When you consider his infamy during his life, William Seabrook’s present-day obscurity is baffling. Seabrook vividly wrote about his own stays in insane asylums, his alcoholism, and his love of sadomasochism. He profiled Bedouin tribes in the Middle East and introduced the concept of the zombie to American culture. He even ate human flesh once, for research purposes (apparently it tastes like veal). Yet, other than a few recent reprints, this best-selling Lost Generation journalist is mostly lost to us today.
Cartoonist Joe Ollmann first came across Seabrook’s writing a decade ago and soon found himself fascinated with Seabrook’s openness about his own flaws and search for something—anything—that could replace the religious faith of his childhood. The result of that fascination is The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, a comic-book biography of Seabrook that Ollmann says in a forward he was “kind of obligated to make.”
Ollmann presents Seabrook’s life as a series of escape attempts—first from his mother, then from various jobs and marriages, then from bourgeois norms, then from alcoholism, and finally, with his death by suicide in 1945, from himself. In Ollmann’s telling, the very things that make Seabrook successful curdle (or, given his drinking, pickle) into the very qualities that ruin him. Thus his impulsive nature, eschewing of normal life, and genuine curiosity about the world become addiction, arrogance, and solipsism.
In the first few chapters of the book, which are drawn almost entirely from Seabrook’s writing about himself, there’s little evidence that Ollmann is interrogating Seabrook’s version of events. The question of whether or not Seabrook’s account of Vodou sensationalized and misrepresented religious practice in Haiti, for example, is confined to three panels, and largely takes Seabrook’s view as a given. But Seabrook’s depiction of these rites in his 1929 book The Magic Island gave American culture the zombie and helped shape the United States’ pop-cultural relationship to Haiti in ways that endure to this day. This is Seabrook’s greatest and, prior to the recent efforts to rediscover his work, only legacy, yet the book avoids any serious discussion of what scholars of Vodou make of Seabrook’s work (it’s controversial), how his depiction of half-catatonic agricultural slaves transformed into Hollywood’s flesh-eating undead, or whether Seabrook was simply misled and used by his sources.
The book comes to much fuller life in its second half. Seabrook’s second and third wives were both writers, and Ollmann’s research into their work and archives pays off in providing contrasting views of Seabrook’s exploits. Other contemporaries—particularly Man Ray, who collaborated with Seabrook on a series of photos and wrote quite frankly about Seabrook’s sexual sadism—help flesh out the picture as well. And Ollmann has found some other curiosities along the way, like the letters and telegrams Seabrook sent to try to win back his second wife, Marjorie, or the revelation in an unpublished essay (co-written with his third wife, Constance) that Seabrook was so well-endowed that he could not get conventional pleasure from intercourse. The Seabrooks claim in the essay that, “the fact of a God-given organ too large for comfort … took Willie through years, a lifetime of increasingly imaginative, fantastically complicated sex practices.” Ollmann, in a discussion four times the length of and far more complicated than his wrestling with The Magic Island, is more skeptical, calling the idea an “oversimplification.”
Ollmann clearly admires Seabrook’s writing and adventuresome spirit, the ways he was both the fearless boy reporter Tintin and the inept but noble drunkard Captain Haddock at the same time. Yet he remains sanguine throughout about Seabrook’s numerous faults and sympathetic to Seabrook’s dawning understanding that he could not escape his problems. In one of Abominable’s best sections, Ollmann contrasts the now-successful Seabrook traveling through Africa in 1929 with the enthusiastic upstart who had traveled with the Bedouin and through Haiti in earlier years:
This page draws its power not only from Ollmann’s clear point of view but from the way he deploys word and image (and the tension between them) to create a third kind of meaning in our minds. That’s what comics do best: Drawn by an artist’s hand, comics make the author’s subjectivity inescapable. In nonfiction comics, all of these dynamics are heightened because these visible ways of making meaning are applied to real-life subjects.
Every nonfiction comic must find a way to tackle this tension between the need to tell a true story and render a personal work of art in both image and text. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and David B’s Epileptic do this through using frequent symbolism to make it clear we are not reading literal truth. Journalist Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza becomes an investigation into whether or not the truth of historical events is even knowable. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is organized as a series of chronologically scrambled, thematically linked episodes, as if the page is mimicking both obsessive research (which she draws herself doing) and the searching qualities of memory at the same time.
For the most part, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook fails to take advantage of the possibilities of comics as a form. While Ollmann’s rough-hewn drawing style is wonderfully evocative and frequently quite funny, nearly every page is divided into nine, evenly sized, cramped panels. Not only does this lend a story of adventure and world travel an unremitting claustrophobia, but with everything given equal formal weight, it’s hard to discern what has more thematic weight. Reading The Abominable Mr. Seabrook feels at times like watching a film in which every shot is held for the same number of frames, whether it’s a drab establishing shot or a crucial close-up.
This strict formal repetition mimics, in a way, Ollmann’s intentional restraint as a writer. In the foreword to The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, Ollmann writes that he wanted to let Seabrook (and his peers) largely speak for themselves and that he wanted to “put as little of my own editorial bias on it as possible.” While this temptation is understandable—Seabrook’s life was so colorful, why bother embroidering it?—biographies often draw their power from the tension between author and subject, and the ways they wrestle with the very editorial “bias” that Ollmann wishes to avoid. (What Ollmann calls “bias,” most readers think of as interpretation.) This is even truer when the subject was, like Seabrook, a serial memoirist and, on at least one occasion, an admitted fabulist.
Ollmann’s cartooning is at its best when it eschews this restraint and instead engages more actively with its subject. In an evocative and powerful epilogue, Ollmann ponders the contradictions of Seabrook’s life and work in text boxes (“He wrote without shame of his bondage practices, though he seemed compelled to legitimize them in the guise of psychic research”) while the ghost of Seabrook builds a tower of loose paper to hide behind. Only as Ollmann discusses Seabrook’s rediscovery does the wind blow that tower away, revealing Seabrook in his late middle-age shabbiness. His eyes are heavy-lidded. He is probably drunk, and all he wants is to be remembered. The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, though it’s afraid to stake out a clear interpretation of the man, his life, or his legacy, will certainly help this poor ghost get his wish.
The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann. Drawn and Quarterly.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.