Oh, boy. Where to begin with Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown? It's a very tricky question. Describing a book shouldn't be like this. You should be able to describe a book without appearing deranged. Nevertheless, I feel I owe this book an attempt. In lieu of a better idea, I'm going to follow the example of Sister Maria and start at the very beginning.
For the record: I'm working from the 1992 Vortex comics trade paperback, Ed the Happy Clown: The Definitive Ed Book. This was an expanded edition of the original collection, which in turn reprinted strips from author Chester Brown's comic Yummy Fur. The Definitive Ed adds several pages of new material and reshuffles events to make the book more of a whole. Ed's story would continue in Yummy Fur for several issues after the original collection's ending. The Definitive Ed incorporates some of the series' later events, but by no means all. So there are three versions of the story that I am aware of, and maybe more. For the sake of sanity (for what it's worth in this instance), I'm sticking to The Definitive Ed for the main body of this writeup.
Here be spoilers. I'm about to lay out the plot. This is no small undertaking. Those of you who haven't read Ed might want to turn your eyes off for the next few paragraphs. Probably best to read the book before any more of this writeup, to be honest. If you've come here to see if the book is worth buying, allow me: Yes. But avoid everything below the following line. Those who have read the book can just take sadistic pleasure in my attempt to describe it. Yeah, I knew the risks.
Note: my erudite friend Pseudo_Intellectual quite rightly points out that the plot of Ed is essentially "a trope on which to hang the fanciful illustrations (and) poignant scenarios". All very true, and as such, my spoiler warning may be considered unnecessary. Still, I think I benefitted from reading the book "raw", so to speak, so it's your call, reader. I think I could at least ruin a couple of jokes for you. Yeah, I'm sure I could manage that. Be warned.
Okay, true believers: Ed is a clown. Initially, he is indeed a happy clown. Did you ever know a fictional clown who stayed happy for long? Before too long, Ed is beaten up and then wrongly imprisoned for murder after finding a hand under his pillow - seemingly left there by the tooth fairy. The man in the next cell cannot stop shitting. Remember this. When the man's cellmate kills him in a bid to avoid suffocation, the shit keeps coming. It breaks the prison walls, and Ed escapes.
Flashback to the 13th century. The soon-to-be-Saint Justin - who eschews "all carnal activities" - is caught whacking off by his wife, who severs his hand. Flash forward: a woman is reading to her children about one Saint Justin, who cut off his own hand to end the sins (of theft) it had committed. Flash further forward, to Ed's day: one of the aforementioned children, Chet, is now a hospital janitor. His hand was recently decapitated (neither he or we know how), found by Ed (under his pillow, recall) and sewn back on - but it now hangs limp and lifeless. Trying to figure out why, he follows Ed, who enters a bookstore and falls unconscious after his shitty jailbreak ordeal. In the store, Chet spots a volume on the lives of the Saints, and reads an entry on Saint Justin. It connects. He decides he must cut himself off from that which is making him sin. He meets his lover Josie that night, and stabs her to death during sex. Sure enough, his hand is restored to its former glory. Amen.
Near to the murder scene, Ed has been beaten up again. Also, something is talking in his pants. Pygmies (they are a common problem in Ed's city) arrive and carry him off to their sewer lair. They also take the body of Josie. The pygmies soon discover that Ed's penis has a voice, and a face. The penis is surprised by this, as is Ed. The pygmies decide they have found The Penis God and endeavour to liberate him from Ed's body by means of knife. Before this can happen, they are thwarted by Josie, who seems to have returned to life.
Wait, it gets better. The head on the penis introduces himself as Ronald Reagan. He looks nothing like "our" Ronald Reagan, but he is the President of the USA and his wife is called Nancy. Neither he or Ed have any idea what he's doing on the end of Ed's penis. Josie, Ed and Ronnie attempt to escape the sewer, but encounter a mother and daughter pair of pygmy hunters, who accidentally shoot Josie back to death.
We now skip back in time a little, where we find Ronald Reagan before his mysterious transformation. He presides over an America that has no concept of toilets, and piles of feces on every street corner are becoming a serious problem. Fortunately, science can help; a farmer has stumbled across a small portal to another dimension. The solution is clear; push America's mounting shit through the portal via a huge funnel. The exit point for the portal is in fact the anus of the gentleman who couldn't stop shitting back in the prison in Ed's world; so there is at least a good scientific explanation for that little episode.
During the official opening of the shit disposer, Reagan tragically falls into the giant collection of pending waste. His body blocks the funnel, but not before his head has gone through the portal; a headless president is recovered. A scientist heads though the portal on a rescue mission.
(Now, I know what you're thinking, and I've no idea how Reagan's head became attached to the end of Ed's penis. It makes no sense, even within the logic of Ed's universe, and it's not explained. If you have any notions, please let me know - but for now, we'll just have to accept that somehow, it happened...)
Back to Ed and Josie. They are still in the sewer, and Josie is still dead again. A tunnel-digging machine suddenly bursts through the walls and a TV scientist steps out, carrying the rescue-mission scientist (people in his dimension are around eight inches tall), who has arrived in Ed's dimension and somehow enlisted help. The tiny scientist spots Ed and then recognises Reagan. Ed and Josie are taken away by the scientists.
