The last time I wrote about Chester Brown, way back in “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard #13, I had to delicately skirt around all of the dicks in his comics. And for this full-length “Picks” about Brown and his series Yummy Fur in Wizard #31, I had to omit the name of his recently completed serialized story “Fuck.” When that one was eventually collected in a trade paperback, it gained the much more bookshelf friendly title I Never Liked You.
There was one other big edit to this “Palmer’s Picks” that I was thankfully able to make before it saw print. My original draft ended with this final paragraph:
What will be next in Yummy Fur? One can never know. This unpredictability is one of the joys of reading Chester Brown’s work. He is constantly evolving and changing; trying on new methods of storytelling and styles of drawing.
But after I submitted the text to Wizard, I learned that Yummy Fur was wrapping up with issue 32 and Brown was going to start a new series in the summer of ’94. I was luckily able to contact my editor in time and make a few small changes before the magazine was sent to press.
Brown’s new series after Yummy Fur was the divisive Underwater. The main story in the comic was told from the point of view of a young child who had not yet developed language skills, so all of the dialogue was written as gibberish. With each issue, more and more words would become intelligible as the lead character began to understand her surroundings. It’s a brilliant concept, but maybe it wasn’t executed in the best way. A lot of readers grew frustrated with the story; it’s slow pace and irregular release schedule resulted in an unsatisfying read issue to issue. Plus, the price for alternative comics was starting to creep up as more attention was paid to the comic book as an art object. What used to be a $2.50 comic printed on newsprint was now $3.50 with a cardstock cover and bright white paper. But when the main attraction in your comic is a dozen pages of a serialized story with barely any understandable dialogue, a lot of fans are bound to get pissed off. Brown abandoned Underwater unfinished after three years and 11 issues and moved on to Louis Riel, a serialized graphic novel that would bring him a much higher profile when it became a surprise hit in the burgeoning bookstore market.
Personally, I thought Underwater was a neat experiment, and I’m a little disappointed that it looks like there’s no chance of it being completed. Perhaps serialization was the problem, and it could have fared better if Brown had published it as a complete book in today’s graphic novel-friendly market.
This all goes to illustrate the fact that the mid- to late ’90s was a period of great change for both the artform and business of comics. All of the upheaval in the distribution end of the marketplace—brought on by Marvel’s purchase of Heroes World and the resulting distributor exclusives that led to Diamond gaining complete control—coincided with a general feeling of creative restlessness by a lot of cartoonists like Brown and Peter Bagge. There’s also a good case to be made that all of the turmoil in the business was the thing that caused many artists to change things up. Either way, it’s always enlightening to look back at all of the failed endeavors and unfinished stories from the time period and see how they laid the groundwork for the current state of comics where so many cartoonists release their work as complete graphic novels. Without the failure of Underwater, Chester Brown might not have changed direction towards a more focused story like Louis Riel and his more recent graphic novels Paying For It and Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Chester Brown is an artist whose work touches a nerve with his audience, mostly because of its disturbing and unpredictable nature. Instead of writing around certain subjects or avoiding them completely, Brown faces them head-on with a cathartic and therapeutic honesty and openness.
Brown’s comic, Yummy Fur, originally saw print as a mini-comic in 1983 after Brown was turned down by Marvel and DC. He gathered together several short stories he had been working on, and eventually published seven issues of his mini. In 1986, Vortex Comics offered to reprint Brown’s work as a full-size comic. Brown accepted, and decided to continue writing and drawing Yummy Fur.
After the mini-comics were reprinted, Brown’s work began to take an unusual and interesting turn. He started to weave together the seemingly unrelated short stories of the mini-comics into a delicate story called “Ed the Happy Clown,” which seemed ready to topple over at any instant under the weight of its improbable plot twists. Haphazard events and unrelated characters come together in a stream of consciousness narrative which brings Ed into contact with alien vampires, sewer-dwelling meat-eating pygmies, piles of excrement, the head of a Ronald Reagan from another dimension, pus-sucking first ladies, and resurrection, among other things.
Brown’s work on these early issues of Yummy Fur generated a lot of controversy. Probably the most controversial part of the comic was the backup story which followed “Ed.” In the fourth issue of Yummy Fur, Brown began serializing his adaptation of the Gospels of the Bible. He remained very faithful to the Bible, but many people were offended that it was printed in the same comic as the oftentimes scatological and unrestrained subject matter of “Ed the Happy Clown.” At one point, Diamond refused to distribute the comic due to its controversial nature. Despite this setback, Brown continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in a “comic book.”
Brown eventually wrapped up the story of Ed in the 18th issue of Yummy Fur. The comic then took an interesting turn: Brown decided to tell autobiographical stories instead of trying to come up with a tale to top “Ed.” Brown’s first attempt at autobiography was “Helder,” a story about a former housemate of Chester’s. This story was followed by “Showing Helder,” in which Brown related the reactions he got by showing “Helder” to a group of his friends.
