Posted: April 22, 2002
“Chet's skills as a cartoonist, his drawing ability, they're unparalleled, you know?”
Chester Brown started creating comic strips
over 20 years ago, and since then has built up a body of work featuring
a wide variety of subject matter—horror, comedy, non-fiction, even adaptations
of the Gospels—as well as beautiful artwork. His first major project,
collected as the book Ed The Happy Clown in 1992, told the story
of a luckless clown who awakens to find that the head of a miniature version
of Ronald Reagan from a parallel dimension has affixed itself to the head
of Ed's penis. Ed goes on to encounter deadly pygmies, pygmy-hunters,
vampires, vampire-hunters, zombies, werewolves, and mad scientists before
solving his penis problem--sort of. If you're one of those folks who'd
rather 'wait for the movie' than read a good book, you may be in luck;
there are plans to begin filming a movie based on the book sometime in
late 2002. Chester's next two books told autobiographical stories set
in Chester's awkward adolescence. The Playboy was published in 1992, and
I Never Liked You was published in 1994. These two books are two of the
finest graphic novels you could hope to find, due in part to the sparseness
of the drawings and page compositions. One distinctive thing about Chester's
drawings in these books is the lightness of his linework, which smartly
complements the material. One gets the impression, viewing Chester's memories
of some of his most awkward and confusing moments, of someone pressing
lightly on a raw nerve or a loose tooth, and this idea is reinforced by
a line that's spare and delicate, controlled with a surgical precision
and deliberation. The fact that many professional cartoonists often seem
unable to resist the temptation to over-render their drawings makes the
effect Chester achieves in these books even more impressive. The Little
Man, a collection of short strips spanning two decades, was published
in 1998. Besides the entertainment value of the strips themselves, many
of which are hilarious, what makes the book such a treat is watching Chet's
skills as an artist improve from the earliest strips to the most-recent
Two-Handed Man: When did you first start thinking about doing a book about Louis Riel? And, what was it about him that appealed to you?
Chester Brown: Well, any time I read a book,
a history book or whatever, I'm kind of half-thinking about how it would
read as a comic, so I was thinking the same thing when i was reading Maggie
Siggins' book about Riel (Riel: A Life Of Revolution, published
by Harper Collins). Her biography was the first book I read about Riel,
and the idea just kind of stuck in my mind after I finished it.
THM: I think it's the Siggins book that mentions the fact that in his early teens Riel spent some time at the Grey Nuns' Residence in Chateauguay Quebec, and of course you were living in Chateauguay when you were that age as well.
CB: Yeah, yeah. I must've seen that when I first read Siggins' book but I forgot about it until I re-read it for the purpose of doing the comic book. It's my only personal connection to Riel.
THM: It made me wonder if you had heard about him growing up at all, and since you've lived in both English Canada and French Canada, if you could talk about any difference in the way Riel is perceived in the two cultures.
CB: Well even though I grew up in Quebec, I don't feel like I lived in French Canada. There was an anglophone community and a francophone community, and at that time—this would be the 60's and the 70's—the anglophone community around Montreal was very strong. I didn't speak French, and when I encountered French people, they spoke English. And I certainly never talked to them about Riel. I wasn't interested in him at the time. So I can't really say I have a take on the francophone perception of Riel.
THM: So you were part of the anglophone migration out of Quebec that took place in the late 70's when Rene Levesque's separatist Parti Quebecois came to power?
CB: Yeah, I guess the PQ got in around 1976, if my memory's right. My father stuck around to the point where both his sons had graduated from high school, and then he moved out. That was around the time I'd be moving out the house anyway, so that's what I did, I moved to Toronto.
THM: I'm interested in the motivation behind the project. Was it mainly a chance to talk about Riel and the issues surrounding him, or were you more attracted to the personal challenge of doing a kind of project you hadn't done before, adapting a series of actual events into comics? Since you aren't using any sources that are new—
CB: I know what you mean. Not too long before doing Riel, I had done this strip called 'My Mom Was A Schizophrenic' and that had mostly involved taking all this material that I had read in various books and whatnot and condensing it into a short space—I think that strip is six pages long. And I had really enjoyed that. That was the most fun I'd had doing a comic book for quite a while, so I kind of wanted to do something like that again, where I had to do a bunch of research, and condense it all into a short amount of space, and doing a historical comic book made sense because the problem with the schizophrenia strip was that it didn't really have a story-line. And, you know, story-lines are good in comics, especially if they're longer strips. And history provides you with a story, the story of a person's life, or the story of whatever historical line you're following. So it made sense to do something historical, and I was thinking in those terms, probably even when I picked up the Siggins biography, that I might want to do a historical comic book.
THM: Besides the Siggins book, how much research did you have to do? And, in how much detail did you have the project laid out before you sat down and started drawing?
CB: I read a whole bunch of books about Riel. I'm not sure how many books it all adds up to, and I've continued reading since I started the project, because new books keep coming out all the time about Riel. Plus, I come across old ones in second-hand bookstores. So, before I started, I had read maybe 12 or 18 books, something around that number, and more since then.
THM: In the notes for the first chapter, you said you had written a script for the entire project, of around 200 pages or something. How is that different from the way you normally work? Do you have a story written out before you start drawing, or do you write as you're drawing?
CB: This is the first time I had really written out a full script, where I knew what was going to be said in every word balloon. On past projects, it varied a bit. Ed The Happy Clown was a lot of improvisation, just making it up as I went along, but even there sometimes I would get ahead of myself and write scenes that were coming up, or whatever. And the autobiographical stories, there I would have a plan of what I wanted to do, and what kind of scenes I wanted to include. With I Never Liked You, I wrote out the first half—no, let's see, I wrote out the scenes I wanted to include for the whole thing before I started it, and then I think at the half-way point, I wrote out the rest of it so that I would know what I was doing from that point on. But this is the first time where, at the beginning of the project, I wrote out everything that was going on. And even there, I'm changing as I go along. Almost every scene, I re-think as I'm about to start drawing it, and at least half of the time I'm changing dialogue or whatever, or adding scenes or different things.
