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Review of Ed vs Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel

By Christopher M. Cox
Evenson, Brian. Ed vs Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When a Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, 2014.

In Ed vs. Yummy Fur, author Brian Evenson examines Chester Brown's cycle of Ed stories as they move across a range of formats, initially serialized in Yummy Fur from 1983 to 1994 (first as a mini-comic and then as a "floppy" comic book) and later reprinted in multiple iterations of bound book format, culminating in the 2012 release of Ed the Happy Clown. Only this 2012 version bears the "graphic novel" moniker (or, rather, the hyphenated "graphic-novel" as emblazoned on its cover), a distinction of considerable import to Evenson's examination of "what it means for floppy single-issue comics to have receded from prominence and for 'graphic novels' ... to have taken their place" (20). By focusing on the process through which Yummy Fur content is omitted and revised as it proceeds towards the 2012 graphic novel, Evenson hopes to uncover "a sense of the different impulses behind Yummy Fur and the consolidation of Ed the Happy Clownlater as a book, and through it to learn something about how to use choices, both large and small, to build significant effects " (99).

Evenson structures Ed vs. Yummy Fur into four chapters, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion, using the first two chapters to hone in on thematic threads as a means of thinking through the evolution of the Ed content before dedicating the last two chapters to discarded and modified material. This structure is mostly effective, as the first two chapters provide an orienting idea around which Brown's revisions can be contextualized, while the last two chapters reorient around questions of format to more specifically consider the implications of such revisions. Chapter One concludes with an unnecessary historical account of scatological themes in literary texts, padding an otherwise sufficient analysis, though the remaining chapters are tight and sharply focused.

Literary histories aside, in Chapter One, Evenson charts the sequencing of scatological Ed stories from Yummy Fur to Ed the Happy Clown, casting a particular eye towards the placement of these stories within each individual issue and the subsequent inclusion (or exclusion) from the graphic novel. Ultimately, he accounts for serialized comics as a venue for artistic improvisation as compared to the planned curation enabled by republishing as a graphic novel. As one example, "The Man Who Couldn't Stop" is originally published in Yummy Fur #4 as part of a sequence of stories seemingly uninvolved with the Ed cycle. This same story appears in Ed the Happy Clownas part of a collection of introductory stories culled from the first three issues of Yummy Fur, a selection that omits the stories immediately preceding and succeeding "The Man Who Couldn't Stop." Through the lifecycle of this story, Evenson identifies a dual impulse: the need for Brown to both leverage the spontaneity offered through serialized comic books and conceive of the story as a unit within a larger narrative. Brown knew the piece was related to the Ed cycle, but he didn't know exactly how it would relate. Even though it was ultimately incorporated into the Ed cycle, it was nonetheless intended as a stand-alone story at the time of its serial publication. What was initially conceived to exist outside the Ed Cycle is ultimately "used consciously by Brown ... to build up the Ed story" (27-28). Throughout Ed vs. Yummy Fur, Evenson returns to this notion of "building up" in order to think through how accumulation portends a series of effects, whether it be the accumulation of serialized content building towards a singular narrative and concomitant publishing format (i.e. the graphic novel) or units of comics formalism servicing a larger aesthetic.

This process of “building up” entails both addition and subtraction: content is added over time to what will ultimately be the definitive Ed the Happy Clown, which is dependent on the subtraction of previously published material to compose a tighter, more cohesive Ed narrative. Chapter Two, "Sacrilege," continues this theme by considering the juxtaposition of Ed stories to adaptations of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The Gospels were published alongside Ed stories in many issues of Yummy Fur and have never been reprinted, neither as part of the Ed cycle nor as collections unto themselves. Whereas Brown envisioned "The Man Who Couldn't Stop" as part of the Ed cycle despite no such direct narrative indications, the Gospel stories were conceived as discreet and unaffiliated; yet, Evenson suggests a thematic resonance that impacts the reading of Ed stories in Yummy Fur. When, for example, Brown creates new material specifically for Ed the Happy Clown, Evenson suggests this additive element is an attempt to compensate for the subtraction of the Gospels: "this gesture on Brown's part has a function not unlike what he achieved by juxtaposing the Gospels to Ed: it shifts the way we read, and does so in a way we don't expect" (59). Not only does "building up" therefore describe the process of accumulation and subtraction of Ed content, it likewise corresponds to the ways in which creative choices can differently mount (and toy with) reader expectations.

Chapter Three, "Lost Pages,” focuses on inclusions and omissions through a genealogy of Ed the Happy Clown as derived from the first 18 issues of Yummy Fur. After issue #18, Brown ceases publishing Ed-related content and the comic adopts a dual focus: autobiographical stories and adaptations of the Gospels of Mark and Luke. About one-third of the Ed material published up to issue #18 is ultimately omitted from Ed the Happy Clown, and the graphic novel omits more than half of the 436 Yummy Fur pages, including the Gospels. A bounty of examples follow, highlighting the discrepancy between pages published in the comic book and their subsequent exclusion from the graphic novel. Evenson takes up the problematic nature of the term "graphic novel" and assumptions regarding its constitutive elements in an extended footnote. Here, Evenson missteps slightly by problematizing not only the term itself, but its deployment throughout Ed vs. Yummy Fur. To claim, for instance, "graphic novels have a tighter directionality" (80) compared to comics albums is a bit too assured, especially given his own admonition that "the term graphic novel is a slippery one" (80) and more should be done to "define the term and make it mean something specific and critically useful" (81). Though the book's project is obviously not to endeavor to such a task, entering into this conversation and drawing such conclusions casts a certain shade of doubt on Evenson's usage of the term, particularly his aforementioned assumption that graphic novels have "taken the place" of single issues.

