- Paperback: 316 pages
- Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (January 24, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781770462670
- ISBN-13: 978-1770462670
- ASIN: 1770462678
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 8.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #877,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Abominable Mr. Seabrook Paperback – January 24, 2017
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"Remarkable... carefully researched... a triumph of technical cartooning."―Los Angeles Review of Books
"In Ollmann’s sweaty, ink-stained mitts, Seabrook’s life becomes a cautionary tale, character study and novelistic American tragedy all at once."―Globe & Mail
"Ollmann skillfully captures Seabrook's ardent desire to experience life and write about it even as he's killing himself with drink...As both a narrative and a story in pictures, this is an early candidate for the year's best graphic biography." ―Publishers Weekly starred review
"[Ollmann is] a world leader in the school of social-realist cartoonist/writers, and his epic new graphic-novel biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is his most ambitious and fully realized work yet." ―The Montreal Gazette
"Ollmann packs in as many excursions, marriages, benders, and kinky dalliances as he can. It's a compelling look at an interesting literary figure who is mostly forgotten today." ―Mental Floss
"An unflinching look at Seabrook, his literary accomplishments and failures, his terrible self-destructiveness, and the awful spiral that took him from the heights of American letters to an ignominious suicide after his discharge from a psychiatric facility." ―Boing Boing
About the Author
Joe Ollmann lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife and child. He is the winner of the Doug Wright Award for best cartooning for his book Mid-Life.
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Today Seabrook's books are obscure, and some are out of print. Seabrook's own story is hard to piece together. He wrote a fascinating autobiography (No Hiding Place) shortly before he died, but he seems to have sanitized some elements to make it more palatable. Joe Ollmann has here collected the various conflicting stories and built a coherent, and presumably true-to-life, narrative in graphic novel format. It's a story worth telling, and nobody else has done it; at least not in an accessible form.
My gripe is that I find Ollmann's book on the flat side. I've read Seabrook's autobiography and found it personal and passionate, even if he did fudge some details; Ollmann's rendition strikes me as factual but without passion. I'm guessing that, as Ollmann proceeded with this project (which he says went on over ten years!), he found himself liking Seabrook less. This wouldn't be surprising; Seabrook was fascinating from a distance but did some nasty stuff up close. And he crossed taboo lines both of his era and ours, most obviously being sexual sadism. Ollmann makes a point of illustrating Seabrook's sexual misadventures straightforwardly (they were too big a part of Seabrook's life to omit) but intentionally devoid of any eroticism, and I think this was a stylistic mistake. I understand that Ollmann didn't want to produce a smutty sex book that glorified degrading stuff, but to render Seabrook's efforts mundane makes the book itself mundane. In life, Seabrook was compulsively drawn to chase his passions wherever they led, and the heartfelt appeal of his quests just doesn't come through here. Maybe I'm not being fair to Ollmann; maybe the telling just wasn't on my wavelength, and others will be touched as I was not. I hope that's the case because I'm glad the book was written, and I hope it reaches a lot of people.
Seabrook, a well-educated student of philosophy, was a veteran of the Great War. He was gassed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 while in the American Ambulance Field Service of the French Army, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. His first published work, Diary of Section VII, privately printed in 1917, is a memoir of those war experiences. That same year, Seabrook joined the staff as a reporter at the New York Times but soon after transitioned to travel writing, publishing articles in a various popular magazines, including Reader’s Digest and Vanity Fair. In 1924, his travels took him to Arabia where Seabrook, with whose own parents and brother he was long estranged, was welcomed as family by a Bedouin tribe and the Kurdish Yazidi. Seabrook published his account in his first professionally released book, Adventures in Arabia (1927).
On the strength of this initial effort, Seabrook traveled to Haiti, where he became immersed in the Cult of Death and "voodoo" culture, shockingly described in his equally successful The Magic Island. Encouraged by the positive reception to that book, and seeking to capitalize on its sensationalism, Seabrook undertook a well-funded journey to West Africa where he claims he met a cannibal tribe with whom he ritualistically ate human flesh, a trip described in Jungle Ways (1930). Seabrook later admitted that, while the tribe was cannibalistic, he was not allowed to join in the ritual; in the interest of verisimilitude, he instead later purchased human flesh (a neck) from a hospital which he then cooked and ate. Seabrook’s final, somewhat perfunctory exposé on ritualistic occultism, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1940), in which Seabrook dismissively proclaimed that none of his experiences were without rational scientific explanation, was not published until a decade later. In it, he includes an account of the week-long visit paid to his upstate New York farm by none other than Aleister Crowley, with whom Seabrook conducted a week-long experiment wherein their communication was limited to a single word: "Wow." Seabrook would later adopt similar verbal restrictions during his later ritualistic, sadomasochistic, parapsychological “research.”