THM: Is this project frustrating at all for the 'writer' part of your personality, since you have to stick to telling events of a story that's already written? Does that ever feel limiting at all, or does it just feel like you're exercising different muscles?
CB: It's pretty much what I'd been doing with the autobiographical stuff, too. There I was limited to what happened the same way I am with Riel. It doesn't feel like a great burden to have your story, to some degree, set. I am enjoying figuring out what I think is the most dramatic way of telling this set of historical facts. I'm not even thinking about, 'Boy, it'd be fun if I could have the ground swallow up Riel right now…'
THM: It seems like the big albatross Riel had to carry around for most of his political life was his execution of Thomas Scott (depicted in Chapter Three of Brown's book. Scott was an Irishman captured after fighting against the Metis)—
THM: --and he never seemed to show any remorse for it, just thought of it as something he had to do, yet it would always haunt him, always prevent English Canada from taking his concerns seriously. Do you think if he had spared Thomas Scott's life, there would have been less resistance in English Canada to viewing him as a 'good guy'?
CB: I don't know about that, because what he was seen as doing in 1885 is inciting an Indian rebellion, and that was definitely frowned upon. Whether or not he would have been executed or not, I think he still would have been seen as a villain. But then again, if he hadn't had Thomas Scott killed, who knows how things would have played out after that. Then, maybe, he would have been accepted as a Member of Parliament, he wouldn't have gone to Montana, he wouldn't have been in Saskatchewan in 1885, it's hard to say. It kind of changes everything, or it might have changed everything.
THM: The Globe & Mail recently had a big 10-part series of reports on the current state of 'The Native Problem' in Canada, examining the poverty and despair on the reserves, and their feelings of being overwhelmed when they try to make it in white society. The whole series was interesting and thoughtful, and then they wrapped it all up by recommending their solution to the whole mess: assimilation. And it was such a drag, such a typical response: “These people are a hassle, it'd be easier if they just ceased to exist…”
CB: Tom Bethell's book The Noblest Triumph: Property And Prosperity Through The Ages convinced me that the West's wealth comes from property rights for individuals. If you look at poor countries, their property rights are either weak or non-existent—look at rich countries and they have strong property rights. If you accept this premise (and if you don't, you should really read Bethell's book) then it should be obvious why Indians in North America are so poor: weak property rights. People on reserves aren't allowed to buy, sell, or own the land they live on. This comes from their traditional respect for the natural world—no one should be able to own the land. This was one of the fundamental differences (perhaps THE fundamental difference) between the natives of North America and the incoming Europeans. So, if they were to accept property rights they'd be giving up at least one thing that makes them culturally distinct. And it would go beyond that—reserves would cease to be reserves. If non-Indians could buy reserve land from Indians, then reserves would, over time, cease to be centres of cultural identity for Indians. This would mean assimilation.
THM: But what they don't WANT to be assimilated? What if, to them, their assimilation is their destruction?
CB: I'm not for forcing anyone to do anything. But they should understand the consequences of the way they organize their communities. They aren't going to be able to keep their culture AND enjoy the kind of economic growth that we see in the rest of the US and Canada. They can't have both—it's one or the other.
THM: I'm curious about the way you change the layouts of your pages, from the individual issues the single chapters first appeared in, to the complete books, and what's behind these changes. Like, the issues of Yummy Fur that featured the material that would later comprise the Playboy book, those pages were a lot fuller, with a lot more panels per page, so the events weren't as isolated as they are in the book. You re-arranged all of the panels for the book, and the spaces you left between the different visual moments helped to draw our attention to the important stuff, and help with pacing, getting your point across, and being a more entertaining read. Why the difference in the layouts, between the stories in the completed book formats and in the serialized formats?
CB: I think the thinking is, in the comic books, I should pack as much onto a page as possible, because, you know, it's kind of the cheaper format, and you want to give readers as much as you can for their dollar. With the book, because it is more of a prestige item, you can re-format so that putting as much on the page as possible isn't the primary concern, and things like pacing are.
THM: Do some stories seem to demand certain types of layouts? It seems like your layouts are always complementing the content in some way. How much do you think about that when you're working?
CB: With each of those projects I wasn't thinking about how the layout would really affect the story I was working on—it wasn't the content that was affecting the layout, it was, how I wanted to draw at that point in time. With Riel, I'm drawing in those squares, because, at this point in time, I'm really under the influence of Harold Gray, and I'm wanting to draw as much like him as possible. And you know, Harold Gray was the artist who drew Little Orphan Annie, and Little Orphan Annie was always in those little squares, so that's just how I want to draw right now.
THM: Is Harold Gray influencing the way you draw figures, as well?
CB: To some degree, yeah. Well, I'm trying to draw like him, but it keeps ending up looking like it was drawn by me. (Laughs)
THM: What do you feel is your best work?
CB: I Never Liked You. I think that's my best book. I think it works the best as a story, and I like the drawing. It works on both levels, for me at least. At this point, I think Louis Riel might surplant I Never Liked You as what I consider to be my best work, or it might be in second place, but I am certainly happy with how it's turning out.
THM: I think I had heard that you were going to do a new version of I Never Liked You, with different layouts again…
CB: They're pretty much the same layouts, but you know how in I Never Liked You and The Playboy, the background behind the panels is black?
CB: I'm changing it to white. But to do that, I have to re-layout the whole book, so it took awhile.
THM: In the footnotes at the back of The Little Man, you say one reason you wanted to switch from autobiographical stories set in the recent past to stories set in your childhood was to avoid any possible trouble with friends or loved ones who may object to the way they're portrayed in your stories, but beyond that, what is it about the time of adolescence that makes it such a rich area to focus on?
CB: It's the intense emotions of the period, as you're figuring out sex and love and everything. Later on, you develop a bit of a better handle on that whole world, but in those early days you make so many mistakes, and you don't even know, you're still confused by it all, so it's bound to produce rich material for stories.
