Cage Match #3: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (2008)


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues on which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Frank puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, I will respond (though it’s likely that this particular match will proceed a bit more leisurely than past conflicts). We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this book yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

FRANK: I’m too lazy to write a full review of David Heatley‘s “new” book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, so we’re gonna have a Cage Match. I should take a scalpel to it and slice it up precisely, turn it inside out. I could easily show how there is really nothing there, that once the “shock” of his work wears off, the lines, the forms, the cartooning is all clearly sub-par.

But Heatley’s new book just makes me angry. And I think that’s what he wants. He wants to provoke reactions like mine so that he can “work out” his insecurities, his racism and his issues with women on the page. And be forgiven.

I’ve been waiting to see this cartoonist take the next step and I think his new book is incredibly disappointing.

Since Heatley keeps re-printing the same material over and over again, should I consider this the Heatley I’ve been hoping will emerge? I mean, I liked the sexual history story when it first came out. Five years ago. It was funny. But I feel like I’ve seen it in at least three different collections since then. And now it’s in his hideously ugly new book, replete with self-censorship and no explanation as to why. (He famously placed pink bars over all the genitalia for this new version and added an epilogue of sorts—more on that later)

The book is broken up into sections that are labeled as parts of Heatley’s brain. The “Race” section starts off with a dream comic of David fucking a Black woman from behind and her asking, “Did you stick it in yet?” O the humanity!

“Sambo” is up next, a dream comic about protecting himself and family from “Sambo.” (The last image is of David hitting “Sambo” over the head with a bat.)

A dream comic about the “Projects.”

Then “Black History” begins. The bulk of the new material in this book.

Y’know, it’s not like he grows as a cartoonist. This big new story about “every Black person he’s ever known” looks and reads exactly like 2003-4 Heatley. There’s little measurable growth. (Insert dick joke here.)

And as someone who’s godfather was Black, I gotta say, you’re a fucking asshole for even doing this story, Heatley. My godfather used to say, “I love it when someone says they got lots of ‘Black friends’ like they gotta say ‘Black’ just to impress me. If they your friends, why you gotta say ‘Black’? You think that same person says, ‘I got a lot of White friends’?”

And that’s sort of what Heatley does by inserting “Shout Outs” to his homies within the narrative itself. There are larger panels within the dense page design of the story that include a drawing of a figure, of a real Black person like his childhood friend Winton, with dedications like, “Dude, you were the coolest, stoney-eyed artist around!” To me, these come off as really demeaning.

There are also large sidebars and whole pages of handwritten text that are “Record Reviews” of Black music that David loves. It’s the “voice” Heatley uses to describe getting, say, a Jungle Brothers tape that makes me just shake my head. All that “Yo wassup” white-boy lingo that he spits? Give me a fucking break. Just read it, look at in the store. I don’t have the patience to describe it.

I think it’s the pairing of the two things—the narrative, the comic, these fragments of memory with the “Record Reviews/Shout Out” music-zine stuff—that really puts me off. It’s as though he’s trying so hard to prove that he really loves Black people by listing the music and art made by Black people that he enjoys—just as he lists the trespasses and aggression he feels from Black people or towards Black people. It doesn’t ring true. For me.

(Bell: end of round one)

DAN: OK, I guess I will jump in. I think what riles people up about this book is precisely the public/personal nature of it: That is, it’s a book explicitly about coming to grips with some notion of morality or a way of accepting one’s own behavior. Unlike the demonstrative fantasies of Crumb or meandering auto-bio of Joe Matt, this is direct, speaking to the reader kinda stuff. It’s specifically drawn as, in a sense, therapy. That such a process becomes so public is what, I think, some people find alternately compelling or repulsive about it. I am, of late, on the compelling side, but that is less the “critic” in me talking and more the human being — that is, I suppose, in terms of the “journey” being undertaken: I relate; I empathize. One question worth asking is: How does one judge such a work: Is it reasonable for David to expect moral outrage like Frank’s? Does such a story, and the obvious implications for one’s moral well-being, elicit a like-minded response, as it did from Frank? Is that fair? I mean, David isn’t offering a prescription for how to live — just describing his own journey. But it’s the tone and content, I guess, that Frank is reacting against. Just some stray thoughts here. Tim?

TIM: Wow. Okay, that’s a lot to chew on. This particular Cage Match might take a while, though I have a feeling neither one of us is going to emerge a clear winner, at least not in the sense of convincing the other to change his mind.

