages to the story, primarily providing a new ending for one of the principal characters, and substituted an introduction by Steve Solomos for Pekar’s. This proved not so “definitive” after all. Once Drawn & Quarterly replaced Vortex as Brown’s publisher, Ed reappeared, re-segmented, into another series of comics. Now they have coalesced again in Ed the Happy Clown: A Graphic Novel.[i]

Ed 2012 reproduces Ed 1992, save 12 blank pages which had permitted each chapter to comfortably begin on the right hand side of the spine, rather than clang together like box cars. Brown had footnoted D&Q’s comics, and these notes, slightly modified, occupy 38 pages of the volume’s 243. The quality of the paper has improved, sharpening the contrast between blacks and whites; but the size of both pages and panels has diminished, making details more difficult to discern and sliding the text’s size down the eye chart.  Each reader’s vision can assess this trade-off.

I loved Ed. In October 1993, profiling Brown for The Comics Journal,[ii] I marveled at the imagination capable of populating it with “sewer-dwelling, rat-eating pygmies & masturbating giant squids & cow-hunting flying saucers & sky-diving Frankenstein monsters & underemployed vampire hunters & a man who can't stop shitting & monks having sex with statues of the Virgin Mary & Ronald Reagan's head transplanted onto the tip of a penis" and had no compunction about flipping back in forth in time, or to and fro between dimensions, or looping plot twists to the seemingly passed over and forgotten.  Ed dazzled me with its freewheeling style, uninhibited drive, mad logic, absence of shame, tricky intelligence, quirky uniqueness, and bubbly good humor. But Brown had followed a number of cartoonists into the autobiographical and, not being a fan of memoirs (though I write them), I’d wondered how this choice would work for him.

Brown published three autobiographical books: The Playboy. (1992), which dealt with his masturbation history (It shamed him); I Never Liked You (1994), which recounted teenage crushes and the death of his mother (His behavior embarrassed him); and Paying for It (2011) which covered his relations with and feelings about prostitutes (He is all for them); as well as Louis Riel (2003), a biography of a 19th century Canadian political leader – and possible madman. They were critically acclaimed; I enjoyed them all; but none jazzled me like Ed.[iii]

So when I was asked to review Brown’s re-re-re-re-revisitation of  his clown, I was excited. What changes, I wondered, had 20 years wrought? How would my teacher’s admonition stand up to them? But finding this Ed identical to the one to which I’d reacted previously, it was I who seemed about to run afoul of Mr. Harris. I scratched my head.  I plucked my goatee. When I had finished, it struck me, Cushlamochree! Review the footnotes. They’re new.


Drowse-inducing scholarship aside, footnotes can be fun. They can provide hilarious counterpoint to the text (Will Cuppy), an entire alternative narrative (Vladimir Nabokov), the ruminations and reflections of an over-flowing intelligence (David Foster Wallace), or the opportunity to shoehorn in anecdotes one can’t find space for otherwise (Not infrequently, me). In Louis Riel, Brown’s footnotes amplified his text, explained his choices between competing “facts,” afforded voice to others’ differing views, and revealed what he had made-up, overlooked, exaggerated, got wrong, guessed at, can’t explain, and flat-out falsified, wonderfully illustrating the unreliability of historical “truth.” I hoped Ed’s footnotes would provide insight into Brown’s magic. I wanted his thoughts on from where those pygmies and perversions,  plot loops and dimension jumps had come. I hoped to have his genius, wars-and-all, self-investigated.

I was disappointed. The footnotes credit Brown’s friends and publishers for their contributions; they point out his misspellings and note his indebtedness to manga and Marvel; they discuss his religious beliefs and housing accommodations, his preferences regarding panels-per-page and words-per-panel, his worry about offending third world people and anarchists, his opposition to censorship, his wish for commercial success. We learn about his fear about losing his drawing hand and “near-suicidal depression.” But what we learn about Ed’s gestation (“Most... was made up as I went along”) hardly satisfied my craving.

So I decided to speculate.

In the footnote to interest me most, Brown recounts a horror comic story which has haunted him since he was 10 or 11. “The Door” concerns a happily married couple lost in an underground maze, where they wander, subsisting on slime and water seepage, until, mentally and physically broken, they reach a door which opens into... HELL!  While Brown says the story is in the public domain and, thus, reproduceable, he devotes 10 pages to, charmingly if peculiarly, redrawing it. (He explains this allowed him to trim over-wordy captions; he does not explain why he also had the couple’s clothes disintegrate to the point of exposing their withered sexual organs.) I suspect Brown redrew the story as a way to “master” its power over him. And I suspect that he added to the couple’s humiliation out of his own feelings toward “romantic” love, about which I will say more later.

Brown posits that “The Door” unnerved him because, unlike other horror comic stories, the couple had done nothing that deserved punishment, which implied “bad things could happen to you for no good reason.”  Well, punishment of the undeserving was not unknown in other comics (See: Any number of EC stories).  Nor was it absent from nursery rhymes (See: Jack and Jill), fairy tales (See: The Little Mermaid), or the Bible (See: Job), all of which Brown could have been exposed to before he was 10. And since Brown says his plan for a “Door”-like labyrinth in Ed was abandoned once another idea led him elsewhere, I wondered why he spent so much effort reconstructing it. Then I recalled the significant change between Ed 1989 and Ed 1992.

To recap, Chet, a married janitor, is having an affair with Josie. After his right hand mysteriously falls off, Chet, recalling St. Justin who, his mother had told him, had cut offhis right hand to avoid sinning with it, decides God has punished him for sinning with Josie. He kills her; she returns as a ghost/vampire and kills him. There things stood – eye-for-eye resolved – until Brown decided, “The impulse for revenge is a negative one and I... (made Josie’s) fate reflect that belief.” In his revision, Chet’s severed hand – a nifty stand-in for the artist’s all-powerful one – rolls up Josie’s window shade while she sleeps, exposing her to lethal daylight, and sentencing her to...  HELL!

That connection to “The Door” is unaddressed.

Brown, who footnoted that Freud’s belief “that each human mind has a ‘thing’ or ‘area’ called The Unconscious... (was) a fallacious psychoanalytic theory,” won’t like where I am going,  but, it seems to me, things occur in his work, as in all creators, certainly in mine, that aren’t the result of conscious planning or luck or the largesse of the gods. Sometimes you sit down to put pen to paper and, when you walk away, what you have left behind astounds you. How, you wonder, did I do that? Sometimes, too, in meditation or the shower or falling asleep, an explanation for this astonishment-maker springs to mind, explaining where it had been residing in your inner ‘thing’ or ‘area’ all along. This may not be Freud’s Unconscious reminding you it’s there, but that seems as good a label for this repository as any. Certainly, something seems to be churning somewhere out of sight which a discerning curiosity might have illuminated. Instead, Brown pronounced his judgment and walked away.[iv]

Remember, everything in Ed came out of Brown. He alone sentenced Josie to death.  He alone motivated the crime for which he condemned her. He removed Chet’s hand  and appointed it her executioner. He even created the saint from whom he derived the message that hands had the potential to become such sinful instruments as to warrant pre-emptive removal. These decisions came to Brown while he was working in fiction, free of the harnesses and safety nets that autobiography and history provide. He could not simply limit himself to the recollections his memory supplied. Nor could he merely express what library research yielded. Fiction required that he open himself further and probe his inner ‘thing’ more deeply.[v]

I think Brown found it more comfortable to deny having an unconscious than to explore it. Entering the unconscious is, in a way, entering an underground maze. One can become trapped there; one can expose one’s self to Hell. And it could be that Brown feared this investigation would lead him to acts (or thoughts of acts, which often earn one equal amounts of self-condemnation) that would require his punishment. After all, it was he who posited earlier in Ed the character with so much shit inside that, once released, it could not be stopped until it had destroyed him.[vi]


One other thing. When last seen, Ed is riding off with Betty Backman, who has allowed the size of his penis to convince her that, despite other obvious differences, he is her husband Bick, resulting in that poor fellow’s being hauled off by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police. How I wondered, did this treacherous denouement tie in with Brown’s view of male-female relationships, in which, his autobiographical work makes clear, he has little faith.[vii] Fortunately, Ruth Delhi was willing to palaver.

Delhi, long time Journal readers may recall, is a psychoanalytic social critic (and, among other things, holder of a 10th degree black belt from the Melanie Klein Martial Arts Academy/member emeritus of the Fairies, Wood Sprites, Sea Nymphs and Wee Ladies Tea and Knitting Association/ and cum laude graduate of the David Dubinsky Yeshiva and Culinary Academy) has been in semi-retirement since pundits claimed a personal relationship between us compromised her objectivity.[viii] But her abiding interest in Brown drew her forth.