THM: How did your relationship with Playboy change after your book, The Playboy came out? The book is all about you having to hide the situation, but now it was out there…
CB: At the end of The Playboy I talk about how, at that point, I was still checking the PLAYBOY centrefold every month, and all that kind of stuff, and I continued to do that, but now that I had the book out I didn't feel like I had to be ashamed about this, and I wasn't worried about being seen doing it, and it kind of eliminated the shame factor for me. I didn't worry about that so much anymore.
THM: So you still read it? Because, it just seemed like exposing the problem, getting it out into the light of day, might have robbed it of whatever power it had over you—by naming it, you could control it.
CB: Oh, no, no. I still buy the occasional issue if I find the playmate looks especially attractive to me. The last really good one was this, um, Miriam Gonzales. She was a playmate sometime last year. I can't remember which month she was, but she was good.
THM: When you buy it for the playmate, do you read the articles as well?
CB: Uh, I might flip through it, to see if there's anything else interesting, but there rarely is, for me, anymore. When I was a teenager, it was the most interesting magazine in the world, and not just for the playmates. I liked the interviews and the stories, and all that, but nowadays most of the stuff in there doesn't interest me.
THM: Did you ever get into any other porno mags, like PENTHOUSE or HUSTLER?
CB: PENTHOUSE didn't seem to concentrate as much on the girls' faces, and I really wanted to see the girls' faces. It seems like through the 1980's, they almost went out of their way to obscure the girls' faces…in PLAYBOY, there would always be a full page of a girl's face, or a close-up of a face, and in PENTHOUSE that never happened. If you got to see the face it was almost like an incidental thing in the photograph. That's why I preferred PLAYBOY. And HUSTLER, I don't know, I guess it was the same thing, I just seemed to like the girls better in PLAYBOY. That's not to say that I never bought a PENTHOUSE or a HUSTLER, just not nearly as much as I did PLAYBOY.
THM: Were these other magazines as readily available to you in your early adolescent years in Chateauguay?
CH: Right, I don't think I would have seen HUSTLER in Chateauguay. PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE yeah, and a few other porn magazines, but yeah, there wasn't much selection in Chateauguay in the 70`s.
THM: One thing that made the book so funny for me and my friends was that to us today, PLAYBOY is so tame compared to most 'adult entertainment,' the tamest thing out there, and there you are getting so freaked out about the shame of it all, and we're like, `So he reads PLAYBOY, so what's the big deal?' I guess things have changed since the 70's.
CB: Sure. And it was also the way I was brought up. I'm sure a lot of guys who grew up at the same time I did would have thought it was really tame, too. It's all a matter of how you're raised, and how your parents react to these things, and whatnot.
THM: What appealed to you about using a made-up language, in the Underwater project you worked on from 1994 to 1998? And what was it about it that made you want to stop working on it?
CB: I just wanted to give the audience the same sense of confusion that the character was going through, the baby. She was in this world where she wasn't understanding things, and the audience would understand what was being said at the same rate that the main character was. So that's what was going on there. And the other question was: what happened to Underwater? (Laughs) The main problem was a pacing problem. I had wanted the project to be about 20-30 issues, and I should have written it out as a full script beforehand. That's what I had originally intended to do, and then I said, `Oh, screw it, I was able to wing it with Ed The Happy Clown, I'll do it again with Underwater,' but Underwater was a different type of story, and 'winging it' didn't work with Underwater, because the pacing was very important to Underwater, and to tell the story the way I wanted it to be told, to continue to tell it that way, at the pace that I had been telling it in the first 11 issues meant that telling the whole story would take, like, 300 issues. And I didn't want to do a 300-issue series, so it meant having to re-think everything. Hopefully I can still re-work where I want to go with Underwater so that I can fit it into 30 issues, but that'll take a lot of work now. I should have written it out as a script beforehand. Anyways, that's the main problem with Underwater.
THM: Where did Ed come from? What's the origin of the story? How did that start off, and did it just balloon once you let yourself go with it?
CB: Well, the first episode in the Ed The Happy Clown book, at the beginning there's a section called Introductory Pieces, and the first one, Ed The Happy Clown, was just a strip that I started, I made it up panel by panel. (Opens up the Ed book) The first panel I drew was this one here: 'Ed is happy.' I had no idea where it was going, I just drew this clown, going to the hospital to entertain sick children, and then I just drew this second panel, where the hospital has burnt down, and it just kind of continued from there…I added the first panel later, with the mayor discussing the rat problem, I guess. This first strip was made up panel by panel, over about a week I guess, and that's really the way most of the book went, kind of making up stuff as it went along. At a certain point I kind of knew where it was going, or had ideas, but then again, the ideas kept shifting around, so to a large degree it was a work of improvisation.
THM: That recurring feature where each chapter starts with the events of the end of the previous chapter, but being retold from a different point of view—when did you have that idea?
CB: It's not so much that I got that idea at some point, it came up naturally because of the improvisational nature of the story I was telling. If I had known from the beginning where I was going, I probably would have intertwined various elements in different ways, but because I didn't know where I was going (Laughs), it meant sometimes having to go back and go over the same ground from a different point of view, the point of view of the new character I had created, or whatever.
THM: Well, it worked out pretty well.
CB: Thank you. (Laughs)
THM: All of those classic horror movie tropes—the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies—had been used in comics before, but the way they were used in this book was quite different from the way they were used in Tomb Of Dracula, or something. Were you interested in subverting genre conventions and expectations? (Chester thinks it over) It's just, the way you used these things was different from the way they'd been used in the past.
CB: Yeah, I guess. I just have a love for that stuff, the horror genre, so I guess I just wanted to do stuff with vampires and monsters and stuff.
THM: Did they represent anything? Were they metaphors for anything?
CB: (Laughs) No, no. I just like vampires.
THM: Yeah, who doesn't? I asked that because I read an interview with Alan Moore (in the September 2000 issue of UNCUT magazine) where he said the super-heroes in Watchmen were, like, metaphorical stand-ins for the cultural signposts of the 80's, larger than life characters who represented philosophical ideas like the atom bomb (Dr. Manhattan) or anarchy (V), and that his stories were a place for these ideas to—
CB: (Laughs loudly for a long time) Come ON! I mean, he was doing stories about super-heroes because super-hero comics PAID MONEY! He was working for DC Comics—of COURSE he was writing about super-heroes! I mean, I'm sure there was a metaphorical level going on, but that's not what was going on with me. I just wanted to draw some vampires.