Anyway, first of all: I like David’s comics a lot more than you do, Frank. They aren’t flawless by any means, and I have extremely mixed feelings about many of his artistic choices, but they do provoke extraordinarily rich reactions and thoughts. Basically, I can imagine a really full discussion of his work lasting up to a week without exhausting a lot of what’s going on, and that’s something I couldn’t say for very many contemporary young(ish) cartoonists.

But maybe it’s best for now just to respond to the points you raise. First, you’re right: this is the umpteenth appearance of the “Sex History” story, which has been re-packaged a dozen times. Except for a one-page coda to this story, the epic new “Black History”, “Kin” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve seen this before), and I believe at least part of the portrait of his mother, nearly all of the contents of this book have appeared in previous David Heatley projects. This doesn’t bother me much personally—I like how this all reads when put together. Many of these pieces, which seem too open-ended and inconclusive on their own, gain power and cogency through their juxtaposition. I think, at least.

Second: I’m not a fan of the pink censor bars David has added to his “Sex History” strip, either. And I don’t find the explanation he provided in his Time Out New York interview to be very convincing: “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind. It’s really about longing and bad sex and lack of connection.” Mostly because, uh, while David has a pretty cute drawing style, I don’t think they’re particularly erotic as images. If readers were getting “boners”, it probably had more to do with the mental images and memories provoked by the narrative itself than with crudely drawn genitals. I also think that the censor bars make the story feel less honest, less sincere: two of the story’s greatest apparent strengths, previously.

And the coda he’s added! It’s simply bizarre, and a huge disappointment, reading almost like a repudiation of the entire point of the story that precedes it. For those who haven’t picked up the book yet, in the last page, David comes to believe that he spends far too much time masturbating to pornography, to the point where he believes he is a sex addict and enters treatment for it. This really calls into question the original story’s veracity and clashes hugely with its tone, because there’s really just no hint that this has been such a serious issue for him, and coming out of the blue as it does in a single page at the end raises a huge number of questions. I really don’t know what to make of it, but if this topic was something he wanted to explore in his comics, I think it should have been treated at greater length, or at least in a comic more clearly separate from the original.

I don’t want to go on forever, so I’ll tackle your “Black History” argument briefly, and then turn it back over to you. Basically, I don’t think your characterization of it is very fair at all. He doesn’t present himself just as having a lot of black friends, but also includes many interactions with black people who dislike him, or whom he dislikes. And even the vast bulk of his black friendships seem to either peter out or end in anger. He’s obviously playing with inflammatory material here, but it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be self-congratulatory in that particular way.

As far as the record reviews go, I think you have much more of a solid point. Their tone really feels odd next to the comparatively heavy stuff going on in the larger story, and the “critiques” in them are so shallow and clichéd that they don’t seem to really add anything to the story, either. If the effect of black culture on David’s feelings about race were to be included, he really should have gone into it more, I think. As it is, the only value they add is the presumably unintentional one of revealing the shallowness of his actual thinking about race relations, and specifically his [unacknowledged] white privilege. One of the most unusual qualities of David’s stories is their very conspicuous lack of analysis, of summing up. The record reviews are an atypical aberration in that regard, and I don’t think they add enough context to be worth sacrificing one of David’s strongest and most compelling effects.

And Dan, I wrote this before seeing your post, but I basically think I agree with you, or at least think that it’s a fruitful way to start thinking about his work.

TIM: Don’t neglect the comments section on this one, by the way. Lots of good stuff down there.

TIM: Okay. I guess while we’re waiting for Frank to respond, and now that I’ve taken more time to actually digest Dan’s post and some of the comments, I’ll take another quick turn at bat. As far as whether or not David creates his art as therapy, I guess I’m not really interested. I’ve never really bought the idea of art as therapy, but I don’t really care if David uses it that way as long as the story on the page works for me. (I also think that the therapy bit is probably more of an interview shtick than the actual truth, but there’s no way to know that for sure.) As Dash Shaw says in the comments, “If this book really is play therapy, as Heatley says and as it would suggest, it is beyond criticism and (really) a not-for-print book that happened to find publication, which is an extremely romantic/ideal situation.” But obviously it is meant for print, and obviously David does care how readers respond to it, because otherwise: why the new pink censor bars boner-blockers?

TIM: Also, just to add fuel to the fire, I thought I’d highlight a few possibly relevant quotes from the interview with David in Comics Comics 3.

