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Special Ed

Years before he eulogized Louis Riel in comic form, Chester Brown scandalized the publishing industry with Ed the Happy Clown

Feeling blue: Ed the Clown, from the cover of Yummy Fur, issue 18. Courtesy Chester Brown. Feeling blue: Ed the Clown, from the cover of Yummy Fur, issue 18. Courtesy Chester Brown.

Since its publication in the fall of 2003, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography has sold more than 17,000 copies, snagged numerous industry awards and helped solidify Chester Brown’s standing as a pillar of Canadian cartooning. Librarians and teachers now line up for Brown’s public readings and traditional book critics clamour to offer their approval. (The U.S. trade paper Publisher’s Weekly was so smitten that they hailed Riel “a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever.”)

But there was a time, long before the mainstream pile-on, when Brown’s work was feared and excoriated by everyone from women’s rights groups to die-hard comic nerds. The indignation came courtesy of Ed The Happy Clown, his 1989 story about the problem-plagued life of an ill-fated children’s entertainer.

If you thought Louis Riel got a bum deal, consider what Ed was faced with: subterranean pygmies, cow-thieving aliens, dismembered hands, Frankenstein’s monster, never-ending bowel movements and the pièce de résistance: the head of then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan transplanted onto the tip of his penis. This queasy combination of gleeful scatology and cutting-edge humour left readers dazzled and/or scratching their heads, and propelled many alternative cartoonists — including a little-known cartoonist named Seth — back to their drawing boards.

Now, Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly is reprinting the unexpurgated Ed in a nine-issue series that comes complete with new covers and endnotes from Brown. Two issues in, the slim black-and-white pamphlets offer an opportunity to revisit a time when the gentle genius behind Louis Riel was the reigning enfant térrible of the comic world.

For those unfamiliar with Brown’s dark hero, Ed is a cheery fellow with a big head who is forced to endure one blackly humorous indignity after another. The story begins when the children’s hospital he’s bound for burns to the ground — with all the kiddies in it. The plot gets grimmer from there. Reading like a profane version of Voltaire’ s Candide, Ed battles flesh-eating rats, befriends a band of pygmies, is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and falls in love with a vampire.

The artist as art: Chester Brown, a self-portrait. Courtesy Chester Brown.
The artist as art: Chester Brown, a self-portrait. Courtesy Chester Brown.
As Brown recalls in his notes, the book had its genesis in a creative rut he was experiencing during the early 1980s. After a chance reading of a book about surrealism, Brown decided to throw caution to the wind and draw a completely improvised comic, foregoing many traditional cartooning processes like pencilling or ruling out panel borders.

“Embracing surrealistic spontaneous creation,” as he now refers to it, gave Brown, then in his 20s, a much-needed artistic direction. It allowed him to indulge all his cultural and political interests, from his skepticism of politicians to his childhood love of vampires and werewolves. But the real achievement was the way Ed managed to be both hopeless and funny, a trick moviemakers like Tim Burton and Todd Solondz wish they could pull off more regularly.

Despite being out of print for more than a decade, Ed still has the power to both inspire and offend. In a recent interview in The Comics Journal, American cartoonist Craig Thompson (Blankets) recalled his initial encounter with Brown’s first graphic novel. “I remember flipping through it and being totally repulsed. I was still a prudish, post-Christian kid, and just seeing that book on the stands gave me the creeps.” After exhausting the alt-comics shelf of his local store, Thompson finally caved in. “The day I brought home Ed the Happy Clown, I felt I had stooped to new lows.” In fact, he was won over and has been a fan of Brown ever since.

The book vaulted Brown into the indie spotlight, eventually catching the eye of Rolling Stone, which placed Brown on its “Hot List” in the early 1990s. Bruce McDonald, director of Highway 61 and Roadkill, bought the film rights to Ed in 1991 and got Don McKellar to write a screenplay. The film, which McDonald hoped to cast with Macaulay Culkin as Ed and Rip Torn as the president, failed to find financial backing. All that remains of the venture is a swell promo poster.