THM: So you think what Alan was saying there was just a scam to give the work an extra layer of—or a sheen of class it doesn't quite deserve?
CB: Oh well, Alan Moore does have a sheen of class. He's a smart guy, and I'm sure there was a metaphoric level, I'm not denying that, but let's face it: the main reason he was doing a super-hero comic was because he was working for a super-hero comic book company. (Laughs)
THM: Didn't you work with him on something?
CB: Yeah, a super-hero comic, one of the issues of 1963, I think it was the third issue. I inked one of the stories, I think it was an 8-page story, written by Alan and pencilled by Steve Bissette, and inked by me.
THM: How did that come about?
CB: Do you know who Mark Askwith is?
THM: I don't think so.
CB: He used to be the manager of the Silver Snail comic shop (in Toronto) and I guess that's how I met him. He wrote the Prisoner comic book for DC, and apparently now he's got a Batman comic book coming out from DC that Bill Sienkiewicz is drawing, so he's got some kind of connection to the comic book world, even though he's done other stuff too, mainly for TV. He knew Steve Bissette, and they were just talking about 1963, and for some reason Mark suggested that I would be a good inker for one of the stories, and Steve thought that would be a good idea.
THM: (suddenly remembering) Hey, didn't you do the Hypernaut story?
CB: Yeah, it was the Hypernaut one, that's right.
THM: That was the one about the superhero who re-charged his mental powers by swimming in that fish tank full of liquid information.
CB: Yeah. (Both laugh for a long time)
THM: That's great.
CB: Yeah, it might be just because that was the issue I worked on, but I really thought that was the best issue of the 1963 series.
THM: Well, what else was in that issue besides the Hypernaut?
CB: The one where the patriotic character (US Agent) goes back into the past on the day of Kennedy's assassination.
THM: Well, if that was the best issue, I'm sure the fact that you worked on it had something to do with it.
CB: (Laughs) Thanks.
THM: Speaking of Alan Moore, was his From Hell book any influence on Louis Riel, in the sense of doing a major comic book re-telling of an historical incident?
CB: It couldn't help but be some kind of influence. I love From Hell, and it came before I was doing Louis Riel, although it certainly wasn't the only historical comic book out there. It's a great book, but I'm not trying to do the same thing as From Hell. From Hell comes right out and says it's a melodrama, and I'm not trying to do a melodrama at all. My book is a lot more emotionally flat. But sure, on some level it's an influence. (NOTE: Alan Moore is a talented writer worth checking out. Some of my favourite Moore books are his novel, Voice Of The Fire, published in 1996 by Victor Gollancz; A Small Killing, illustrated by Oscar Zarate; and his three collaborations with Eddie Campbell: Snakes & Ladders, The Birth Caul, and From Hell. To learn more about the wacky world of Alan Moore, click on www.eddiecampbellcomics.com and then click on `Alan Moore's Idea Space'.—THM)
THM: With trying to be emotionally flat, is there any sort of conflict between properly re-telling an actual event, and making an entertaining comic book? If the emotional value is flat, what's there to hook the reader in the place of that?
CB: You kind of hope that the events themselves are interesting. I think that's what you have to hope for, that on a broad level it's an interesting story.
THM: What happened to the ending of Ed The Happy Clown? It seems kind of abrupt, almost as if you had grown bored of the material and wanted to move on to other things.
CB: (Laughs) Did you read it in the Yummy Fur issues, or have you only read it in the book there?
THM: Yeah, I bought the book in the fall, and never saw any of those Yummy Fur issues.
CB: Right. Okay.There was a longer ending in Yummy Fur, which I didn't like, so this is kind of like the drastically shortened version, but I'm not sure that the longer ending would have made that much sense as an ending, because it wasn't—well, even that ending had a feeling of suddenness to it, because you're right, I suddenly got bored of the series. My original intention had been to just continue on with Ed the Happy Clown as a character forever, like Batman or Superman. He would be my character, and anything I wanted to do I would fit into the context of an Ed The Happy Clown story. And I reached a point where I realized that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my career, and that's when I decided to end it.
THM: Yeah. It does read like the ending of the book could have been the springboard for Ed Part 2, if you had been interested. What happened in the original ending?
CB: Uh…at the end of the book you see him being driven off with this woman, who thinks, apparently, that Ed is her husband. And Ed goes and has adventures out in the suburbs with her and her kids, and her mother, and then there's something about the kids being kidnapped by aliens from outer space…
THM: Nice. That sounds great!
CB: Josie the vampire ends up saving everyone, and then she dies at the end just like she does in the book.
THM: Yeah, that poor girl is always dying.
CB: (Laughs) Yeah, she always dies.
THM: It's too bad. Wasn't Bruce MacDonald going to make an Ed The Happy Clown movie a long time ago?
CB: Yeah, it looks like it might finally get made this year. He's had an Ed script for years and years. The problem was getting financial backing, because, you know, if you're going to do it true to the book, it's a tough book to sell to people who have money. So for a long time he couldn't get financial backing and it looks like this year he might have it, I think due to the success of Ghost World. You know, people are thinking again, 'Oh, comic books. Maybe that would be a good place to put some money, into a comic book movie.' So yeah, he's got someone who says he's going to fund it.
THM: Was the script written by you?
fCB: (Shakes head) No, no. I didn't want to waste my time doing that. (Laughs) I'm a cartoonist. I have no interest in getting involved in movies. It would be fun to see my book made as a movie, and it would be great if Bruce MacDonald does it and makes a great movie, and maybe I'd be willing to get involved in some level, but to take the time to write a script, I didn't have the interest.
THM: But you'll still get a lot of cash if the movie does get made, right?
CB: (Smiles) I'd make some money, yeah…
CB: …which is also a factor influencing why I'd want them to make the movie.