This footnote also enters into conversation with comics critic Douglas Wolk, who claims in his 2007 book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, that the Ed story remains unfinished and, therefore, no definitive version can be said to exist. Evenson, in a separate footnote, counters this claim. The split is largely along authorial intention. Evenson, whose interview with Brown shapes the discourse throughout Ed vs. Yummy Fur, takes Brown at his word that there is a definitive Ed story. Wolk, however, is less concerned with Brown's declared intentions. His challenge to definitiveness is aimed at the publication of 1992's The Definitive Ed Book, resisting the conclusive label on the grounds that the 1992 book is situated along a procession of seemingly unending revisionism, a procession expected to continue at the time of Reading Comics's publication in 2007. Wolk was obviously correct and places the impetus on actions rather than words; the act of continual revision belies Brown's verbalized claim of definitiveness. But what's especially intriguing about the footnoted exchange is the exclusion of the following content from Reading Comics:

"[T]he premise of Ed ... is that everything makes sense as a big picture eventually, but absolutely nothing can be relied on from moment to moment. The story is a scatological doodle built into a monument, brick by brick, but it's the kind of monument that can be abandoned only with its ragged walls reaching up towards a nonexistent roof." (150)

This statement immediately succeeds the portion excerpted in the footnote and is nearly in full concert with Evenson's theme of building up. Despite their divergence as to the existence of the metaphorical roof, both Evenson and Wolk clearly believe serialization enabled escalation towards a larger and more comprehensible Ed story, whether or not such escalation is teleologically driven. The footnote might seem a minor point, but it nonetheless enlarges the conversation by implicating authorial intent as a factor influencing (or influenced by) creative choices at the nexus of seriality and format.

To that end, minor differences in the transitions from comic to graphic novel are important to Evenson's analysis of the Ed cycle. He frequently speaks of Brown's artistic revisions as "small choices that can bring about the right or wrong amount of focus to bear on a story" (16) and, therefore, the changes stemming from such choices. The final chapter, "Loose Ends," documents a series of small changes from Yummy Fur to Ed the Happy Clown. Although Evenson's examples and supporting logic are sound, the formatting of Ed vs. Yummy Fur itself most explicitly reinforces the impact of small details on the overall reading experience. The table of contents and title page tell us that the title of Chapter Four is "Loose Ends." The heading of each page in this chapter, however, reads "Lose Ends." Chapter One is also mislabeled — the headers of its pages are labeled "Introduction." A formatting or typographical error is the most straightforward and perhaps likely explanation[1]. I nonetheless find it interesting to consider whether Evenson intended such erroneous headings in order to underscore his point about small changes. For that matter, "Lose Ends" could be read as a playful nod to elements that are lost, such as the "o" in the chapter heading and the Yummy Fur content omitted from Ed the Happy Clown. The effect is there, intentional or otherwise, and it lends certain energy to Evenson's analysis of small changes, as well as preceding commentaries on authorial intention and formatting.

Chapter Four provides finality to a running theme on Brown's relationship with the comics page in which the organizing capacities of a comics page are something of a creative afterthought. Early on, Evenson describes Brown's creative process as "concerned both with the panel as a unit of meaning and an entire scene as a unit of meaning, but the intermediate stage, the pages made up of panels that form that scene, is not something he considers while drawing" [emphasis in original] (15). When Evenson considers the formalistic execution of pages modified in the transition from Yummy Fur to Ed the Happy Clown, he does so with this logic in mind. The operational phrase seems to be "while drawing," as subsequent analyses demonstrate a careful consideration of how comics forms and aesthetics depend upon page breaks and turns. As explained in Chapter Two, a murder weapon made visible only after a page break imbues a certain power on the murder of a central character, a break present in Yummy Fur and preserved in Ed the Happy Clown. Although Brown does not consider the page while drawing, Evenson draws on this and other examples to wisely suggest that Brown later contemplates the arrangement of panels in conjunction with the organizing logic of a page. These discourses around the page as a unit of comics aesthetics are insightful gems nested throughout Ed vs. Yummy Fur and, in the book's waning moments, Evenson once again utilizes his “building up” theme, this time to converge underlying logics of aesthetics with that of format and seriality:

[W]e use parts of a panel, both verbal and visual, to build up a panel. Then we use a panel to build up a page. Simultaneously, we use a series of panels...to build up scene. Then a series of scenes to build a story. Then a series of pages perhaps simultaneously running stories to build an issue. Then a series of issues to build a larger narrative. (94)

In these moments, we understand Evenson's interest not only in conceiving of Brown's particular creative process, but also in aesthetic dynamics unique to comics form and function. One might even be tempted to suspect another book lies in wait, perhaps one that extrapolates the "building up" concept to more widely survey a range of comics aesthetics. For those left wanting, however, the supplemental material consisting of Evenson's interview with Brown (the responses are seeded throughout the book) and reproductions of Yummy Fur color plates provide appropriate and satisfying closure.

Despite some minor miscalculations, Ed vs. Yummy Fur demonstrates Evenson's high aptitude for critical comics analysis. His effective book is a welcome addition to comics studies and is highly recommended to scholars researching in the areas of seriality, materialism, and narratology. Moreover, it's a particularly singular work in its approach to the intersectionality of comics aesthetics, format, and publishing over an elongated period of time. At a time when works across the spectrum of comics genres are subject to revisionism and republication, comics studies would benefit from others endeavoring to similar methodological approaches.

Notes

[1] I consulted multiple copies of Ed vs. Yummy Fur and these headings were consistent across all copies.

Works Cited

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.

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