The name William Seabrook may not register with many contemporary readers, but the term he came to introduce to the English language while studying the voodoo religion of Haiti is well known to all. As the man behind “zombie”, Seabrook is today barely a trivial footnote in pop cultural history, let alone a well-remembered or well-regarded writer. But during his heyday in the early part of the 20th century, Seabrook was a friend to celebrities of all stripes; everyone from Aldous Huxley to Aleister Crowley to Gertrude Stein to Salvador Dali could at one time or another claim Seabrook as an acquaintance, if not an outright friend. So why has he virtually vanished from the cultural landscape in the nearly 80 years since his death by suicide? Cartoonist Joe Ollmann spent the better part of a decade attempting to find an answer to this and the myriad other questions surrounding the life of William “Willie” Buehler Seabrook, the result of which is the superb graphic biography, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.
Through primary sources, Seabrook’s own writing and countless hours of research, Ollmann managed to piece together the disparate fragments of a life lived from inside a bottle and staring down sexual proclivities that threatened to be his undoing. An unrepentant alcoholic, Seabrook spent the majority of his life going from drink to drink, bottle to bottle, writing here and there in between and exploring worlds heretofore unknown to Western civilization. How he managed to function as long as he did is a testament to his own stubbornness and force of personality, one forged at an early age. Following a largely linear narrative approach to his subject, Ollmann traces many of Seabrook’s more disreputable traits to his childhood, one spent with a taciturn grandfather and a waif of a grandmother said to be a witch.
Eschewing folklore in favor of quantifiable facts, Ollmann allows little room for speculation and instead, like his subject, lays bare the issues affecting both the young Seabrook and his family. In the case of his grandmother, her dependency on laudanum led to a life full of vivid hallucinations that she was somehow able to transfer to Seabrook’s impressionable young mind. With his father having left a lucrative business in pursuit of a life predicated on faith, Seabrook’s mother went from affluent housewife to itinerant preacher’s dowdy wife constantly harping on her husband and becoming increasingly cruel with her own children. It’s an origin story worthy of a comic book super hero and one perfectly suited for Ollmann’s blocky drawing style, his characters all heavy lines and heavier hearts.
From his time working for William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate through his own rising profile following and extended stay with and subsequent book (Adventures in Arabia) about the Beduoin, Seabrook shows himself to be a restless spirit unable to be tied down to any one thing (or person; he had three wives and countless S&M encounters, all part of his “research”) for more than a short while. But it was this restlessness and spirit of adventure that helped establish him as a well-regarded travel writer. Over the course of a handful of books, Seabrook shared firsthand accounts of life among the Bedouins and Druse, dining with cannibals in African and being one of the only blancs to experience a true Haitian voodoo ceremony.
It is these last two on which he made his name, the latter for the sheer audacity of such an unflinching, albeit sympathetic, look at a group of “savages” and the former for his rather dubious claim of having tasted human flesh (as Ollmann is quick to point out, Seabrook did not, in fact, dine on his fellow man while in Africa; however, he did manage to procure some human meat while in France which he had prepared and consumed in order to lend his Africa narrative greater credence and to assuage any guilt on his part for the fabrication within an otherwise non-fictional account). Having risen to fame on the success of his travel narratives and the often taboo subject matter they touched upon, Seabrook felt it time that the public would be receptive to his more prurient proclivities in the form of often extreme S&M and a fascination with tying up women.
This, coupled with the claims of cannibalism and an unquenchable thirst that landed him in several hospitals near the end of his life—one of which resulted in Asylum, one of his best and most well-known works—proved to be his ultimate undoing. Having worked his way through three wives and countless “assistants” willing to subject themselves to whatever sadistic urge might have enraptured his mind, Seabrook showed himself to be not only his own worst enemy but the source of his downfall and ultimate demise. Despite this, Ollmann manages to both draw and tell the story of Seabrook’s life from an unbiased remove, one that presents the facts as they have been recorded, often providing contradictory asides from the letters and journals of friends and ex-wives who managed to perhaps capture a more accurate representation of the man.
In all, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a masterful bit of visual storytelling, literally and figuratively illustrating the complex, flawed and ultimately fascinating figure that was William Seabrook. Using a series of nine panels per page, Ollmann provides a breathtaking visual narrative that refuses to shy away from either the darkness or the light, placing Seabrook both within the context of his own time and the broader context of modern history. It’s a fascinatingly rendered telling of an equally fascinating and ultimately perplexing life lived both on top of the world and the bottom of a bottle. The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is not to be missed.
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