THM: In one of the Introductory Pieces, all the pygmies die after being forced out of the airplanes without parachutes, yet later in the book the sewers of the city are home to a thriving pygmy community, so did some survive the fall, or were they there already?
CB: That was my thinking, that some survived the fall and ran into the sewers and thrived there for whatever reason.
THM: And natural selection says only the strongest pygmies would have survived, so those pygmies that Ed encountered must have been that much more dangerous and deadly. Cool.
THM: When the Ronald Reagan from the miniature parallel dimension put his head through the dimensional portal and his head appeared where the head of Ed's penis had been, where did the head of Ed's penis go? It had to go somewhere.
CB: Uh…my thinking is that it was just kind of, covered, by the Reagan head somehow.
THM: Oh, so the Reagan head was more of a mask?
CB: Well, I don't know, maybe he—(Starts giggling) You're thinking this out way too much. You're worrying too much about the details.
THM: Aw, man..! (Laughs) It's not a big problem, it's just something my friends and I wondered about.
CB: Maybe, you know, the part that was, in the neck, there was a bit of a curve in there, maaaybe, or something. I don't know.
THM: Okay. But that wouldn't be too comfortable for Ed, if the Reagan head is pushing down on it all the time. That puts a lot of pressure on Ed's penis.
CB: Well, I thought of it as pretty much joining it, and beginning a part of Ed's body, so there isn't this question of comfort or not. It's kind of welded there, you know?
THM: Why did Ed want to be a clown?
CB: (Laughs) What do you mean? That was his career choice. That's like asking why I wanted to become a cartoonist.
THM: He just wanted to make people laugh.
THM: Well, he certainly made ME laugh. What were the main influences on you back when you first started getting serious about becoming a cartoonist?
CB: Even at that point, Harold Gray was some influence on me. I started reading Gray's stuff probably as soon as I moved to Toronto. Other influences? I'd begun reading Crumb shortly before that, and other underground stuff, so that was an influence to some degree. Of course the Marvel and DC comics, they had been my main interests in my teenage years.
THM: Religious imagery appears often in your work. Do you believe in God?
CB: Have you ever read Emmanuel Swedenborg?
THM: I've heard the name, but that's it.
CB: Emmanuel Swedenborg was an 18th Century Christian mystic who influenced a whole bunch of people. He influenced William Blake, and Helen Keller was into him, and Johnny Appleseed, of all people.
THM: There was a real Johnny Appleseed? I thought he was like Paul Bunyan or something.
CB: Oh yeah, he was John Chapman. He went around the country, not just planting apple trees, but also giving out books by Emmanuel Swedenborg, trying to spread the good news of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Anyways. Swedenborg wrote a bunch of books on Christian theology. His most famous one is called Heaven & Hell. He claimed that for the last 27 years of his life, he lived not just in this world but also in the afterlife, that he could travel back and forth, so he was quite familiar with what Heaven and Hell were like. I've been religious for years and years, but without being sure exactly what I believed, or keeping my beliefs vague, you know. I don't know what's true and you can't know what's true. It seems like there's probably a God but I don't know what he would be like. Anyways, reading Heaven & Hell, it seemed to make a lot of sense. I've been reading a lot of his books lately. Right now I'm reading this one, which in this translation is called Love & Marriage, but it gives the full title below that: The Sensible Joy In Married Love And The Foolish Pleasures Of Illicit Love.
THM: (Put off by the title) Yikes!
CB: I'm not really sure if I'm going to end up being a Swedenborgian or not, but it's interesting, and I'm taking it seriously.
THM: Do you think your adult interest in religion is just a result of you having been raised in a religious environment? After rejecting traditional Christianity, are you now trying to get to the same place but by a different route, or something?
CB: That could be. I am wondering, am I just looking for a way back into Christianity? Because to a certain extent I felt like I couldn't believe in Christianity. The doctrines didn't really make sense to me. And Swedenborg is a form or an interpretation of Christianity that makes more sense to me than regular Christianity. So…is that the only thing that appeals to me about it? And, I don't know. (Laughs) I try to work this out in my head…
THM: You started doing comic book adaptations of the Gospels in 1987. Why did you begin with Mark, as opposed to Matthew, which comes first, or Luke or John for that matter?
CB: Because, according to the popular theory, it was the first one to be written. There's a bit of debate about that; some say it was really Matthew, but the popular consensus is that Mark was the first one, so that's why I did that one first. And I was planning on doing all four. Of course, I'm halfway or so, more than halfway into Mathew now, and I don't think I'm going to be getting to Luke or John. But you never know. My interest in Swedenborg might get me wanting to do Luke or John now.
THM: How much is that work a personal religious exercise for you?
CB: Yeah, when I was doing Mark and Mathew, certainly at the beginning, it was a matter of trying to figure out what I believed about this stuff. I had been reading books about it, and reading the Bible, and it just made sense to take it over into my comic books and do an adaptation of the Gospels. It looked like a good way to figure things out.
THM: So has the experience of repeatedly drawing the face of Jesus brought you any closer to him?
CB: It wasn't a matter of trying to get closer to him. It was a matter of trying to figure out whether I even believed the Christian claims—whether or not Jesus was divine, all that.
THM: Do you feel like you're getting anywhere with that?
CB: Not really. I'm as confused as ever.
THM: You're going to finish that project, when the Riel book is done?
CB: I'm going to finish the Gospel of Matthew, yes.
THM: Joe Matt and Seth really don't have political elements in their work, and you do.
THM: How important is politics to you?
CB: Well, I think politics is important. It's…how we run our society. I think it should be natural to have an interest in the subject, and I almost don't understand why some people don't. So I definitely am interested in it, (laughs) and I am definitely more interested in it than Joe and Seth.
THM: And that interest was there from the start, with Ed—were you trying to say anything by turning Reagan into a literal dickhead?
CB: Ah, no, the truth is, I wasn't that political at that age. I didn't really know anything about Reagan. All I knew was that the media portrayed him in a negative light. I was against Reagan because everyone else was against Reagan. My opinion of Reagan is higher today than it was back then.
THM: The Playboy seems like it was your most sophisticated political statement—
CB: It was?
CB: Are you sure?
THM: Yeah, yeah. It worked really well as a comment on how people are beaten down and shaped by cultural forces, social conditioning, showing this corporation that becomes successful by suckering a naïve kid, hooking and brainwashing him with a vision of women that isn't real, culminating in that panel where you're with your second girlfriend and you say that to maintain an erection with her you had to pretend she was one of your favourite playmates. That panel was great, really sad and touching. I really felt for the girl, and for you, having been trained in this brutal Pavlovian way to choose an illusion over reality, like a classic bait-and-switch operation. It seemed to be a pretty strong indictment of the whole…corporate shell game that makes this continent run.
CB: That panel was flawed because I didn't give the reader enough information
to understand what was going on in it. I had made the mistake of going
out with a girl that I wasn't sexually attracted to. I was attracted to
her for other reasons—she was very intelligent and enormously talented.
She was—probably still is—an artist. She was good-looking but not 'my
type.' But I thought I should be above base physicality and that I should
be willing to disregard the fact that she wasn't my sexual type. In hind-sight
I can see that if you're getting sexually involved with someone, it might
be a good idea to be attracted sexually to them. Anyway, at first this
wasn't really a problem, `cause there was the male thrill-of-conquest
thing going on in my head. But a few weeks later I found that thrill-of-conquest
wearing off and there I was in bed with someone who wasn't turning me
on. So I had to use mental images of PLAYBOY playmates to get it up. Now,
where is PLAYBOY at fault here? My own stupidity had gotten me into bed
with this girl, not PLAYBOY. Yeah, I was using mental images that PLAYBOY
had given me, but if PLAYBOY hadn't existed I could have just as easily
used memories of women in bra ads or nude models from my art classes or
something. Maybe you'd argue that PLAYBOY created a beauty-standard and
that if that didn't exist I could have found this girl I'd been with sexually
attractive and I would have been happy with her. I'd have two responses
THM: That's not the impression I got from reading the book, since the book is about you and PLAYBOY (and you yourself promote the book as 'An autobiographical look at how pornography has affected my life') and PLAYBOY is just bringing you all this misery.
CB: That's true, but why does it bring me misery? Is it because PLAYBOY is an evil bad thing, or is it because of the influence of my culture that makes me think PLAYBOY is an evil thing, and that I have to be ashamed of myself for reading it? The problem wasn't PLAYBOY, it was the fact that I was made to feel ashamed of my interest in it.
THM: Oh, I guess I got that wrong, then. If your focus wasn't PLAYBOY so much as the PLAYBOY-related shame you felt, wouldn't Joe say that you should be pointing the finger specifically at the Church and your own personal religious upbringing?
CB: It wasn't my intention to point the finger at anyone. I wasn't playing the blame-game. And the Church's critique of modern sexual values has some validity—I can see their point of view. All porn, even soft-core stuff like PLAYBOY, encourages sexual promiscuity. And if you're hopping from one woman to another, your relationships with any of them are going to be pretty superficial. The counter-argument would be, so what if my sexual relationships are superficial, one can still have satisfying and rewarding relationships with friends, or parents, or siblings, or whatever. And the counter-argument to that would be that those relationships are great, but they're not going to be as fulfilling as a long-term monogamous sexual relationship with someone you're deeply in love with. And I could go on batting the argument back and forth because I really can see both sides. But in the end I'm for human freedom. People should be allowed the freedom to make their own choices. They should be able to buy or not buy porn and be monogamous or promiscuous as they see fit.
THM: So I would assume that you're totally opposed to all forms of censorship, and you wouldn't put much stock in Ted Bundy's dying claim that porno mags led him down the slippery slope toward mass murder?
CB: If looking at porn makes you kill people, then Joe Matt should be the biggest serial killer ever. Bundy may have believed that porn made him a murderer, but the experience of millions of peaceful non-murdering porn-consumers around the world proves him wrong. I suspect that he was looking for an easy target to blame. “It wasn't me—it was the porn! I would have been a good person otherwise.”
THM: I'd like to talk about the schizophrenia strip.
CB: Okay. (NOTE: Chester's excellent compilation The Little Man ends with a strip called `My Mom Was A Schizophrenic.' In it, he puts forward the idea that what we call `schizophrenia' isn't a real disease at all, but instead a tool our society uses to deal with people who display socially unacceptable beliefs and behaviour. Chester has kindly allowed this strip to be reproduced in its entirety at the end of this interview.—THM)
THM: Was doing the strip cathartic or therapeutic for you in any way?
CB: It was more a matter of clarifying my thoughts. I had been anti-psychiatry for awhile, but wasn't sure exactly what I believed on the matter, because different writers would come to different conclusions. I mean, the two main 'anti-psychiatry' writers—R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz--they have very different opinions on the matter, even though neither of them probably think that schizophrenia is a disease. When I was doing the strip, I didn't know which of them I favoured, or if I had a different opinion on the matter. Doing the strip just kind of clarified things for me, and made me come to my own conclusions.
THM: One question the reader is left with is: if you're saying the way schizophrenia is dealt with is wrong, how SHOULD it be dealt with?
CB: I think we have to have a greater acceptance of aberrant behaviour, as long as they aren't doing something strictly illegal, and if they're doing something illegal, then we should deal with them on that basis, on that level. But if people are just acting strange, I think we have to have a greater understanding and acceptance of that. We're not very accepting of people who act strangely.
THM: The devil's advocate opinion would be, wouldn't it be hard to have a culture or a society that worked if we just allowed anybody to act however wildly they wanted to? Productivity would go down. We have to describe certain limits for behaviour in order for things to work. And if a schizophrenic loved one was punching the wall until he really hurt himself, there's no way you could watch that and just go, 'Oh, just let him be, he's just different,' when he's damaging property and himself.