We met in a North Berkeley café, next-tabled by a grey-pony-tailed gentleman declaiming about his having excavated from a neighborhood garbage can a treasure trove of Roumanian pottery shards, broken Kochina dolls, and empty boxes from Afghanistan. Delhi wore black sweat pants, a periwinkle blue velour top, and brown leather zipper jacket. She had no make-up or jewelry, except a wedding ring.[ix] Unfortunately, her views on Brown’s work, while as virtuosic as Ed itself, centered on his having had a schizophrenic mother. I say “unfortunately” because Brown deplores this diagnosis.  Indeed, if “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” (Underwater 4) is indicative, Brown regards what others might consider a psychotic break to be an exquisite “psychedelic state” turned bummer by an unappreciative culture or, alternatively, as valuable as the gift possessed by any shaman. And while I Never Liked You seems to depict how uncomfortable his mother’s off-kilter behavior made him feel and to punitively portray her grotesque and mute in the mental hospital where she will die, Brown has also said, “I couldn’t’ve wished for a more perfect mother.”

The thought of applying to him Delhi’s insight that children whose mothers’ erratic  behavior, whether due to mental illness or shamanic gift, might lack the faith in female constancy to believe in the possibility of supportive relationships between men and women made me recall a dinner my wife and I had with a couple in the early 1970s. He was an economics professor and she an aspiring jazz singer. In the few years we had known them, they had swung through Esalen, encounter groups, and EST, so I was not surprised that, following his mother’s recent death, he had contacted a medium to put them in touch. At this time, people were finding gurus,  joining cults, and moving into communes led by one charismatic figure or another as frequently as planes took off for Kathmandu – or Burbank; while my wife and I, more traditional, more fearful, were searching for our destiny in our apartment and its few block surround; and I figured that anyone who knew me had heard my skepticism about these more picturesque choices and would be counting on me to greet their news of conversations with the departed with my customary, refreshing rationality.

I was mistaken.  Before we had finished our tostadas, he had blasted my uptight intolerance, and they had stormed from Casa de Eva. My wife said, “Let that be a lesson.  Never get between a boy and his mom.[x]

So I said to Delhi, “Fuck it. Anyone who wants to know more can e-mail me. Who do you like at Wimbledon?”


[i].  In Ed’s most recent incarnation Brown explains that he does not consider himself a surrealist. Since Solomos’s introduction dwelt on Ed’s surreal aspects, this may account for its not meriting inclusion. Pekar’s introduction, while delightfully cranky, was more about Pekar than Ed and expressed his distaste at working “with anyone who wasn’t politically correct.” Brown, who now considers Ronald Reagan “the best president the US has had since Calvin Coolidge,” may have honored the old lefty’s wishes by not resurrecting his effort and associating him with this fringe opinion. [As one who finds memories of Reagan inevitably gag-inducing, I feel compelled to point out that the vast majority of polls rate him behind Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson as a president during the decades in question; and a slim majority prefer even Hoover to Coolidge.]

[ii].  See “Good Ol’ Chester Brown,” in Levin. Outlaw, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates. Fantagraphics. 2005.

[iii].  Brown’s memoirs, while confronting unpleasant personal material, present in the manner of Raymond Carver’s stories, with details observed and dialogue overheard, meticulously  culled and ordered, rather than as, say, a Norman Mailer-esque plunge into the depths of his soul.

[iv].  Freud’s model for the unconscious may have been wrong, but his writings have provided others a goldmine of material for investigating the mind. Neuro-thisandthatists now recognize its capacity to register and process, in mysterious ways, much more information than can be consciously acquired and accounted for. “This stuff has to be stored somewhere,” my wife said one evening, when we were kicking this around.  “Consciousness is a vast and moveable feast. Sometimes some things are easily recoverable; sometimes other things are. When they are not, dreams, as Freud said, – or showers, like you noticed – may forge the necessary connections to bring them – facts or fantasies – to awareness.”

[v].  I just happened to be reading Henning Mankel’s Before the Frost in which a character recognizes “If one only dared to get lost, one could find the unexpected.”  That seems a good rule for creative writers, though, in this instance, it did lead to her getting bumped off by a lunatic.

[vi].  On the other hand, Brown’s views on the possibilities of human feces as a fertilizer, recognizing its potential for nurturing creation and enhancing growth, may suggest that he has not washed his hands (so to speak) of the possibility of working with its inner analogue entirely.

[vii].  Now may be a good time for Janet Malcolm’s warning in Reading Chekhov “...one must be wary of memoirs, factoring in the memoirist’s motives, and accepting little in them as fact.”

[viii].  As sure as her name is Ruth Delhi, not a word of this is true.

[ix].  Delhi has been married for over 40 years, as coincidentally have I. Our views may, therefore, be as skewed as Brown’s – though in the opposite direction. See Malcolm, supra.

[x].  The fellow, I should add, went on to make a fantasta-bazillion dollars as an investment strategist and retired to an estate on Maui, where he and his wife host visiting spiritual leaders to this day.