Not Quite Pagliacci
When looking for words to describe Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown, a few come easily: demented, hilarious, disturbing. There’s no question it’s a great work, a masterpiece of perversion, even, but that’s like saying the Beatles were a good band from the ‘60s. It may be true, but it barely scratches the surface.
On its surface, Ed the Happy Clown showcases Brown’s development as a cartoonist both in visual and thematic terms. The typical Brown themes of religious fervor and a preoccupation with sex are featured throughout, but the evolution of Brown’s art is the bigger draw here. The story was published over the course of six years, a time when Brown went from being a talented amateur to a professional cartoonist, and in that time his style evened out, became more deliberate. In recent years his work has become more static, almost careful, as in 2011’s Paying for It, an account of Brown’s encounters with prostitutes and an argument for the legalization and regulation of the world’s oldest profession. That the book was confessional is nothing new for Brown, but its subject drew as much ogling as the art did. Paying For It’s panels are claustrophobic and rigid, a further development of Brown’s work in 2004’s Louis Riel.
In Ed the Happy Clown there’s room to breathe, that’s the feeling of a cartoonist not only honing his craft, but digging deep to find something worth writing about. It’s fun to watch him work.
The revolving cast of characters features Chet Doodley, a Brown-surrogate who kills his girlfriend; Josie, the girlfriend turned ghost turned vampire; alternate dimension versions of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and a man who can’t stop defecating and, it turns out, whose anus is a portal to another dimension.
This “definitive” version of Ed the Happy Clown, the third time the story’s been collected since first appearing in Brown’s Yummy Fur, contains a number of notes explaining artistic choices, edits, and motivation. Brown writes that he was initially influenced by surrealist ideas of writing and drawing the first thing that comes to mind. When he found he wasn’t producing ideas, he took this approach to his cartooning and found it a good prompt to create more strips. The “Introductory Pieces” featuring Ed’s earliest adventures are filled with stream of consciousness story beats and a heavy dose of toilet humor. Ed isn’t a character so much as he is a punching bag, an amusing looking character upon whom Brown can dump as much horror and feces as he—or the audience—can stand.
Also included in this edition is a ten-page “cover” of an early ‘50s horror story called “The Door”. Brown recreates the story with most of the original text intact, changing only the art and editing the story for the sake of brevity. In the story, a young couple enters a fun house which turns out to be an endless labyrinth. When they reach their destination, shriveled, old, and naked, they find the devil waiting for them, pitchfork in hand.
Brown writes he originally intended to use this kind of setup for Ed the Happy Clown before the story began to take off in its own direction. Musicians perform others’ songs all time, either as an homage or to try and capture a song’s feeling. The inclusion of Brown’s version of the “The Door” works in much the same way. Horror comics of the ‘50s almost universally end with a twist in which something innocent (like a fun house) becomes deadly, or someone evil is punished in an ironic way (a greedy man is crushed by his fortune). With its wandering characters and twist ending, “The Door” is certainly a precursor to Ed the Happy Clown.
More than that, though, it’s a metaphor for the creative process—an innocent undertaking in which a person can be trapped. As in the story, hell isn’t just feeling lost or hopeless as one wanders, it’s finally reaching the end.
In his notes Brown says all of the story’s strangeness, like Reagan’s head becoming attached to Ed’s penis, comes from having no grand plan for the story, but his choices never feel arbitrary or random for the sake of weirdness. Almost nothing is wasted here, as ideas and characters from the earliest strips find their way into Ed’s tangled world. The point of view shifts constantly from character to character, but it always comes back to him.
The peculiarities and disturbing elements of the story don’t feel like they’re designed only to shock. The mountains of shit, the severed limbs, the sewer-dwelling dwarves: these are ink blots to examine and ponder. Where did these ideas come from, and what do they mean? Brown may reject the idea of these images reflecting anything about him because they were the first thoughts which came to him, but if they’re not a reflection of Brown, then they can only serve as a reflection of the reader. Perhaps that’s the most disturbing element in the entire book.