Skip to main content
book review

Joe Ollmann’s portrayal William Seabrook as a literary figure in a way that seems to mirror how cartoonists have yearned for legitimacy.

Too often, comics biographies – as with run-of-the-mill documentary movies – aspire to be little more than efficient vehicles for delivering facts. Stripped of style, personality and analytical insight, biography in comics form can seem reductive and mercenary, seizing on noteworthy lives in order to boil them down and package them up for school library shelves. Curious about Edward Snowden, but don't like to read? Try the comic-strip summary of his life! Want to go slightly deeper than Wikipedia can get into Bertrand Russell's thinking? There's just the comic book out there for you.

Thankfully, there's no such oversimplification going on in The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, Joe Ollmann's expansive and obsessive interpretation of the harum-scarum life of writer William Seabrook. Ollmann comes to biography after years of creating caustic, perceptive fiction in comics – brazenly cringing stories along the same lines as Sam Lipsyte's books, or Noah Baumbach's movies.

That kind of storyteller's craft makes all the difference as Ollmann turns to non-fiction. In recounting Seabrook's biography, the artist refuses to skim the surface, delving deep, over hundreds of densely packed pages, into the character of a man whom the cartoonist tersely eulogizes as an "alcoholic, masochist, cannibal, suicide," as well as the person "who popularized the term 'zombie' in English."

An archetype of the Lost Generation, Seabrook parlayed Southern charm, family connections and an adventurous streak into a career as a globe-trotting travel writer in the Roaring Twenties, deriving bestsellers from his time spent embedded with Bedouins, voodoo worshippers and onetime cannibal chiefs. Success hamstrung him, however, and in the last half of the book Ollmann depicts him circling the drain, shuttling between pretensions to greatness and the conviction he's a failure, wantonly indulging his S&M kinks, and succumbing to increasingly crippling alcoholism.

Such wide-ranging high jinks, and complex moral shadings, would make for a great yarn in any medium, and in anyone's hands. But in Ollmann's sweaty, ink-stained mitts, Seabrook's life becomes a cautionary tale, character study and novelistic American tragedy all at once. Like any good comics biography, from Chester Brown's ascetic Louis Riel to John Porcellino's poetic Thoreau at Walden, Ollmann's book finds a special affinity with its subject. The artist's erratic line work and congested compositions translate Seabrook's impetuous world to the page with convincing authority.

As Ollmann draws him, Seabrook is perpetually five-o'clock-shadowed, jowly, sleepy-eyed and sozzled – a down-at-heel Hemingway. Seabrook likewise worked with ambulances during the First World War, and subsequently orbited the postwar literati and modernist avant garde, receiving counsel from Gertrude Stein, idolizing James Joyce and collaborating with Man Ray on bondage photography.

Ollmann is particularly deft at situating Seabrook as a literary figure within this heady milieu, perhaps because the writer's diffidence about his popular success mirrors so closely the way that cartoonists have yearned for legitimacy. Burdened by the perception of his work as mere pulp – accessible, popular and a little bit lurid – Seabrook aspires to create books that rank alongside Joyce or Stein.

One senses Ollmann's kinship with this strain of Seabrook's career: the sweat-of-the-brow effort to push a demotic form, such as adventure writing or cartooning, from easy vulgarity to artistic validity. Seabrook's distinction, according to Ollmann, was to sidestep the exploitative pitfalls of touristy ethnography. Instead, he finds real empathy and apparent friendship with his subjects from the Middle East, Haiti, Ivory Coast and little-seen parts of the United States (later books deal with his taking the cure in an asylum, and the travails of American immigrants).

Ollmann, like Seabrook, finds it difficult to avoid the old pulp toolbox for too long, giving way to gentle caricature and moralizing at times. I wish the narration levied fewer judgments about Seabrook's "abominable," paternalistic behaviour, and trusted that the spectacle, say, of the pith-helmeted explorer guffawing at religious rites in Mali would be damning enough on its own, without added commentary. But for the most part the artist practises admirable restraint, given the outlandish quality of Seabrook's life.

Scenes that other cartoonists would love to punch up – Bedouin camel raids, black-magic orgies with Aleister Crowley, parachuting out of a hot-air balloon – Ollmann underplays, eager to get to the next juicy morsel of Seabrookiana. By placing such picturesque escapades on the same level as the rest of Seabrook's life – just another rectangle in the almost unrelenting nine-panel grid that Ollmann employs – the artist aligns his approach with Seabrook's own insistence that he never sensationalized his subjects. Whether Seabrook is being shelled in the First World War, or drunkenly assailing an African villager, or whipping a nude and bound "research assistant," Ollmann renders these extraordinary moments as just part of the fabric of the man's life. They become neither more nor less important than those instances where Seabrook simply stares at his typewriter, blocked and drunk.

Seabrook's peripatetic, fascinating life has also been largely forgotten, which makes the book as much an argument for rediscovering the man's writing as it is an inquiry into what made him tick. Ollmann's interest has already helped usher two of Seabrook's books back into print – Asylum, his taboo-breaking account of drying out, and The Magic Island, the urtext of the zombie craze – complete with trade dress designed by the artist.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook has also succeeded in something that most bare-bones comics bios seldom achieve: I look forward to reading still more about Seabrook, and by Seabrook, if only to savour further the interpretive gloss that Ollmann provides.

Sean Rogers is The Globe's comics reviewer.