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Meet the man who brought us zombies in The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

Also reviewed: Action Comics, Pretending Is Lying, and It’s All Absolutely Fine

Best known as the man that popularized the word “zombie” in the English language, William Seabrook is a tragic figure that lived a fascinating life. He befriended Muslim Bedouins in Lebanon, engaged in voodoo rituals in Haiti, and spent time with cannibals in Ivory Coast. He was a popular, well-regarded author that befriended some of the biggest names in early 20th century literature, but he was unable to rid himself of his debilitating alcoholism despite multiple stays in different mental institutions.

Cartoonist Joe Ollmann details Seabrook’s ecstatic highs and devastating lows in his graphic biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook (Drawn & Quarterly), a meticulously researched exploration of one man’s compulsion to run away and the addictions that ruined his relationships and ultimately led to his demise. It’s a harrowing story told with blunt, brutal clarity by Ollmann, who has a clear appreciation for Seabrook’s work but also laments the writer’s wasted potential, drowned in rising tides of booze.

Ollmann has been working on The Abominable Mr. Seabrook for a decade, and he’s put a lot of care into creating a comprehensive, multi-faceted portrait of a deeply flawed man that still represented a progressive ideal to understand other cultures and treat them with respect. His journeys to Lebanon and Haiti spotlight his eagerness to learn about experiences outside his own, and he’s sympathetic, jovial, and open-minded with the people he encounters on these trips. And then he gets famous. His attitude changes dramatically for his voyage to Ivory Coast, and his newfound popularity gives him a self-righteousness that prevents him from meeting the native people on their level. He’s never able to recapture that genuine curiosity and admiration of his past self, and he fills that loss by running to the bottle.

The cover evocatively summarizes the major demon that haunted Seabrook in the later half of his life, showing a sweating, frightened Seabrook dwarfed by two towering bottles of liquor on both sides. His alcoholism continues to be at the forefront of the biography with the prologue showing Seabrook in his later days, stumbling through New York City in a drunken stupor, and there’s a sense of sobering relief when Ollmann begins the first chapter at the start of Seabrook’s life, long before he developed the habit that killed him. The book also spends significant time on Seabrook’s obsession with S&M and his proclivity for restraining consenting women so that he can dominate them, although intercourse is never part of the ritual. The thrill is in the submission, and Ollmann explores the psychological reason for Seabrook’s kink, aided by the written observations of Seabrook’s three wives and their own insights into their husband’s behavior.

The nine-panel grid layout allows Ollmann to condense a lot of information on each page, but it also works extremely well to reinforce specific themes like Seabrook’s existential ennui and the steadily increasing frequency of his drinking. There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the layouts, and it becomes more prevalent as Seabrook becomes more confined physically, mentally, and spiritually. The visual repetition of the drinking, especially in the later chapters, makes the habit all the more insidious, and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with pity each time he pours himself another glass of whatever he has lying around. Ollmann does remarkable work making readers feel the weight of Seabrook’s addiction, and while The Abominable Mr. Seabrook isn’t an easy read, it’s an enlightening look at a writer that has faded into obscurity. [Oliver Sava]

To people who read monthly comics, It’s All Absolutely Fine: Life Is Complicated So I’ve Drawn It Instead (Andrews McMeel Publishing) won’t look like anything they’ve picked up lately, and for good reason. Even readers who more regularly get autobiographical visual memoirs may not see the similarities between what author and artist Ruby Elliot is doing and, say, Lucy Knisley or Alison Bechdel. It’s All Absolutely Fine is definitely autobiographical, but it’s closer to Sarah Andersen’s Sarah’s Scribbles or the diary comics so many artists create on Hourly Comic Day, which occurs annually on February 1st.

Though It’s All Absolutely Fine is the story of Elliot’s life so far, it’s far from chronological. There’s no real sense of time at all, as individual comics and pages stand distinct from one another in little vignettes instead of telling a story over the course of the book. This is a holdover from Elliot’s successful Tumblr account, Rubyetc, where she first began creating these snippets to share with the world. Many, but not all, of the comics have to do with Elliot’s struggles with mental illness and the way it grips her life tightly, and there is prose peppered throughout the book where she shares enough personal detail to give good context for the comics. It’s her wry, silly sense of humor that keeps the book from getting too heavy, and Elliot displays a sharp wit that goes well with the way her honesty strips her bare. Some of the text, in the comics or in prose, is what some might derisively call “Tumblr speak,” mocking the young women who’ve created a lingo all their own that deconstructs the way we use language and what we really mean.

Elliot’s style is deceptively simple, sketchy and fully of shapes that only create the full picture if you take them all in at once. There’s just enough detail to make sense of what you’re looking at, which is usually a rendition of Elliot herself, sometimes relatively realistic and others an amorphous blob with a head. There’s bound to be some who think it takes no skill at all, but what’s hard to spot is the effort that goes into making even simple shapes and sketches consistent and understandable, intentionally planning out the use of white space and filling pages to best effect. Her style stays flexible but recognizable, just like her voice.

Comparing It’s All Absolutely Fine to other graphic memoirs is a tricky thing. Ultimately the book is too different to stack alongside other books, even those that share its ability to legitimize mental illness and make the reader feel a little less alone. The only book that it resembles in more than passing is another bright yellow one, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole And A Half, which also started as a blog. Fans who have been missing Brosh’s funny insights into depression and pain will find similar solace in Elliot’s work, and hopefully Elliot will continue to make more. [Caitlin Rosberg]

The Belgian cartoonist Dominique Goblet is little known in the United States, but not because of the quality of her cartooning. Pretending Is Lying (New York Review Comics), the first of her work to be translated into English, evinces a powerful and accomplished artist, and its jump to the U.S. marks the still-new New York Review Comics as one of the most vital outlets in the contemporary maturation of the American comics market.

