Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Obsessive-Expulsive: My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down

Rob reviews the new "graphic memoir" by David Heatley, MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN (Pantheon). (This review was originally published at sequart.com)

The choices of what an autobiographical cartoonists opts to omit can be as revealing as what they choose to expand upon. David Heatley's dense and involving memoir MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN focuses in on some familiar areas for autobiographical comics (sex, family) and some rarely-trod territories (race). One of the reasons why Heatley's work is so deeply involving is the depth of detail and obsessiveness of each topic. By focusing on these topics, he deliberately skates over other crucial events in his life, referring to them only as side issues. It's an interesting approach to evaluate one's life as though each topic were a listing in an encyclopedia, thoroughly exhausting each subject. Heatley has indicated as much on his website, noting that while he was inspired by the diary comics of Julie Doucet and the relationship-focused work of Jeffrey Brown, he didn't want to make those areas his sole subject of his comics. Instead, this book represents a compendium of Heatley's experiences in some very specific areas, closing the book on his exploration of these areas.

The "Sex History" chapter was originally printed in a slightly different form in KRAMER'S ERGOT 5. It's exactly what it sounds like: a chronological account of every sexual experience Heatley could remember, with the exception of the experiences he has had with his wife. There's a stark and brutal honesty in Heatley's approach, and perhaps even a bit disapproving in retrospect. It's important to remember as a reader that this isn't really a narrative, but a retrospective interpretation of a set of memories. This catalogue of experiences is especially fascinating because Heatley is careful not to conflate sexual experiences with emotion. It's also interesting because of the frankness with which Heatley deals with child sexuality and the fluidity of sexuality at that age. Heatley identifies as a heterosexual but experimented as a child in a way that's not unusual but rarely discussed or fully internalized.

What's interesting is that Heatley seems to be most forgiving of himself as a child; there's very little judgment or editorializing on his choices. That's not the case at the end of "Sex History". Heatley added a page to his original story that took on a very different tone. After being content with his occasional masturbation habits in the original story, he's openly condemnatory of himself in the addendum, even attending a sex addicts group that he immediately found himself relating to. It concludes by how happy he finds himself reserving all of his sexuality with his wife. Of course, it's the "end", but as Heatley demonstrates in this story, sexuality is a continuum. The conclusion he came to here seemed every bit as definitive as his original ending, and I imagine that given another year or two he might find himself in a different place. Heatley's shifting beliefs are a cornerstone of the somewhat slippery nature of this narrative. It's not unusual for him to passionately espouse a position or interest only to abandon it later. That series of self-contradictions is really what makes up a life; while we have a coherent sense of self in our own narratives, our identities really shift over time and place. It did feel a bit disingenuous to his readers to try to put an endcap on events that were obviously fluid, but it did seem like he genuinely did think of the end of that story as something definitive.

Heatley's stories about his mother and father are similar: a group of short strips piled on a page ala Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes, creating a portrait over time. The stories he tells and choices he makes in how he tells them illuminates his relationship with his parents. At the same time, it's easy to see where his general sensitivity (Heatley depicts himself as frequently weeping) comes from. The hints he drops that both parents wound up as spiritual seekers was also quite illuminating. Beyond that, Heatley unleashes his wicked sense of humor, especially in the way he and his mother butted heads. An early anecdote about his mom cheating him out of ten dollars and the way he later tried to guilt her out of it was especially amusing.

The chapter on "Kin" was the most touching in the book. Beginning with his great-grandparents, Heatley provides an abbreviated chronology of both sets of grandparents, focusing on relationships and childbirth and child rearing. The early stories are sketchy, focusing on dates and facts. He moves from the general to the specific when he recounts the story of the births of his own children. There's a rawness to the way that Heatley recounts his emotions that's quite powerful to read; the scene where he realizes that natural childbirth was something he was pushing without really considering what his wife needed was stunning. This chapter was all about births and deaths, and the way Heatley conveys the depth of his feeling, the fact that he never holds back his emotions or demonstrating them, came through in every panel.

Heatley combines a couple of different visual sensibilities in crafting his comics. He uses the same kind of simple, sketchy, spontaneous line that Jeffrey Brown employs. Reflecting the obsessiveness of the stories he tells, he crams as many as 48 panels onto a page, using only the lines absolutely necessary to depict emotion. Heatley has a fine arts background, having done a lot of painting, and that sense of design and color is a crucial component of this book. The use of color contrast is a big key to depicting emotion. With the tiny panels he lays out on the page, it's the best option he had in getting across that sort of information. It also conveys information indirectly, adding a layer of subtlety to the otherwise brutally honest and direction narrative. Heatley adds another layer of ambiguity to the book by injecting a number of his dream strips about sex and race; those strips are much more decompressed and languid compared to the main body of work in the book. However, their content (straight from an interpretation of Heatley's unconscious) is even more indicative of Heatley's deep-seated obsession with these issues.

The longest and most bracing chapter of the book is "Black History", the complete listing of every African-American person he's ever known and the way black culture has influenced him. Once again starting chronologically, Heatley confronts the extremely complicated feelings he has about race. After a lifetime of having a number of black friends, being into black music and culture and having an African-American art teacher who had a huge influence on him, there was still a strong sense of otherness that he felt around black folks. Beginning from the friends and enemies he made in school and in summer camp, the story has a few emotional climaxes. One is Heatley's account as a radical free-Mumia activist, an experience clearly tinged by disappointment from his current perspective. Another is the story of how his art professor proved to be such a profound influence on his career, even if he was dismissive of comics. The final climax comes after he has to deal with his own anger after being humiliated by a black woman in public. That anger shakes him to his core, gripping him so strongly that his reaction is nearly hysterical. Only by purging himself of that anger, letting it run through him, was he able to release it. That release bore some guilt because the anger's release contained elements of sexism and racism. That fact encouraged Heatley to try to change the way he engaged the world, partly through his vaguely-defined "spiritual awakening".

In a sense, this entire book seems to act as a release for Heatley. It's a way of processing through thoughts, feelings and obsessions that are both intimate and personal as well as easily understood by anyone. The strips are a form of therapy, purging his darkest thoughts and providing an object lesson for himself. While Heatley closes on a hopeful note for himself in terms of finally trying to rein in his anger and the inappropriate expression of same, it's really a story that has no end. Heatley has a way of digging into the uncomfortable portions of his imagination, laying it bare and exposing it to public scrutiny. He's no mere exhibitionist, but rather an artist who works by piling on painful, tiny details until they coalesce into some kind of greater whole. He's not asking for sympathy nor is he a martyr. Above all else, Heatley seems to be desperately trying to understand and come to terms with his own motivations. In MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN, there are some places where Heatley is acutely self-aware and others where he has an almost startling blind spot. In either case, Heatley has created a book that gets at the truth as he understands it and where he essentially wrestles it to the ground. The result of this attempted expulsion of obsessive ideas is a set of strips that remains playful above all else. It may be serious play, but as Lynda Barry would note, all play is serious and dynamic, demanding one's time and focus. The same is certainly true of David Heatley's work.

No comments:

Post a Comment