According to Ollmann, Seabrook’s output during the 1930s, consisting of books on then-novel air travel (Air Adventure ), and a study of a defrocked monk in the French Sudan (The White Monk of Timbuctoo ), was relatively less impressive. Perhaps as a result of the tepid response to these efforts, Seabrook’s alcoholism worsened and, in late 1933, he committed himself to a mental institution just outside New York City, where he remained for six months. Asylum, his painfully honest memoir of this experience, was published a year later to great critical and commercial success. It should have marked a career revival, yet, aside from his last work, the cathartic exorcism of an autobiography, No Hiding Place (1942), Asylum remains a noteworthy outlier.
While Ollmann, unusually for a graphic biographer, provides insightful literary criticism and much biographical context for the creation of Seabrook’s work, obviously it is Seabrook’s life and not his writing that receives primary attention here, in particular Seabrook’s storied career as a sexual sadist. "The key to a locked man is his supreme want," Ollmann quotes Seabrook as saying and, indeed, Seabrook's supreme want involved women in chains, an obsession he traced back to an almost hallucinatory childhood memory of being led by his laudanum-addicted grandmother to an imaginary ruined castle in which he discovered a young woman chained to a throne.
Seabrook married three times, and because of his fetishism, his first two marriages were strained to the breaking point. Possibly sexually impotent, Seabrook’s appetite for bondage and sadism were pronounced and, if Ollmann’s depiction, based largely on the particularly intense memoir The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966), by second wife Marjorie Muir Worthington, is to be believed, quite epic. Seabrook hired young women, whom he bound and gagged, and he took to designing his own bondage gear; the artist Man Ray photographed him with one of his restraints around the neck of photographer Lee Miller. Seabrook married a final time, in 1942; they were divorced the same year. He committed suicide by drug overdose in 1945.
Ollmann in his foreword observes that it was his intention from the outset to allow as little editorial interference as possible, and yet, in his graphic rendering, avoiding such editorializing is perhaps unavoidable. Ollmann depicts Seabrook’s escapades – be it travel to foreign lands or engaging in S&M – in the same unattractive, scratchy, cartoony style, best described as a marriage between Edward Gorey and Eddie Campbell, which wonderfully underlines Seabrook’s tawdriness and desperation. Moreover, Ollmann’s rigid nine-panel per page visual structure (a layout from which he rarely deviates), seems a neat and necessary counterpoint to the messiness of Seabrook's life. After all, Seabrook is, on the surface, a detestable character, a difficult subject for any biography, and yet it is this very depravity and weakness of character that arguably prove to be Seabrook's most fascinating traits, in part because they form the underpinning for the overall tragedy of his life. Ollmann's unflinching, multi-faceted portrait is surprisingly sympathetic, convincingly arguing that, despite Seabrook's many (quite human) failings, he was not altogether unlikable or unredeemable. He was a sexual deviant and self-destructive, true, yet he was also an immensely talented writer and personally quite charming. He could churn out hack work yet also produce, whatever its veracity, disarmingly honest, insightful, and ultimately heartbreaking autobiography. As a result of his late stage alcoholism, Seabrook was unable to repeat earlier successes obscurity and obsolescence after failing to keep up with the changing literary tastes. His final downfall, Ollmann argues, was his basic failure, throughout his life, to recognize the possibility for renewal or redemption. In Ollmann, Seabrook has found that most enviable of posthumous advocates: the sincerely engaged, yet humane biographer.
The medium of graphic biographies has exploded in recent years; given their current ubiquity, it seems startling that just three decades ago there were only a handful of practitioners (Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman to name two) utilizing this promising format. Ollmann, who primarily writes fictional comics that read like autobiography, is a bit of a Johnny-come lately to graphic biography, yet with The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, he has produced one of the form’s more memorable recent entries, one that easily takes its place among the best the medium has to offer.
- Eric Hoffman, Fortean Times