Of course, along with the comic’s acclaim came the detractors. Early on in its run, Ed managed to pull off a trifecta of outrage, freaking out distributors, printers and feminists. Brown’s cocktail of violence, nudity, profanity and scatological humour was taken by many outside of the comic world as snot-nosed juvenilia — which on some level it was. But the kicker must have been his choice to depict the wildly popular and staunchly conservative Republican president as a belligerent phallus. That couldn’t have gone over too well in the U.S. heartland.

Brown can’t recall whether it was ever banned from any bookstores, but Ed was dropped by at least one distributor and experienced a memorable run-in with a feminist publisher. The problems began after an Ontario printing house finished the fourth issue of Brown’s Yummy Fur, which featured the female lead Josie — a vampire — getting stabbed by a character named Chet. “Once they had done my issue, the next job they had lined up was for a feminist magazine or something,” Brown told me recently. “When that job was done, they packed it up in boxes and used cast-off pages from my comic as packing material. So when the company got their order, they unpacked it and uncrumpled the pages — one of which featured Josie getting stabbed. They called up the printer and complained... then we were told that they wouldn’t be printing Yummy Fur anymore.” Despite this setback, when the story was finally collected in a graphic novel in 1989, the raves quickly followed. The Village Voice urged its readers to “[get] it while it's still legal; it may be the most extreme art you’ll ever encounter,” while the Comics Journal praised it for “assaulting the eyes and offending the sensibilities of people who considered themselves unshockable.”

Issue three of Ed the Happy Clown. Courtesy Drawn and Quarterly Publications.
Issue three of Ed the Happy Clown. Courtesy Drawn and Quarterly Publications.
While the critical praise for Ed never translated into huge sales, its influence within the comic community is undisputed. Ed turned the heads of many cartoonists — from Chris Ware to Dan Clowes and Cerebus creator Dave Sim — and forced them to reconsider the direction of their own work. One cartoonist profoundly affected was Seth, who is now a close friend of Brown’s.

Seth remembers reading the early Ed stories on a Toronto streetcar in the 1980s and being unable to control his laughter. “The book was very funny and the humour felt very cutting edge,” Seth says via e-mail. But it was Brown’s ambitious storytelling that left the biggest impression. “Those brilliant sequences where he would show a situation and then return to it later from a different perspective, like the death of Josie, really blew me away.

“I was sure, in those days, that Chester was a genius. His natural understanding of comics storytelling and his marvellous, iconoclastic humour was just amazing. Next to [Love & Rockets creators] the Hernandez brothers, Ed was the most affecting comic I read at that time in my life. And it’s still groundbreaking work today.”

The book continues to inspire a whole new generation, including up-and-coming Canadian cartoonists Alex Fellows and Bryan Lee O’Malley, a 26-year-old Halifax cartoonist whose graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1, has been optioned for a Hollywood movie. O'Malley recently won an inaugural Doug Wright Award for Canadian cartooning. He considers Brown “a golden god.”

“I read Ed The Happy Clown only once [in Dec. 2002],” he said. “But it basically blew my mind. The way something so obviously scattered in the early pages could come together into that bizarre, dystopian, cohesive world amazed me. I loved the large-headed, childlike figures and those beautiful facial expressions.”  O’Malley says his own first book, Lost At Sea, was heavily influenced by his initial reading of Ed.

Montrealer Fellows remembers coming across Ed the Happy Clown as a teenager. There are surreal echoes of Ed in Fellows’ impressive 2004 debut graphic novel Canvas, particularly the lead character’s mother and father, who appear as human-like pig and frog creatures.

“I first noticed [Ed] at my local comic shop, wrapped in a plastic bag with an adults-only label on it. I was only 15 or so at the time, but thankfully the owner let me have it.

“Everything, from the brown cover with the harsh fluorescent colours to the bad newsprint it was printed on, seemed to fit perfectly... It's a rare graphic novel that shows so much growth from the beginning to the end.” 

Plus, Fellows says, “Chester really is one of the best penis-drawers out there. He gets the squishiness and wrinkles just right.” High praise, indeed.

Brad Mackay is a Toronto-based writer.

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