In a 2015 interview with Comics Alternative, Joe Ollmann included among his clips "An examination of the oeuvre of the cartoonist Joe Ollmann by the artist's daughter." In a row of four tidy boxes that ape Ollman's favored nine-panel grid, a frowny stick figure announces: "I'm sad," "I'm jaded," "I have hate," and "Nothing is technically resolved."
In some ways it's a brutally accurate takedown — but largely because it carries the seed of humor and knack for observation that make Ollmann's best work so good. In particular, 2014's Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People offers glimpses into the mundanely surreal. And though his characters are often on the verge of despair, the verge isn't the abyss, and Ollmann makes use of the distinction. Even when they're hard to look at (and Ollmann's approach to character is almost anti-aesthetic), they're looking for a reason to hang on.
The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a different animal. This biography comes after ten years of research on William Seabrook, controversial travel writer, sexual sadist, alcoholic, and one-off cannibal who palled around with Aleister Crowley. In between reluctant magazine assignments and trying to ingratiate himself with the literary set, he wrote books about the Bedouin, Haitian "voodoo" practices, cannibals off the Ivory Coast – and himself, of course.
Ollmann has an appetite for characters who make their own hells, and in Seabrook's life he's found a banquet. At the center is Seabrook himself, drinking his way through three marriages to seemingly interchangeable women, a rocky career, and the occasional cannibalism scandal. But there's plenty of misery to go around. Ollman's tidy nine-panel grids — with occasional vistas of a new geography or a crumbling marriage — keep time for an expanding cast of long-suffering acquaintances, rendered with Gorey-esque equanimity and ruthlessly hangdog line work. (This is a boon to the bondage; Ollmann waits a shockingly long time before questioning the abusive aspects of Seabrook's compulsions, but they're at least pointedly unsexy. It's much less of a boon to the depictions of Africans, which feel like an unsuccessful attempt to interrogate Seabrook's own biased impressions but instead skirt awfully close to caricature.)
But Seabrook himself is this book's biggest hurdle. Ollmann's argument, laid out in his introduction, is that Seabrook is interesting enough to be worth knowing more about. Seabrook's actual life seems determined to refute it. (Things like the abusive telegrams Seabrook sent his estranged wife Marjorie are essentially cross-examination by the prosecution.) At times the book seems an empathy exercise accompanied by an unspoken "How about now?" asking us how far we're willing to extend our sympathies. When Seabrook has Man Ray make a collar for Marjorie so he can take her to dinner and watch her struggle to eat? When he eats human flesh in an attempt to ameliorate a lie he told in one of his books? When Ollmann expresses dismay that Seabrook's tense Africa visit was somehow different from his earlier attempts to adopt himself into other cultures?
The deftness of Ollmann's short work is dampened by the demands of biography and his subject. There are glimpses of visual humor — The Abominable Mr. Seabrook features perhaps the most self-loathing banana peeling ever committed to paper — but the more self-conscious flourishes grate. It's understandable that when handling a narrator as unreliable as Seabrook, Ollmann reaches for corroborating (or conflicting) evidence, but by the time we hit "The following is not meant to imply 'Heaven,' but merely a possible construct of the dying Seabrook's mind," any sense of wry aside is long gone.
The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is clearly a passion project for Ollmann; the depth of research is impressive, and there are evocative beats of loneliness or connection that remind us why the graphic novel can be such a powerful medium for conveying such small, human moments. The question is how much Seabrook you think you can stand. To take a book-length amount of interest in him requires, in essence, a case in favor of the subject. "Isn't this wild? Isn't this interesting?" Short answers: Yes, and no.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.