Ed vs. Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel, by Brian Evenson (Uncivilized Books)
For those familiar with the works of Chester Brown, the contorted saga of Ed the Happy Clown may be an old story. What began in the pages of Brown’s indie title, Yummy Fur, as a not-always-cohesive narrative in issues #1-#18 (1986-1989), was first collected in an incomplete 1989 edition, later found new life in a “definitive” 1992 edition with a revised ending, and then finally was repackaged with annotations and additional material by Drawn & Quarterly in 2012. Douglas Wolk, in Reading Comics, has called the narrative ultimately “unfinishable,” but what Brian Evenson argues in his recent study of the comic is that Ed the Happy Clown is indeed a finished product, and that such a reading is underscored by the author himself. More significantly, Evenson reveals the scaffolding underneath Brown’s graphic novel, detailing the narrative’s evolution and its constituent units. In Ed vs. Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel, we have not only a discourse on a singular graphic novel, but a detailed study on serialization and the role it plays in independent or alternative comics.
Evenson, more often a writer of fiction (e.g., Windeye and Immobility), shows himself adept at critical comics analysis. Outside of the book’s formal chapter divisions, he structures his critique into four basic parts. First he introduces the reader to Brown’s Yummy Fur and establishes the context surrounding Ed the Happy Clown. Next, he discusses the composition of the graphic novel thematically, focusing first on scatology (the subject of Chapter One) and then sacrilege (Chapter Two). After looking at the installments of the original Yummy Fur series that actually contributed to the final graphic novel, Evenson then highlights the parts that were not included (Chapter Three, “Lost Pages”) or were ultimately revised, readjusted, or reframed (Chapter Four, “Loose Ends”). Finally, he offers supplementary material in the form of color plates of discussed material and an interview with Chester Brown conducted specifically for the volume. And all of this is packed into a concise 136-page treatise.
What makes Ed vs. Yummy Fur so compelling is the intimacy that Evenson brings to his subject matter. He discusses the Chester Brown comic not only as a critical reader, but as a fan who appreciates the twists and turns that Brown’s story takes. And he is a reader who is willing to go along for the ride. It is this narrative contortion or the “offness” of Ed that fascinates Evenson, as he reveals in the opening pages of his study. He makes much out of the subtitle of the Drawn & Quarterly edition, “a graphic-novel,” its quirky use of both lower-case letters and the hyphen. In fact, one wonders at first if perhaps Evenson isn’t making too much out of these “little tick[s] of difference,” as he calls them. But he’s persuasive in demonstrating that such paratextual choices are not only insights into Brown — known for his unorthodox and even provocative subject matter — but more importantly, examples of the eccentric manner in which Ed the Happy Clown is cobbled together. Brown’s finished graphic novel may appear meandering, disjointed, and haphazard, but as Evenson convincingly argues, the unlikely narrative choices that the author makes along the way, much like the consciously worded subtitle, are not inconsequential.
For example, we read in Ed vs. Yummy Fur about Brown’s unique style of composition, creating his comics one singular panel at a time. Evenson also spends a lot of critical space on the early, seemingly separate pieces from Yummy Fur that anticipate and run concurrent with Ed the Happy Clown, such as the stories “The Toilet Paper Revolt,” “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop,” “Catlick Creek,” and “Walrus Blubber Sandwich,” as well as the serialized biblical story of Mark. We also learn about the censorship issues Brown had to contend with when exporting his comic to the United States and the author’s reasoning behind the not-quite-Ronald-Reagan Ronald Reagan figure so central to Ed the Happy Clown. Indeed, it is the image of “Reagan” that capsulizes the irreverent, even insouciant, nature of Brown’s comics…and not even in terms of politics. His face appears on Ed’s genitals — so we literally have a talking penis — and it later gets amputated, only to be replaced (and enhanced) through grizzly surgical means. Along with this, we have inter-dimensional penetration (the word here is used purposefully) via the anus, pygmy-infested sewers, severed body parts, extraterrestrials, vengeful undead, and never-ending defecation. Evenson aptly demonstrates how these improbably parts come together in a (semi)cohesive whole, and he does so in a methodical, well-organized manner. There are even systematized outlines and lists that break down the contents of Yummy Fur and the resultant graphic novel.
Ed vs. Yummy Fur is just the first volume in Uncivilized Books’ new Critical Cartoon Series, a line of studies devoted to in-depth analyses of comics-related topics. These works should complement the impressive catalog of primary texts, graphic novels as well as mini-comics, that Tom Kaczynski is quickly building at Uncivilized. The next book in the series, Peter Schilling Jr.’s Carl Barks’ Duck: Average American, will be released in January 2015 and explores the life and art of Carl Barks through selected Donald Duck stories. But Evenson’s contribution is a smart, targeted deep-dive into one specific text — or collection of texts, depending on how you define Ed the Happy Clown — and is a welcome departure from the kind of expansive and often jargon-heavy tomes generated by scholarly presses. To use the (perhaps obscure) metaphor of English studies periodicals, if many comics studies monographs are reminiscent of the Modern Language Association’s PMLA, then Kaczynski’s Critical Cartoon Series appears to be more akin to Explicator or ANQ: focused, readable, and practical.
Evenson’s inaugural publication for the series isn’t without its weaknesses. There are times when the author repeats himself, and perhaps the book’s critical utility could have been enhanced by at least a rudimentary index. But his is the most thorough discussion so far available on Chester Brown, a creator who is arguably underappreciated within the comics studies community. If there is still any question that there can ever be a “definitive” edition of Ed the Happy Clown, at least we can all agree that with Ed vs. Yummy Fur, we now have a definitive study of Brown’s seminal narrative.
Get your copies of the books discussed in this review: