Sunday, 17 February 2013

Week Seven - Jeanette

Ed The Happy Clown by Chester Brown (1982-9)
Recommended by Jeff

It’s a pain in the arse to write about Will Oldham.


Well, for a start he doesn’t do many interviews. The ones he does do, he mumbles through, and if he does say anything of merit, it usually contradicts something he said before. Then he goes on about R. Kelly for several centuries. But infuriating as that is, it’s even worse to research people’s opinions of his music. And I’m not only talking about his fans: huge swathes of music critics gibber out the purple prose when confronted with a Palace release. Cutting through the platitudes is incredibly wearisome.

That’s why this song, and its video, is so refreshing:

The only time I blocked, properly blocked, when writing Seasons They Change was when I had to tackle Will Oldham’s career. And it was Jeffrey Lewis’s song that got me through it. It was not only its mischievous take on ol’ Bonnie ‘Prince’ that spoke to me. It was the ruminations on the worth of living a creative life at all – sensations I was feeling keenly, as Seasons was already altering me (and I wasn’t sure for the better).

I emailed Jeffrey out of the blue, and asked if I could quote some ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’ lyrics in Seasons. He said yes! And he was extremely interested in the book!

We met when he came over to the UK; he asked me along to his show in Leeds, part of a joint tour with the incredible Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders (who I had also interviewed). Seasons had just been published, so I passed on copies to Jeff and Peter, grateful for their help. Jeff swapped with me, giving me his comic book Fuff, and their joint album Come On Board. He and I stayed in touch, and have now met a good few times when he’s been in the UK. He is a complete delight to talk to, because he is so intelligent about the things he loves, and sparkles that erudition with an infectious wide-eyed enthusiasm. He cared for Seasons, and I’ve never forgotten his kind words about it.

I hoped that he would recommend me a graphic novel: as an artist himself, and a fount of knowledge on comic art and culture, I felt sure he’d come up with something memorable.

Ed The Happy Clown was originally serialised in Chester Brown’s comic book Yummy Fur during the 1980s (aside: I had heard of Yummy Fur, but only because an an engaging Scottish band of the 1990s appropriated the name). It was published as a standalone graphic novel in 1992. I have the latest version (2012) with a few changes from the initial serialisation, but with a whacking great notes section at the end.

It’s been a melancholy week. Partly it’s to do with the snow, falling, falling, falling, and trapping me in a merciless prism of cold. But, also, it’s my own fault: in this prism, I’ve only really watched miserable DVDs. So let’s just say that Ed The Happy Clown slotted in nicely between the unflinching hospital scenes in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film about prejudice and crippling isolation, Fear Eats The Soul.

Ed himself is a cheerful cove, but by the third panel there’s a fatal fire at the children’s hospital he’s about to visit. A broken leg, a rat attack, and the exploitation and subsequent death of several pygmies swiftly follow. We’re on page seven.

However, in this and the other ‘Introductory Pieces’ - written before Ed really gets going as a serial - the strips have a cartoonish quality to them. If one were in a darkly humorous mood, one could – and perhaps should – laugh at them. The fact that they upset me probably says more about me than it does about them. But, even in this earliest part, real bleakness quickly sets in.

That panel where his nose is removed cut me to the quick. Ed remains without the accoutrements of clowning for the remainder of the book.

The kind, intelligent Josie joins Ed in his misadventures. Killed early on in the story, she returns to life, first as an unquiet spirit, and then as a vampire.

If it’s possible, Josie has an even harder time of it than Ed does. The last few pages in the book see to her fate and… oh, my… it’s surely one of the most harrowing endings of all time.

The story itself, as Brown explains in the notes, was almost entirely improvised. Ed began specifically as an exercise in spontaneity – Brown had been taken with the Wallace Fowlie book The Age Of Surrealism and wanted to tap into ‘unconscious art’ – and this unplanned approach remained, to a lesser extent, throughout the comic’s lifespan. This gives Ed a really dangerous edge. It could, and frequently does, go anywhere. Overall the plot makes sense, although occasionally there are frustrating dead ends (and Brown now says he regrets some aspects of Ed that he considers racist and sexist). However, I doubt the very unusual and sustained air of chaotic menace in Ed would have been there had Brown planned the story in advance.

In a mark of how far Ed The Happy Clown ate away at me, the book invaded my dreams. In my nightmare, someone I knew got swept away in a sewer, and she blamed me; she retaliated by coming up through my toilet, showering me with shit, and grabbing at my legs. That’s a jumble of several parts of the Ed story, and it was so powerful it woke me up with a scream at 4am.

Ed The Happy Clown is really not something for the faint-hearted. It’s not just its gloom, horror, and anarchy. It’s a transgressive work, with plenty of graphic bodily functions, and a fair amount of explicit violence. Yet I absolutely adored it. It touched the same nerve in me that makes Story Of The Eye by Georges Bataille one of my favourite books. I’ve thought about Ed repeatedly ever since finishing it, and some individual panels are burned onto my brain.

Like this one. Oh, oh, oh, Ed.