Review: 'Chester Brown: Conversations' is a fascinating look at an extremely quirky cartoonist

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

"I'm not a penis! I'm the President of the United States"
- a panel from Ed the Happy Clown

Chester Brown's comics scald themselves into your brain when you first read them and continue the burn long after you've put them down. Drawing his stories in a beguilingly simple style that belies its formalistic complexity, Chester Brown is a true cartoonist of the graphic novel era, creating comics such as the surreal Ed the Happy Clown, the autobiographical The Playboy and I Never Loved You, the exploration of prostitution and love Paying for It and the enthralling history Louis Riel.

I'll never forget when I first encountered Brown's work. It was in an issue of The Comics Journal back in 1985 or 1986. In that pre-Internet era when rough-hewed zines from Quebec were tough to learn about, let alone find, the Journal at the time was the place to discover great up-and-coming cartoonists. In one issue, a reviewer (it may have been the arch-sarcastic R. Fiore, always insightful in his takes on the mores of oddball cartoonists and maybe the closest thing that pre-Internet comics criticism had to its own Cristgau), who introduced me to the two images below, both of which burned their imprints into my brain immediately and demanded that I send cash all the way to Quebec Canada to get copies of these strange mini-comics that some unknown named Brown was producing.

Yeah, the images were odd and scatological and implied a weird-ass world created inside Brown's imagination. Which means they were perfect for young Jason, comics that intrigued me through repeated rereadings because the seemed like they were beamed from a parallel dimension where comics about happy clowns led to worlds of rampaging pygmies and soul-sucking vampiric girls who are killed viciously.

As it turned out, Ed was unique in Brown's oeuvre in much the same way that Daniel Clowes's Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron stands out from the rest of his material – both books are surreal and challenging works by creators who would move in vastly different directions from those early comics. Brown left hints of his future directions with a straight adaptation of The Bible that stood in stark contrast to the surreal material that shared issues of Yummy Fur with it.

And with Brown's graphic novels after Ed and the Bible adaptations, he took a series of surprising turns, odd transitions that reflected a restless mind and relentless need for creativity. That therefore makes Brown a creator for whom interviews are important: they lend his cartooning a perspective and attitude, allowing readers to see the world through Brown's eyes and understand the deeper context around his thought processes.

Chester Brown: Conversations, an anthology from University of Mississippi Press edited by Dominick Grace and Eric Hoffman, is exactly what it seems to be: a collection of interviews conducted with Brown over the last 25 years or so. The book begins with a rather rambling conversation that was conducted just as the early issues of Yummy Fur were beginning to gain attention, while the last issues are excerpts from national radio shows or podcasts in which Brown talks about his complex graphic novel Louis Riel, about the Canadian revolutionary who may have been schizophrenic.

This is an uneven volume, but not because of the work that Grace and Hoffman put into this scrupulously-assembled book. Instead, it's uneven because the original chats make for bumpy reading. As someone who loves conducting interviews, Chester Brown: Conversations contains many examples of both effective and frustrating interview styles and also give a good sense of Brown's personality and changing attitudes.

Scott Grammel's 1990 Comics Journal conversation seems a bit too early for its massive fifty-page length and shows Brown as a bit ill-at-ease in the depth of questions he's asked. That elusiveness from Brown is interesting and by itself presents an interesting portrait of the artist at that time, but I can't help but feel that an more empathetic reviewer who was a bit freer in his questioning would have done a better job of pulling Brown out of his occasional laconic dead ends.

On the other hand, Darrell Epp's 2002 interview with Brown is more effective, covering more ground in more thoughtful ways in a shorter span of time. Epp and Brown explore schizophrenia (one of the key topics that Brown enjoys exploring) and his deeply flawed, unfinished graphic novel Underwater as well as Brown's Jesus comics in ways that illuminate and provide fascinating context. Maybe the best sign of the quality of Epp's smart approach to the chat is that the interview subtly provides foreshadowing for key themes that Brown would explore in his Louis Riel – a sign that the cartoonist was meditating on the themes that he would present and a marker of the effectiveness of the interviewer.

I really enjoyed Mattias Wivel's 2004 conversation with Brown for many of the same reasons – Wivel's deep probe into Brown's working methods provides a complex look at the man behind the pen lines, and the talk reads more like a thoughtful conversation than a formal interview (my preferred method for the interviews that I conduct). There's a sense that the pair are friends and that Wivel is able to probe more deeply because Brown trusts him.

The sixteen interviews in Chester Brown: Conversations serve to create a fascinating (auto)biographical portrait of Chester Brown as an evolving artist and changing human being. It's very interesting to track his attitudes about his key artistic obsessions change and evolve as the conversations proceed. As the early dissociative scenes in Ed the Happy Clown give way eventually to a thoughtful probe of the concept of schizophrenia in Louis Riel, we are reminded in these thoughtful interviews about the complexities of the cartoonist's family life, providing deeper insight into a world class cartoonist.

It's intriguing to watch Brown's opinions evolve, especially his evolving thoughts on schizophrenia (he moves from acceptance to skepticism), politics (he moves from being a vague liberal to a committed libertarian who runs for Parliament) and his own art (much too complicated to summarize in a review).

You obviously need to be a fan of Chester Brown's comics in order to get the most out of this book, and I recommend you catch up on the artist's back catalog before reading it so you have the most context for his through. If you are a fan of Brown, Chester Brown: Conversations will provide you with thoughful insights into the work of one of the most unique and brilliant cartoonists of our era. If you're not, you may still find it interesting simply to read about the thoughts of a fascinating man.

Read excerpts of this book here.

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