After these relatively tame stories, Brown began to move into more disturbing territory when he tackled the heavy subject of his own sexuality in “The Playboy Stories.” He recounted his experiences with Playboy magazine while a young adult and how it shaped his view of sex and women. Brown related his experiences with an almost shocking candor and honesty that struck a nerve with many of his readers.
“The Playboy Stories” was followed by another powerful storyline, one that dealt with Brown’s childhood, and which functions on many levels simultaneously. It is at once an examination of Brown’s reluctance to use vulgarity, his inability to put his feelings into words, his troubled relationships with girls as a teenager, and his coming to terms with the death of his mother. Brown relates images and experiences from his childhood in an almost minimalist fashion. The simplicity of the scenes adds to the impact, because Brown lets the story speak for itself without passing judgment on his actions or rationalizing why he did certain things. The reader feels like a detached observer who is watching scenes from Brown’s childhood as they unfold.
The recent autobiographical stories in Yummy Fur prove that Brown is a truly versatile writer. When they’re compared to the earlier “Ed the Happy Clown,” it becomes evident that Brown is a master of many different storytelling methods. In a sense, “Ed the Happy Clown” is the ultimate “comic book” story: it takes all of the conventions of a typical comic story, like unusual characters and relentless plot twists, and combines them with the unrestrained creatures and nightmares of Brown’s imagination and subconscious mind.
The Bible stories in Yummy Fur also show Brown’s depth as an artist. They have evolved from a straightforward recounting of the Bible in the early installments to the looser interpretations of the most recent issues. The autobiographical stories have the same eerie, discomforting quality of “Ed the Happy Clown” and some of the Bible stories, yet they show another side of Brown as an artist. He is adept at picking up on the nuances of a conversation and the effectiveness of silence. The pages of his autobiographical stories oftentimes contain only three or four panels floating on a sea of black. Each of these panels is drawn in Brown’s deceptively simple yet highly accurate and emotive style.
One of the joys of reading Chester Brown’s work is his unpredictability. He is constantly evolving and changing, trying on new methods of storytelling and styles of drawing. Brown’s work will once again take a new direction this summer, when Yummy Fur will be replaced by a brand-new comic with all-new fictional stories.
Next month: After months of grueling research, I’m finally ready to unveil my long-awaited (at least by a couple of people I’ve talked to) look at the mini-comic scene. Hopefully it will be worth the wait. As always, you can reach me at: Palmer’s Picks c/o Wizard Press,
100 Red Schoolhouse Road, Bldg. B-1, Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer based in New Jersey who likes to watch rugby even though he has no idea what’s going on.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Yummy Fur: Chester Brown’s comic book has been nominated for and received numerous industry awards, so there should be no reason why you haven’t yet picked it up. Each issue contains 24 black-and-white pages and has a full-color cover. The final issue (#32) should be out now from Drawn & Quarterly Publications. Back Issues, from #25 on, cost $2.50 each. Send your orders to Drawn & Quarterly Publications,
5550 Jeanne Mance St. #16, Montreal, Quebec H2V 4K6, Canada. Be sure to ask for their free catalogue featuring such excellent comics as Palookaville, Peep Show, and Dirty Plotte. Next month, be on the lookout for the first issue of Drawn & Quarterly, the revised anthology comic. If you can’t wait that long, pick up a copy of the Best of Drawn & Quarterly. You won’t be disappointed. And remember to look for Chester Brown’s new comic sometime in August!
Back Issues: The original mini-comic issues of Yummy Fur are completely sold out, so you’re extremely lucky If you can track them down. Vortex has selected copies of the first 24 issues of Yummy Fur, which the company published from 1986 until 1991. Issues five and six are completely sold out, but you can write the company for a price list on the other issues at: Vortex Comics,
P.O. Box 173, Sanborn, NY 14132-0173.
Ed the Happy Clown: This book was originally printed in 1989 by Vortex Comics. It includes selected material from the Yummy Fur mini-comics and the entire story from issues #4-#12 of the full-size book, as well as a four-page foreword written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Brown. Unfortunately, this book is sold out. But in 1992, Vortex reprinted and expanded the book under the title of The Definitive Ed Book. Brown added some chapters not included in the original and created a new ending for the story. Copies are still available from Vortex at the above address for $14.95 ($16.95 Canada).
The Playboy Stories: At the end 1992, Drawn & Quarterly published this 176-page collection of issues #21-#23 of Yummy Fur. The comics were reformatted so that each page contains only one or two panels on a black background, in order to reproduce Brown’s artwork closer to its original size. This is a beautifully packaged and important book that you should really own (hint, hint). Drawn & Quarterly still has copies of the softcover version available for $12.95 ($14.95 Canada).