Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown is one of my first real forays into alternative comics. The character and the strips within this book first appeared in the author’s initially self-published comic book Yummy Fur, where the story was serialized. For the most part the story follows Ed, a boyish-looking young man who likes to dress as a clown and bring joy to unwell children. This not what the story is about however, as Ed finds himself afflicted by one horrible, often bizarre, twist of fate after another. Focused more on what happens to Ed than how he deals with each obstacle, the story line includes pygmies infesting the city’s sewers, a man who cannot stop defecating, a vampire girl seeking revenge, miniature men from another dimension, and oh so much more.
The art style is rather cartoony and uses black and white, sometimes high contrast, rather than colour. The cartoony style does a good job of emphasizing the humorous, crude, and extreme content depicted within, often to disturbing or disgusting effect. I especially liked how expressive his characters could be, whether in situations of extreme pain or more subdued resignation.
This book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite surreal in nature. Along with the general weirdness of what takes places, the ongoing strip was largely improvised by Brown, especially in the earlier chapters. In his own notes contained in the back of the book he explains he was influenced by a surrealist text that encouraged more spontaneous creation in order to tap into the unconscious mind. I don’t believe this book is meant to be an in-depth exploration of Brown’s subconscious, however, as the idea of spontaneous creation appears to be more of a jumping off point for him creatively.
At first the improvised nature of the story was quite novel, especially since he did not seem constrained in anyway as far as what content he wanted to produce. The resulting work is frequently sexual, violent, and vulgar, though never it a way that I personally found to be too gratuitous or distasteful. I believe Brown intended to provoke some discomfort along with the humour of these visuals. Your experience will depend on your personal mileage for scatological humour and phallic imagery, which I suspect other people may have more trouble with than I did. For me, it more became a matter of the novelty wearing off as the book progressed, though fortunately the tangential nature of the story lessened the further it went on.
There isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Ed’s bizarre odyssey of misfortune, though I will commend it on some points. For one, I liked that despite the spontaneity it was rare for a new element to be brought up and simply dropped. More often than not Brown makes good on what he introduces, working elements into the story and frequently calling back to them with later developments when he can. This didn’t stop it from being continuously unusual, but the story began to make its own mad sense, keeping it from being completely senseless by tying things together in reasonable enough ways.
The sub-story that felt the most meaningful to me was between the characters Chet, who inexplicably loses his hand, and his girlfriend Josie, who becomes a vampire after Chet murders her. There was a fascinating level of commentary on religious belief and practice that developed in compelling ways, with it all ending rather poignantly. Chet was easy to despise, yet seemed to have God on his side thanks to a strong sense of guilt and piety. Josie was a victim yet is continually punished or brutalized for her sins. I don’t know that this plot line had a definitive message, but it was the most thought-provoking and had the most emotional impact on me.
While not a book for those with more delicate sensibilities, it is certainly worth checking out for comic book fans looking to read something more from the alternative scene of the medium. It’s weird and frequently outrageous without feeling too heavy-handed as far as any sort of message goes. The only real downside for me was that, aside from Josie’s story, there wasn’t much to take away from the reading experience for me. It was a humorously strange odyssey of unfairness, cruelty, and body horror, and while it does reach a logical enough conclusion for how it develops, the novelty of its strangeness wore off well before that point. I was simply ready for it to be done, and ultimately I wish I had left the book feeling a little more satisfied than that.
My rating: 3 out of 5