An autobiography of sorts, Pretending Is Lying explores Goblet’s strained relationship with her father and, at the same time, her strained relationship with poet Guy-Marc Hinant, her romantic partner and these sequences’ co-author. It features various plot points that will feel familiar to readers accustomed to the tropes of autobiography and memoir, but what’s especially compelling about Goblet’s story is the way she tells it. Trained as a visual artist at L’institut Saint-Luc, Goblet’s cartooning rejects much of the received wisdom about what “good” sequential art is. She retains a fairly intuitive organization of panels, but she densely packs her pages. Her figure-work rejects naturalism, instead drawing her figures as a reflection of a scene’s mood or emotional trajectory. There is little visual consistency between panels, and Goblet even draws different scenes with different media. Characters grow and shrink in proportion to others—with limbs and extremities that never feign even the pretense of anatomical correctness—or Goblet transposes them onto Byzantine and medieval religious icons. Hinant’s old flame is rendered as a ghastly absence of lines, and she literally haunts Goblet’s relationship.

Goblet never renders bodies as such; instead, they are simply avatars. Goblet doesn’t use them, or the compositions of which they are actors, as methods of communicating something rational or logical. Rather, they serve as emotional transmissions, pliable things of pure feelings. As Hinant writes in the book’s brief afterword, the characters become simulacra; autobiography warps into poetry and fiction. How they are drawn, then, becomes as (if not more) important to the page as what these figures are doing.

This expressive ethos manifests itself in the book’s lettering as well, and Goblet gives each character a unique font that shifts and shudders as their emotional state changes. When Goblet’s estranged father is angry and screaming, his words get big and scratchy and the letters begin to run into one another. But this aesthetic hits a zenith with the book’s concluding pages. Here, Goblet illustrates a kind of reconciliation with Hinant—or, at least, the hint of one to come—as a series of liminal horizons. In various unnatural hues, colors converge and collide in a pure expression that offers a more powerful affect than the same scene naturalistically rendered or logically ordered. They are moments frozen in time, and there is no intimation of how the reader is meant to understand them. Are they a new dawn or a setting sun? A beginning or an ending? Goblet’s cartooning is such that readers don’t have to make a choice, which may seem strange for an ostensibly true story; they can turn these pages around in their head, revisiting and reinterpreting them, and the book is allowed to live and breathe in a way that more naturalistic or conventional storytelling isn’t. [Shea Hennum]

Historically the Superman titles have operated on a different register than the Batman family. Batman works best as a family of mostly autonomous books, with different eras demarcated by famous or influential creators. Superman fans, however, organize that character’s history by storyline. Although it seems counterintuitive, the Superman books have traditionally worked best during periods when there was a unity of purpose among many titles with many creators and editors working on more or less the same story, or types of story, told across multiple series.

There are exceptions, but they tend to reinforce this narrative. The Batman books adopted tight continuity throughout the 1990s, and the result was constant crossovers and steadily diminishing returns. The Superman books have had periods that veered closer to the Batman model, with attempts by superstar creators to shape the direction of the franchise—John Byrne in the late ’80s, Grant Morrison as recently as the beginning of the New 52—but always return to basics. With Tom King’s Batman setting a new tone for the Dark Knight family, the Superman books in the Rebirth era have also reverted to type, in the form of an ongoing serial format in which each title carries equal weight.

It’s harder to take Superman’s temperature, so to speak, since the books’ appeal rests not with any one title but in the success of ongoing storylines with multiple creators involved across multiple titles. Action Comics #973 offers neither a beginning nor an ending to any ongoing storylines. The cover promises movement on the mystery of the new Clark Kent who popped up in Metropolis after the New 52’s Superman died in the run-up to Rebirth. (The current Superman is the old Superman, the pre-New 52 guy who survived Convergence—an ungainly status quo that nevertheless works on account of the creators having fully committed to the gimmick.) If you’re looking for an answer to the mystery of Clark Kent, you will find none—the mystery deepens, and the can is kicked down the road a bit.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Bringing Dan Jurgens back to the book as writer was initially seen as a retrograde decision designed solely to appeal to lapsed readers put off by “NuSupes.” It was that, yes, but it’s hard to fault the results. Embracing the serial format—setting up multiple threads and doling out answers and resolutions slowly over the course of many months—is a great way to keep people buying comics. Elsewhere in the issue, Steel shows up at the Fortress Of Solitude carrying an ailing Lana Lang. There’s an extended sequence with Lois Lane going undercover, comic relief from Steve Lombard, and a new/old villain looming in the background. Lex Luthor shows up for a couple panels.

Patrick Zircher and Stephen Segovia do a capable job, but neither the artist nor the writer are the main draw here: Superman has the best supporting cast in comics, and that is why the editorially driven direction works so well. We’re as invested in Lex, Lois, and John Henry Irons as Superman himself, and the stories need to reflect that. Even if the individual episodes don’t add up to much on their own, the result is a tight-knit family of titles that feel like the ongoing adventures of a tight-knit family of characters. That’s “back to basics” for the Man Of Steel. It’s a good look. [Tegan O’Neil]