As Ed is (brutally) examined, the tiny scientist reveals his plan; if the President's head (on a penis...) is passed back through the portal (in an anus...), it will recognise "the vibration frequency of its own dimension" and reattach itself to his body. The gathered scientists of Dimension Ed point out that this is unthinkable, as it would require a homosexual act. The term is unfamiliar to the visiting scientist - it transpires homosexuality is the norm in his dimension. He is immediately gunned down by every scientist present, and the anus-portal is encased in cement: "A planet full of homosexuals! JESUS!" Ed and reagan are swiftly placed in quarantine with Josie's corpse.
Ah, yes, Josie. Floating outside her body, she meets the child ghost of Chet's sister, who informs Josie that she is now a vampire, because she died while engaged in grievous sin. If vampires become separated from their bodies, they go to Hell. Because Chet has prayed for forgiveness, he is destined for Heaven. This does not sit well with Josie, who returns to her body a second time in search of revenge.
Ready? Josie and Ed escape from the scientists' building and Josie takes them to the hospital where Chet works. She finds Chet, seduces him, and kills him during sex, crushing his head in her hands to condemn him to Hell. In the course of this, she loses Ed, who is found by a hospital handyman and placed in the care of moonlighting surgeons about to perform a black market penis transplant. Come on, I asked if you were ready. The transplant recipient notices Ed's penis looks like Ronald Reagan - "my hero" - and selects it for the operation, which has just taken place when the Mounties (!) burst in. The surgeons offer up Ed, but the agents, who are after Reagan, take the transplant patient, who now "sports" the president's head. The surgeons have no option but to attempt to palm Ed off on the patient's wife. There is a vague resemlance, but the increased penis size (a whole extra penis has been sewn on to Ed's member to replace the Reagan head) is all she needs. The last time we see Ed he is still sleeping, being driven to his new home and life.
Loose ends: Josie arrives home and, mindful of her vampire status, tapes her blinds down to block out the sunlight. Unfortunately, Chet's sinning hand has scuttled away from his corpse and followed her home. While she sleeps, it loosens the blind. In the morning, Josie is a charred skeleton.
The final two pages are among the most horrifying this noder has ever read. As Josie's soul descends to Hell, she passes the ghost of Chet's sister, who leers at her with horns and a devil's tongue; she has been tricked. As she enters the towering flames, thin black arms hold her and push her into a forced embrace with the soul of Chet - his head as mangled as Josie left it on his body. The book ends with the two of them pressed closely, as if they were still lovers, together in flames for eternity as a terrified Josie weeps. End.
That's Ed, in a superdeformed nutshell. There are plenty of details and several subplots I've omitted, for all our sakes. The details are important, however; they build Ed's world as a place of random, surreal violence and insane governance (the gun-toting pygmy-hunting women are required to display a permit by a Green Hornet-style cop, which turns out to be a permit to wear pants). The world is ruled by callous men of science. These mad scientists are everywhere, seemingly doing the work of several government agencies and advising every figure of power. They struggle to apply scientific method to Ed's frightening and irrational world, but don't have a hope; they're frightening and irrational themselves. In Reagan's world, the scientists fare slightly better (though they're incapable of solving the basic problem of shit disposal), but are thwarted by the president and his advisors.
The violence of Ed's universe erupts in several gory sequences that are more powerful in effect than Brown's cartoonish style might suggest. They are not, however, sensational; everything is presented in a calm, objective style that frequently underscores the bizarre and hysterical events depicted. To say the style is "calm" is not to say that Brown can't convey fear, pain and all-out existential horror; he can, and very effectively. But as the story suggests, and Brown's method reinforces, these are everyday experiences in Ed's world; a zombie consuming a human leg doesn't warrant a panel larger than any other, or a dramatic angle - it's just something that happens.
So, why read Ed the Happy Clown? Firstly, for the sheer experience. There's very little like it, in comics or elsewhere, and an unprepared first reading is a memorable event. It's impossible to guess where the story is going from one page - one panel, on occasion - to the next, and the novelty (or information, if you prefer) makes the book a real page turner; it's hard to imagine anyone setting it aside half-read for completion the next day.
Secondly, it's funny. There's some great humour in Ed, from slapstick to satire; and while you can certainly find more trenchant assaults on Ronald Reagan, none of them will have quite the impact of his role here. Likewise, the early two-page segment The Man Who Couldn't Stop has fantastic humorous impact, and contains no more than twelve panels (nine practically identical and five words; a great piece of work, and a great hook into the story.
Thirdly... ah, well, this has gone on long enough, anyway. Here's the bottom line: Ed the Happy Clown is a comic book by Chester Brown. Unless you've read it, you haven't read anything like it. It's not a milestone in the history of comics, but it's a shining example of a work that could only exist in comics. Not because of its form - unlike Brown's later, autobiographical work, Ed makes no particularly great use of the medium and would translate well to animated film* - but because it's only in comics, particularly the indie and samizdat scenes of the time, that one would find the level of creative control and freedom required to sustain and publish such a unique vision.
Brown, Chester. Ed the Happy Clown: The Definitive Ed Book. Toronto: Vortex Comics, 1992.
* Inch-high p_i pops up again to remind me that an Ed film is in some kind of pipeline, and indeed this has been the case since 1995; at one stage, I even saw an ad for it in a comic book - a shot of Ed's boots. To the best of my knowledge, the project has yet to go into production; we can but hope.