Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

Ed The Happy Clown
posted June 19, 2012

imageCreator: Chester Brown
Publishing Information: Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 240 pages, May 2012, $24.95.
Ordering Numbers: 9781770460751 (ISBN13)

This is a new edition of the important first major work from the cartoonist Chester Brown, assembled from the main serial that ran the first several issues of his long-running comic book series Yummy Fur. Ed The Happy Clown follows the title hero through a series of misadventures in a satirical version of the real world, a world that seems to turn on horror moments. There are creatures living in the sewers, doctors are callous savages disdainful of anything approaching human dignity, there is another reality next door to this one distinguished by its confusion over what to do with human waste and its matter-of-fact acceptance of gays, being killed while in a sinful act turns you into a vampire: one of Brown's accomplishments is that this seems like a lived-in world but still seems to turn on moments design to emphasize the absurd. Ed wanders through this landscape before, during and after having experienced a unique dosing of this world's madness: a miniature, working version of Ronald Reagan's head has attached itself to the end of his penis.

Re-reading Ed, the reader may not be able to decide how much of this was Brown showing off just how strange he could be and how much of the story is driven by primal, fearful concerns about one's body and the basic untrustworthiness of authority. I'd say it's both, with a slight edge going to the content of the nightmare rather than the flourishes of its existence, perhaps because chapters no longer appear alongside Bible adaptations as was the case when it was serialized. What stands out now is how quickly Brown went from precocious amateur to cartoonist aligned with the primal forces of great, offhand, compelling art: these are good comics almost from the start, but there's just enough rough stuff there to see the cartoonist lock into place, like one's vision through the machine at an eye exam. Brown's sense of humor in terms of tweaking awful incidents in a way that underlines their lunacy and then playing that against the resignation of the more positive character, that's a goldmine throughout.

From what I can tell, this new edition simply collects the very good serial re-publication from several years back, including those (just-about-patented) Chester Brown footnotes. The lovely series of cover images that graced those comics are worked into end papers and various covers here, all to fine effect. I think those comics are just about perfect, both the originals and the re-release, so to have these adhere so closely to the look and feel of that presentation feels smart and necessary. While it's difficult for me to imagine readers looking at this handsome volume in the same way folks did when these comics seemed to fall out of some Evil Comic Book Heaven decades ago, ratty and luminous, the work holds power out of its original cultural context: the joy of a smart, young, talented cartoonist firing in whatever direction his talent is able to take him.