CB: Well yeah, that's another thing. If someone's hurting himself or herself, do you let them hurt themselves or do we have the right to force them not to hurt themselves? My inclination is to let people hurt themselves, and I know it's a controversial standpoint but I believe we should give people their freedom, and that includes the freedom to hurt themselves. Let me clarify that: I think people should have the legal right to hurt themselves without fearing that they're going to get locked up for doing so. But on a personal level, if someone I loved was hurting himself or herself in front of me, I would, of course, try to restrain them.
THM: Why do you think schizophrenia is dealt with the way it is?
CB: I think, like you said, it would slow down the efficiency of our society. We couldn't be making as much money, if we had to deal with stranger behaviour. And right now, anybody who slows down our economic productivity, off they go. We have a place for them, the psychiatric institution. That's the main thing, they slow things down.
THM: I recently read an article in the National Post about scientists who were working on isolating the 'schizophrenia gene.'
THM: If they were successful with that, would you have to modify your theory?
CB: I would question what it was they had actually discovered. I mean, I bought this issue of HARPER'S yesterday (February 2002). The cover story is 'Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering' by Barry Commoner. This guy claims that DNA doesn't do what scientists claim it does, as far as our inherited characteristics go. And I just doubt that it has anything to do with our behaviour, either. Scientists have already claimed that they've found a 'schizophrenia gene' or whatever, and, later, their claims are found to be over-stated to say the least. So anytime something like that is claimed, I'm always skeptical. But it is possible I'm wrong, and proof will come out that it does have some kind of genetic component, but for the time being…Schizophrenia was invented over a hundred years ago, and they keep claiming to have found proof that it is a disease or an illness, and the proof is always over-stated. They keep having to backtrack.
THM: Well, that article might come just in time. It seems like in the past ten years we've seen scientists claiming to have isolated the 'alcoholic gene,' the gene that predisposes one to criminality, and so on, and it all seems to be part of an effort to get us to a scary point where we don't have to take any moral responsibility for our own actions. “Hey man, I couldn't help it, I've got the evil gene.”
CB: Yeah, exactly.
THM: I remember reading about schizophrenia at McMaster (University, in Hamilton Ontario) and it sounded like they were talking about an umbrella term for a whole group of syndromes, and anything that they could fit under that umbrella, they'd throw under there. It seemed like they were researching to prove a pre-determined hypothesis, stacking up a group of symptoms to create a disease that would fit their model, when I could be coughing for any number of reasons: the flu, pneumonia or just nervousness, you know?
THM: And they'd say about half of schizophrenics respond to drug therapy with dopamine inhibitors and about half don't, which made me wonder why they just didn't deal with the two camps as two separate ailments, they seemed so different. And they would actually have maps demonstrating how there were more cases of schizophrenia in urban centres, and fewer cases as you moved toward more rural areas where life was calmer and less hectic. (Chester laughs) It always seemed like, either they were talking about two different things, or a whole list of things, or, 'Here's a whole list of complaints we keep hearing, and we have to make it into something for the sake of convenience,' so maybe you're right.
CB: You went to McMaster?
THM: Yeah. I didn't get a degree, though.
CB: Is the name Chester New familiar?
THM: Sure it is. Chester New Hall is one of the university's main Humanities buildings. In fact, I'm pretty sure I slept through a lecture or two on Louis Riel in the basement of Chester New Hall.
CB: He was my grandfather.
THM: No kidding!
THM: Why's it named after him?
CB: He was a history professor there.
THM: When was it named Chester New Hall?
CB: I think it was right after he died in 1960, a few months after I was born.
THM: As you said at the start, the Riel project is a nice convergence of several interests of yours, and maybe we should talk about Riel's own weird mental behaviour in light of the schizophrenia strip. One element that doesn't come through so clearly in your book is that, from the get-go he was super-religious to a degree that a 21st century person can't really imagine.
THM: Praying constantly, writing poems to God as soon as he knew how to write. I think it's the Flanagan book (Louis 'David' Riel: Prophet Of The New World' by Thomas Flanagan, published by University of Toronto Press in 1996) that really deals with that--
CB: Yeah, the Flanagan book is really the one that talks about his religious beliefs most thoroughly.
THM: He had a world-view that sounds strange to 'modern' folks, but in other cultures in the past, it was the prevalent one. To him, everything and/or anything in the physical world could serve as a symbol of something spiritual or a message from above, and in that light, his own breakdown just seems like the normal way someone with his world-view might deal with a big nervous strain, and just calling it 'crazy' sounds like…a form of bigotry. And it seems like that response has a lot in common with the way our culture deals with schizophrenia—the situation doesn't involve a medical illness as much as it does a lack of understanding/tolerance on the part of the beholder.
CB: Yeah. Most people today have a hard time getting into the religious mindset. It doesn't make sense to them, it just seems crazy.
THM: When Riel hears the voice in Chapter Six, it kind of comes out of nowhere and there's no real precedent for it earlier in your book.
THM: Did he have any weird mental episodes before that?
CB: Besides what I describe in my footnotes, I don't think so. And you're probably right, that it does seem to come out of nowhere, because I don't mention how religious he was. It might make more sense if the reader knew that he had gone to university with the specific intention of becoming a priest, and I don't even mention that. Well, I do mention it, but it might have been better if I'd shown it.
THM: Yeah, it kind of seems like the way it's handled, you make it more dramatic than it should be, in the sense that, it didn't exactly come out of nowhere suddenly.
THM: I'm not sure whether you were thinking about this at the outset, but the Riel project does work as a pretty good 'object lesson' in the kind of thing you were talking about in the schizophrenia strip, about how what we accept as truth is sometimes just motivated by expediency and convenience, like labeling something as schizophrenia so we can treat it in a consistent way, and make things easier for us 'normal' folk...
CB: Also, I think one of the motivating factors for coming up with it is, they felt like they had to have an answer. The scientists at the end of the 19th century had people coming to them with this weird behaviour, and they didn't know what was going on but there seemed to be a similarity. They needed an answer, so they made up one. I'm sure that they didn't think of it as 'making up one.' They thought they were identifying a set of behaviours, but yeah, they just wanted to have an answer.
