Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Chester Brown has to be the only cartoonist I read for his footnotes. More than just the "DVD extras" that now sometimes come with hardcover publication of comics, Brown's lengthy end-notes, here as in his previous books, constitute something like a counter-narrative; not just the story of the book's creation, but the ongoing autobiography of a major talent and weirdly unpleasant little man. In fact, of all the major personalities of the current comics renaissance, Chester Brown is perhaps the least likable. Based on nothing but his own work, particularly his last book, Paying for It, but also, again, his notes here and elsewhere as well, he would seem to be a rather ghoulish character; a charmless, indeed gormless man of middle everything: age, hair, ugliness, intelligence, and yet with an almost clinically accomplished drawing style; never less than interesting, frame to frame, but also cold and flat as a schematic.
That's what makes the reissue of these early comics in this standard, hardcover edition so fascinating. (True, the single biggest shock in the whole book is the vintage author's photo at the tag-end, in which Chester Brown not only looks uncharacteristically young and attractive, but eerily like Dr. Renée Richards at her... loveliest? For want of a better word.) Here is Brown's line before it had completely set, so that Ed the Happy Clown, when he inexplicably breaks a leg, in the very first issue, wiggles and jiggles like a Beetle Bailey beat-down, his clown-skirt swirling in the middle of the frame like a pinwheel. Really, there's a raggedy-ass quality to a lot of the character drawing in these early cartoons, an almost amateurish hurry to the sometimes spidery lines, proportion, perspective and anatomy bending and bowing and breaking off at unlikely angles that all but completely disappears from Brown's later, rigidly controlled, unemotional frame. I happen to think Brown's cool draftsmanship, when put in service of a realistic narrative, like his earlier memoir and his historical narrative masterpiece, Louis Riel, is a wonder of the age. (I would suggest the influence of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, and or Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen's Dondi, etc. on Brown blank-eyed, mature style of character design, but one must never presume with Chester Brown that he's ever heard of anything, read anything, seen anything or been out of his apartment for years, unless he says as much in his entertainingly autistic notes. He confesses to intellectual gaps and gaffs therein that would bring a blush to the cheek of a professional wrestler. But then, much of the fascination of these long, affect-less notes would be the blank naif with a pencil that the artist describes. There is an innocence, and yes, a frustrating denseness to the man-- thus for example his almost casual conversion to the Libertarian Party of Canada -- that adds yet another layer of strange to the already weird story of Chester Brown.) Ed the Happy Clown, despite being now sub-titled "a graphic-novel," by even the loosest definition of that meaningless label, is really more a collected early comics, if not quite juvenilia. As such, it is a welcome addition, if for no other reason, again, the notes.
As art, Ed the Happy Clown is still interesting, if less characteristic -- the best single image is the new cover -- because on his worst day, Brown makes more interesting pictures than most popular cartoonists now working. Still, long, unfunny stretches of this thing could be from almost any cartoon zine of the period. Scatology, how droll. As either wild-eyed, youthful surrealism and or crazy-shakes exploration of a not-terribly-deep subconsciousness... well, it's still good to have, racist little pygmies and all. (Again, can't assume much of Mr. Brown, but these pygmies? Those teeth really can't help but conjure Karen Black's classic camp, Trilogy of Terror nemesis, the Zuni fetish/racist nightmare doll.)
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