What a long, strange trip it’s been for iconoclastic Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown —starting life in the early ’80s inside the tiny pages of self-published mini-comics that Brown sold on Toronto streetcorners before moving on to become the serialized lead feature in his seminal solo comix series Yummy Fur, the (we thought at the time) completed work was collected in trade paperback format by Brown’s at-the-time publisher, Vortex, in 1988. Nothing too circuitous about any of that, right? So why the “long, strange trip” bit?
Well, because it turns out things weren’t quite as over and done with as they seemed. In 1992, Vortex returned with a second edition, subtitled “The Definitive Ed Book,” which added a new four-page “extra ending,” if you will, to the original collection. Brown himself moved on to Draw & Quarterly publications at roughly the same time, and while he pursued other projects under their publishing auspices such as the still-unfinished Underwater, the highly-acclaimed historical series Louis Riel, and most recently the autobiographical (and highly confessional) graphic novel Paying For It, somewhere in between all that he found time to revisit Ed yet again, when D&Q reprinted the entire run of stories in the early 2000s in single-issue magazine form, complete with new (and stunning — one of them is reproduced below the next paragraph, so see for yourself) covers and extensive liner notes written by Brown detailing the thought processes that went into nearly every page, if not each individual panel, of the story.
Now, in 2012, it appears the Ed saga might well and truly be over, as D&Q have seen fit to release a handsome hardback edition of the complete story that includes the covers for the single-issue reprint books (mostly in all their hand-colored glory, although sadly a couple aren’t) and the footnotes Brown did for those issues. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a really nice package and should stand as the final word on all things Ed (although I’ve thought that once or twice before, so we’ll see), and it’s as someone who’s followed the whole thing since nearly the beginning (I can’t claim to have any of Brown’s old self-produced mini-comics in my possession, sadly) it brings a wide smile to my face to see this material finally get the absolutely comprehensive treatment it deserves.
As for the story ,well — if you’re unfamiliar with the mind-numbing universe (actually, that should truthfully be parallel universes) of Ed The Happy Clown, suffice to say you’re in for a wild ride. Ed himself is quite likely the most hapless character in the history of graphic fiction, yet isn’t presented as a tragic figure, really, at all, despite the fact that literally nothing good happens to him from start to finish. The actual plot itself is a tricky thing to describe with a straight face, though, so I’ll just say this — be ready for a healthy (well, okay, unhealthy) dose of scatological fixation, religious obsession, and an overall narrative tone that absolutely reeks of well-placed disdain for hyprocisy in all its forms. When this material first saw print in the 1980s it’s fair to say that a lot of people thought Ronald Reagan was a dickhead — in Brown’s story he really is a dickhead. Throw in sewer-dwelling pygmies, werewolves, vampires, and a TV science show and you’re got all the ingredient for a heady surrealistic stew.
On the artistic side, the drawing style employed by Brown goes through a lot of changes as things go along, since he was still experimenting (you could fairly argue that he still is, I suppose) with different panel sizes, uses of form, and even basic linework throughout this period, but even though the first page and the last look remarkably different to one another, there’s undoubtedly a sense of consistency clearly visible in each step of the artistic evolution on display here. Simply put, it all works, somehow.Like a lot of the films we take a look at around these parts, it’s certainly more than fair to say that Ed The Happy Clown isn’t for all tastes. If you go for artistic formalism, straightforward linear narrative, or take yourself too seriously, then you’re better of avoiding this altogether. But if you find the finished (again, I assume) product of an unfettered, unpretentious, and frankly even unhinged imagination to be a thing of at least interest, if not outright beauty, then this is a book that you’ll be glad to have in your collection and that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.