THM: How much can the problem of skyrocketing rates of mental illness be viewed as a result of a certain set of conditions in the culture as a whole? Maybe a breakdown isn't so much an indictment of a certain weak individual's failure to hold it all together. Maybe the culture itself is the proper culprit.
CB: Yeah, I think that there's definitely a problem in the culture that results in the way that people have these breakdowns. That's the thing: in medicine, you're used to saying there's a problem within the person, and saying there's a problem within the culture, that's not a medical answer. Medicine has to look in one direction, so there's only one type of answer that they can find. It's hard for doctors to think in other terms, not even necessarily at environmental problems in the way that we understand them, but admitting that it's not a physical problem so much as a problem with how we act, how we do things.
THM: So the psychiatric drugs are just treating a symptom, and not the real problem?
CB: Yeah, I think so. (NOTE: And they don't even do this SAFELY! On page 169 of his The Little Man book, Chester writes: “Actually the anti-psychotic drugs do the opposite of healing. Even the Ontario Ministry of Health's UNDERSTANDING SCHIZOPHRENIA pamphlet admits that these drugs can cause tardive dyskinesia—which 'is damage to the central nervous system, sometimes permanent damage…TD can be so severe that it is disabling.' UNDERSTANDING SCHIZOPHRENIA doesn't give the risk rates, but according to (psychiatrist Peter) Breggin, 'all long-term patients are likely to succumb to tardive dyskinesia.'” Pretty scary stuff! If this part of our discussion interests you at all, Chester recommends the following books: Toxic Psychiatry, by Peter Breggin; Madness, Heresy, And The Rumor Of Angels, by Seth Farber; Against Therapy, by Jeffrey Moussaieff; Schizophrenia—The Sacred Symbol Of Psychiatry, by Thomas Szasz; and The Politics Of Experience, by R.D. Laing.—THM)
THM: (Checks disorganized notes) I think I'm out of questions. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about, or say?
CB: (Laughs) Yeah, please put a note in the introduction to this or something, and tell people that I don't live on a dirt floor.
CB: In the new issue of Peepshow, Joe says that I live on a dirt floor, and people should know that that's not true.
THM: Okay. (Leans forward toward tape recorder) CHESTER DOES NOT LIVE ON A DIRT FLOOR. (Chester laughs) Actually, when I first walked in here the first thing I thought was that this place is a lot better than where you were living in `Danny's Story' and `Helder.' (Two excellent autobiographical strips found in Chester's The Little Man book.)
CB: Yeah, I was living in a rooming house, back then.
THM: So you're moving up.
CB: Moving up, yeah.
THM: Right on. I don't seem to see a TV in here...
CB: That's right, there's no TV. Most of the stuff on TV just seems kinda boring to me. Given a chance between watching TV and reading a book, I'd usually rather read a book.
THM: So why did Joe say you live on a dirt floor?
CB: Why did Joe say that I lived in a place with a dirt floor? Just because he thought it sounded funny, so—(Chester laughs). I guess it does sound funny, although to me it just sounds bizarre, but as you can see (gestures around the room. The room is completely carpeted. I can't see any dirt), I don't live on a dirt floor.
THM: Did you have a dirtier floor at one point that would have made him think that?
CB: I don't think it was dirtier than this one. I mean, this rug, maybe it could use a vacuum right now, and a bit of shampoo or something, and the floor I had before was probably about the same…
THM: Do you get to do more talking in this issue of Peepshow?
CB: A little bit more.
THM: Normally you get stuck just watching Seth and Joe talk.
CB: Yeah, that's what most of the new issue is: Seth and Joe talking, and me saying the occasional thing. And quite frankly, the lines that Joe gives Seth and me do not necessarily accord with our genuine opinions. I almost wanted to write a letter to explain that what Joe had me saying were things that I disagreed with, but anyways…
THM: Does that bother you at all?
CB: A little bit, but on the other hand, I understand, because I know about the annoyance that people had when I would depict them in my autobiographical comics. It's a tough thing to do, when you're dealing with other people. It's inevitable that you're not going to get everything exactly right, and people are going to be a bit, miffed, if they think that you are portraying them inaccurately.
THM: I don't think a person has any right to be miffed—it seems obvious that the cartoon version of me isn't the real me, so who cares?
CB: Yeah. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people out there who do think that the person in Peepshow is me, portrayed accurately. They don't take into account the fact that JOE MATT IS A LYING BASTARD! (Disclaimer: Do not let the previous sentence dissuade you from buying all of Joe Matt's books TODAY. They're all meticulously drawn and supremely entertaining.—THM)
THM: When reading scenes of the three of you together, one of the funniest things for me and my friends would be, besides the dialogue between Seth and Joe, how you'd always be over there on the side, never talking or doing anything at all, like you were a statue.
CB: Yeah…(laughs) Yeah, I'll say nothing, or I'll laugh. That's what Joe mostly has me doing.
THM: Do you wish that you were able to get more of the good lines in Peepshow?
CB: No, not really. I think the reason that I don't get as many lines is because Joe and Seth have this kind of antagonistic relationship, and therefore they're good foils for each other. And I'm kind of in-between. Sometimes I'll criticize Joe, but I'm as likely to agree with him as disagree with him, so I don't provide the same thing that Seth provides for him. It's easier for him to write dialogue for Seth because of the relationship that they have, where they're going to disagree on almost everything.
THM: So when the three of you are together—
CB: When the three of us are together, I'm as likely to be talking as Joe is, although Seth, Seth is a blabbermouth, he's going to be talking no matter what. In any social situation, Seth is going to be talking. When the three of us are together, I do plenty of talking.
THM: Well that's good to know. And hey, I'm here, I'm an eye-witness, and I can state for the record that: 'Not only is Chester Brown one of the finest cartoonists working today, he does NOT live on a dirt floor.' Thanks for having me over, Chester.
To learn more about Chester Brown, and to order his books, click on his publisher's website, www.drawnandquarterly.com then click on 'artists', then click on 'Chester Brown.' Oh, and get yourself some books by David Collier while you're there, too. Click here to see a photo of Chester Brown. Click here to read Chester's strip My Mom Was A Schizophrenic.'
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