My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
David Heatley, writer/artist
Pantheon, September 2008
128 pages, hardcover
The prospect of reviewing these intensely autobiographical comics by David Heatley is a daunting one because there seems to be no way to do so without reviewing David Heatley. Oddly, I’ve never really felt that way about his work before when I’ve encountered it. I thought his surreal “Overpeck” serial in MOME was powerful–as good as his dream comics might have been had he not labeled them “dream comics” and thus neutered their disquieting illogic. I’m also on the record as a great admirer of his “Sex History” strip as it appeared in Kramers Ergot 5 (the 48-panel grids were a brilliant way to convey such an overwhelming amount of uncomfortable information), and a defender of the “Portrait of My Mom” and “Portrait of My Dad” strips that appeared in Ivan Brunetti’s second Anthology of Graphic Fiction (they displayed Heatley’s underappreciated sense of humor and comedic build-up within each sub-strip). In none of these cases did I feel like I was evaluating Heatley as a person.
But My Brain put me in that uncomfortable position, perhaps–almost certainly, in fact–because my reaction to it was so viscerally negative. There are plenty of comics I’ve read that left me thinking “that should have been done differently”; this is the first I’ve read in a long time that made me think “this shouldn’t have been done at all” (and wasn’t written by Jeph Loeb). The primary culprit? “Race History,” a black-and-white (no pun intended) companion piece to “Sex History,” detailing Heatley’s relationships, however slight, with various black people he’s known. I’m trying to think of how to put this…there’s probably a way to take this idea and not make it just as dehumanizing and racist as it seems it would be, just as dehumanizing and racist as the behavior and mentality one assumes it’s designed to expose and excoriate, but boy howdy did Heatley not find that way! There’s something almost literally nauseating in this interminable onslaught of alternating bigotry and white liberal guilt. The point where my disgust for the strip became insurmountable was a scene where young David is sleeping over at a friend’s house, and the kid’s mother helps take care of David’s stomachache. “Try laying on yo belly. It should settle yo stomach down,” she says, in dialect reminiscent of late-’70s Marvel Comics street toughs, before David thinks “I forgot she’s a doctor.” And blam! It struck me how disgraceful it is to take this human being, who has a family, who worked the crazy hours and racked up the crazy student loans and god knows what else that all doctors do, reduced to a “blackcent”-spouting cameo in some guy’s ungodly long (seriously, at one point I closed the book and saw how many more black-trimmed pages of the strip I had left and my draw literally dropped) narcissistic display of how he’s spent his entire life looking at black people as being black before people.
I think the grossest thing about the strip, the part that prevents me from saying “well, he’s just cataloguing his own faults, he’s aware of how awful this is” is that even when his relationships with black people are healthy, mutually enjoyable ones, Heatley still seems to view them as trophies to prove his enlightenment. Every positive interaction with a stranger, every move to a black neighborhood that goes well, every friendship, every professor who helped him–it’s all the same as when he joined the Free Mumia movement, or the truly insufferable album (and sometimes movie/tv) reviews peppered throughout the strip where he proves how able he is to appreciate African-American culture. His review of the series The Wire has got to be the ne plus ultra of the genre:
One of the greatest works of art I’ve experienced in any medium. It unfolds with the kind of masterful pacing, sense of truth, reality, and tragic inevitability usually found in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. It’s certainly the only TV show to alter my race conscious. I notice certain young black men who would have been invisible to me before, hidden behind the screen of my own ignorance and fear. I’d like to think I know something of their stories now. Awareness and compassion by themselves don’t change the world, but they’re a start. Speaking of which, did you know it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, too?
This right next to a strip where he reacts to some jerky lady on the subway smacking him with her purse by coming home and beating a chair with his umbrella while shouting “YOU FUCKING NIGGER BITCH!” This incident just happened, too!
What I’m trying to say is that Heatley has loads more work to do on himself before he’s able to tackle this subject with anything remotely approaching insight or a worthwhile perspective. By contrast, when the original “Sex History” strip ends, you think to yourself, “Well, he’s aware that he’s behaved pretty ridiculously, and he’s trying much harder to be better about it.” Meanwhile, it’s not a “Woman History” strip where every female human he’s ever met is reduced to their primary and secondary sex characteristics, but a strip about his sex life–that’s a naturally proscriptive framework that I don’t think says anything untoward about how he views the people with whom he was sexually involved, male or female. You might have specific problems with how the focus is almost always on his pleasure rather than theirs, but that aside, the way he depicts sex–a combination of embarrassment, fun, awkwardness, beauty, predation, squalor, pleasure, depression, eroticism–maps pretty neatly to the way I imagine most of us have experienced it over the course of our lives. But “Race History”…I’m sorry, but if the word “nigger” occurs to you in anger, maybe it’s not your place to talk about which members of the Wu-Tang Clan had the best solo records?
This sort of retrospective inability to see that personal flaws require more than mere acknowledgment to be overcome gradually starts to bleed out into the other strips I once reacted more favorably to. The version of “Sex History” that appears here has been famously self-censored, placing neon pink bars across any images of penetration or ejaculation, and most erect penises in general. (It’s sort of like Greedo shooting first, only here, no one shoots at all.) A one-page epilogue added to the strip seems to reveal the rationale: Heatley has decided that his use of pornography qualifies as sex addiction, and through the help of a 12-step program he no longer uses porn or masturbates. Presumably, he’s neutering the strip to bring it in line with his newfound enlightenment. Now, this defeats the purpose of the strip, which is to be “apocalyptically revealing” as I once put it, and it’s sexist and hypocritical in an MPAA way, since you still see plenty of bush and titties. But worst of all, the 12-step higher-power imagery that pops up here and elsewhere–in the “Self-Portrait” strips that decorate the covers, the end of “Race History,” and the birth of Heatley’s second child in “Family History”–lends the whole affair a scent of sanctimony. Heatley has opened his life to God, God is literally cradling him in the palm of his hand, and however racist and sexually messed-up he may be, everything’s okay. But everything’s not okay! The first step is admitting you have a problem, but that’s only the first step! I know, I know, you can argue that Heatley is aware of all of this, that every moment of oblivious self-contradiction or narcissism or bigotry is committed to paper with full knowledge of exactly what it means. That’s fine, that’s fair, that’s probably actually true. That’s good enough for David Heatley the person, but it’s not good enough for David Heatley the artist. I need more.