Quick! Name a Canadian comic book artist! (OK, too easy...) Howabout one who's built his career through independent comics? (Two for two, not bad...) Well... (this'll stump ya!) Can you name the Canadian comics man working preeminently in the genres of the surreal, the autobiographical and non-fiction? (I thought all they had up there was hockey comics? Here's a hint: this is a clumsy introduction to the write-up you looked up about him.) All right, now we can begin learning something!

Our pal Chester Brown was born in May of 1960, spending his youth (if you must know) in the anglo Montreal suburb of Chateauguay. He found over the course of elementary and secondary school that he was always the best student in his art classes, but he was too busy being squeezed through the turbulent twists of adolescence to make much of this talent. Many of us prefer to blank out the darker moments of emotional turmoil and negative intensity along our passage through puberty - but Chester would end up making comics (tragics?) about them, telling true accounts of his most awkward, squeamish and shameful moments and then sharing them with the world.

Not for a while, though. Unrequited and misdirected love, the beginning of a lifelong relationship with pornography, the death of a parent; these are to be considered for many to be merely par for the course - the hazing ordeal accompanying your induction into adulthood, as it were. The wounds take a while to heal, but in most of us there's no visible scarring. So it was that Chester began working in the comic medium before realizing that he'd eventually find himself revisiting these painful places, wrenching his scabs off and bleeding on to the page. (Figuratively, that is.) Following an uneventful stint in art school in Montreal, he had the honour of having a submission rejected - but only just! - from Art Spiegelman's avant-garde RAW magazine in 1981.

Diligently honing his skills and efforts with renewed enthusiasm from the near-miss, he put together a DIY comic book (folded over and stapled himself - isn't that cute!) over the next two years, hitting the mean streets of Toronto one frosty day in '83 and trying to bring art to the masses on a street corner for a quarter a bang. Perhaps things might have turned out differently if he'd chosen a corner in the red light district, but after an exhausting entire day engaged in such labours of futility, he figured he just wasn't cut out for this line of direct sales and slunk back to his secret comics den for a rethink.

Though I'm possessed of the notion that thought and action are located at polar extremes of a continuum, whereby the more thought is put into a matter the less likely its eventual execution, Chester's example blows my totally bogus model out of the water. Utilizing the same Ed the Happy Clown material as was in his disastrous initial offering to the mean streets of TO, in 1986 he began publishing his legendary series Yummy Fur through on again-off again Vortex Comics.

What can be said about Yummy Fur? (What can't be said about it!) In addition to the {pygmy-eating, scatology, self-stimulating deep-sea squid and the phallologocentric adventures of an alternate dimension's Ronald Reagan} of the Ed storyline, which after a few issues were getting to be, uh, a bit exhausting (to read, that is), Brown began incorporating in to his magazine some weird back-up features - the proto-JTHM bunny and gerbil strips (cute-animal code for he and his girlfriend of the time in a dark, scaa-aary world), comic book renditions of the Gospel of Matthew (and later Mark - especially bizarre when you consider what it was sharing space with) and of course the vivid presentations of his strangely-universal formative moments in angstolescence which I made so much of above.

Passing over to Montreal press Drawn & Quarterly when Vortex failed, Yummy Fur enjoyed a rather unprecedented eight-year run of 32 issues (not unknown, but an enormous slice of the rather infinitesimal Canadian comic books market, making him one of the very few people to be making a living exclusively out of their work in Canadian independent comics), its various inter-related but distinct storylines eventually sorted out and re-compiled in the collections The Playboy, I Never Liked You, The Little Man, and Ed the Happy Clown - the last of which he won a 1990 Harvey award for (best graphic album) to accompany another Harvey the same year for Best Cartoonist. During this time period he eventually found himself living in my 'hood, Vancouver's Chinatown, and had a "thing" going with art-rocker and onetime MuchMusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee, for whose album Wigs and Guns he drew the cover and with whom he collaborated for an eco-terrorism story in issue 16 of Fantagraphics' Real Stuff.

All the Fur storylines more or less tied, he's been working on some, uh, more marginal projects since. (More marginal than masturbating molluscs? Yow!) Bizarre and arbitrary events in a world where everyone speaks only gibberish were the order of the day for the eleven issues of Underwater, from '94 to '97, where we see the world through the eyes of protagonist Kupifam from pre-linguistic birth on (After a few issues they're even able to focus!), but moving back East and feeling more (gosh!) Canadian, he put Underwater on hold to begin a comics retelling of the life of M├ętis rebel (and, say some, Father of Confederation) Louis Riel, which after two years of intensive research he began publishing on a quarterly basis (that reminds me - still through D&Q) in 1999. He continues with occasional episodes from the lives of the Evangelists in the backs of issues of Louis Riel, seeming much less idiosyncratic when paired with the account of a messianic rebel leader 8) (Update: finished as of August '03, available soon if not already in a compiled trade paperback.)

Tired of tedious and gritty reconceptualizations of spandex-clad nancies who were never tremendously interesting in the first place? Try out Brown and some of his ilk, offering consistently earnest (even when totally incomprehensible) and solid work a twist and a half to the left of the beat the rest of North America's comics industry is marching to. (Hey, when you're talking about picto-textual juxtaposition, you get to mix your metaphors a bit.) And don't forget:

"Guth I dul the balan?"

FWIW, this was my first node penned in the E2 Offline scratchpad. Not a shabby piece of work! Also, something which may interest those of you who were already familiar with Brown's work before coming here - an Ed the Happy Clown film is in the works, scripted by Don McKellar with Bruce McDonald set to direct. Don't hold your breath waiting for it to appear in the theatres, though 8).
In the meantime, however, you can eyeball all 6 pages of My Mom Was a Schizophrenic at http://www.twohandedman.com/Interviews/Chester/SchizExper1.html

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