Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ed the Happy Clown #8

Ed the Happy Clown #8, July 2006, Drawn and Quarterly Publications
by Chester Brown

When I was thumbing through the five-for-a-dollar boxes at Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles a month or so ago, Ed the Happy Clown caught my attention despite and because of its diminutive size. I added the issue to my buy pile immediately, and it’s been in wait for today’s review since then. Had I actually opened the issue and perused the material, I wonder if I would’ve been so wonton in my purchase. Chester Brown is an excellent cartoonist, and his minimalist, slice-to-life-meets-the-arcane style set the stage for post-modern artists like Jeffrey Brown, but Ed the Happy Clown appears neither happy or a clown, and . . . he has a talking penis. With a little face and everything.

Because of the many young people in my life (see my infrequently updated blog Damn Noisy Kids!), and my desire to remain a somewhat positive influence in their lives, I have avoided controversial material in this forum in fear that one of them may use their surprising technical know how to track me down on-line. I’d hate for one of them to comment, “So, I read that review about the talking penis last night,” not so much for the inappropriateness, but the awkwardness of having to explain why I read such a comic in the first place. Alas, when you read a different comic book every day for a year, you’re bound to stumble across the talking penis sometime, I suppose. I made it this far. I’m grateful for that, at least.

So, here we go. Ed the Happy Clown #8 is actually a reprint from Chester Brown’s original serial that appeared as Yummy Fur, circa 1988-1989 in this issue’s case. Whatever this story’s context, the content of this installment isn’t too difficult to fathom, once one overlooks the perverse obscurities of Brown’s chosen subject matter. When Ed is nearly cornered by Chet, a custodian that accuses the “clown” of stealing his hand, Josie, intercepts him, has sex with him, then kills him to fulfill her vampire blood thirst. (That’s two vampire books in as many days . . . Is it Halloween again so soon?) When Ed heeds the call of his – gulp – talking penis, the two decide to return the chatty phallus to his other-dimensional roots. With Ed missing in action, Josie goes home to find her mother having sex with a young man initially intended for her – a set-up gone right for mom, I guess – and carefully draws the blinds in her room to retire for the night. When Josie falls asleep, Chet’s severed hand raises the blinds, leaving us readers to assume the morning’s rays could fry the slumbering vampire. To be continued.

A story like this begs a few questions for an analytical reader like me, namely, what is the author trying to prove? Is Brown trying to make a statement with this material, or is he simply offering escapist, absurdist fiction for the comic reader interested in obscurity? The characters seem to share a sense of inadequacy, which isn’t unexpected from a story starring a talking penis, but without the context of the other issues in this series, I can’t get a grip on the whole package (pardon the pun). I will confess that I was engrossed, aside from being a bit grossed out, by Ed the Happy Clown; Brown’s illustrations are concise and easy to follow, presenting a sequential roadmap to a plot that might be anything but linear.

The most entertaining aspect of this issue was Brown’s addendum, a compilation of notes (in some instances, page by page commentary) about the production of the series and/or Brown’s experiences as an independent comic book artist. He credits Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for their singular success in the black and white indie market, a phenomenon that briefly flooded the medium with similarly formatted books with peculiar titles but unfortunately less than stellar success, a point I also made in my review of Space Beaver. (A talking penis/Space Beaver crossover is sure to be in the works after this review.) He also pays homage to Marvel Comics and drops a few names to credit his inspirations, most not surprisingly horror writers. While Ed is not scary, trace elements of horror are evident – but when Brown reveals “the man behind the curtain” to be a thoughtful artist with some insight into and appreciation for the industry, even the idea of a talking penis is easier to swallow . . . wait, I mean, er –

There’s no easy way to end this review. The bottom line is, while Brown may not have a deep literary thematic message behind his Ed the Happy Clown, reading this issue is irregardless a challenging experience. If you’re going to write about a talking penis, you obviously need a set of balls to match.

Sorry, kids.

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