DAVID HEATLEY: I’m a big believer in psychology and therapy and all that stuff. I don’t feel that what I’m making is art therapy—it’s not that kind of thing—but it’s related to self-discovery and trying to be a better person, and it’s definitely an extension of the rest of your life, too. And most of my time is spent trying to be better in some way, and it’s an extension of that. I don’t think it changes me, but it’s a driving force to make new work.

Here’s another:

TIM HODLER: Do you ever do anything similar in your autobiographical work? I mean, try to make yourself look worse or better to make it more interesting to people? Or other people look worse or better? Or events?

DH: I don’t think I do. Let me put it this way. Chris Ware and I have been writing each other, and one time he said that I was one of the very few autobiographical cartoonists who doesn’t make himself into a character and I don’t know how you do that, but that’s true. I don’t make myself into a shticky Woody Allen/Joe Matt kind of character. I’m not—somehow there’s just a blankness to the “me” in those stories. I didn’t know I was striving for that, but I think I am striving for that. So I don’t think I’m trying to change myself one way or the other….

TH: It sounds like you’re more interested in the atmosphere or feeling of the story than you are in the plot or the characterization.

DH: Yeah. How would a person feel when confronted with this situation or that? How would this feel? [then, self-mockingly] I have feelings!

TIM: Frank gets back at four, so prepare for a late-afternoon explosion. In the meantime, to answer Alex Holden’s question in the comments: yes, I think the crudeness of David’s art is clearly deliberate. And I actually think it works really well with his stories. His drawings are child-like, which reinforces their primal, almost solipsistic tone; his stories read as if created by David’s “inner child”. (It may be a cliché, but it’s true all the same.) Of course, as in the case of the self-censorship mentioned above, this effect is sometimes blunted by David’s other formal choices.

FRANK: Round two: This is what I got. I read through Tim’s parts and Dan’s parts and the comments and I’ll add more soon.

Sigh. It just really makes me angry. Parts like where he says, “I can’t remember if my babysitter used the word ‘nigger’ but…” simply give him such an easy opportunity to “investigate” these “injustices”. He’s so full of bullshit righteousness. He always eventually shows himself doing the right thing, he’s always absolved.

And that’s okay, you know, because he’s an honest to god auto-bio cartoonist and it’s cool, y’know, for comics to be EDGY and REAL. So what that it underscores an incredible hostility and disrespect to others. “It’s like Crumb, man, c’mon…” I can hear some feeble defense of it all… What-fucking-ever is all I say.

And lastly, most clearly, he’s a hack of a cartoonist. Ever notice when he draws panels larger than an inch square you can truly see how shitty his line work is?

My God, look at the last story in the book. It is literally hacked out of the Bristol. It’s unbearable.

Whether his style is “intentional” or not, I don’t care. Sure there are deliberate choices. Those choices, to me, illustrate the limitations of his skill and vision. Line is line. Gary Panter’s line is strong, subtle; there are ebbs and flows. Same with R. Crumb and Mark Beyer (to use an example from the comments section)—there are discernible modulations of line that indicate a craftsman in control. I don’t get that with Heatley.

So what that he’s got the guts to show these sides of himself? There’s little craft, no narrative—just memory fragments arranged like a list. A brilliant strategy for a Truffaut movie but it doesn’t work in this comic. Or any of his comics, come to think of it. Dreams, lists of sexcapades, lists of people. Nothing adds up into a satisfying read. I’m sure to David it’s fascinating. But these anemic story arcs coupled with the Matt Feazell-like wizardry in the art department make for a profoundly disappointing “debut.”

TIM: The weird thing is, in a lot of ways I agree with you, Frank. There’s no question that David’s work so far is limited—to say the least—both in terms of craft and theme. I happen to think his drawing style works really well for those themes, but I hear you. I also agree with you (and disagree with Dan) about a lot of his storytelling. That “Black History” story in particular, as you point out, is far more meandering than anything Joe Matt has ever done, and ends kind of anti-climatically. As you imply, it’s just one thing after another. The “Kin” story, too, ends abruptly (and that’s one story where I agree that David’s drawings are simply not up-to-snuff). But…

But at the same time, I still find his work compelling, often despite myself. Somehow, as David put it in that CC3 interview, “content [leaks] in almost from the outside” despite the fact that he leaves out so much. All the little anecdotes (most of which are actually pretty mundane) trigger half-buried memories and emotions when I read them, evoke barely remembered events in my own life (usually quite different from David’s), and create a reading experience I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from any other auto-bio cartoonist, even those who I think are far superior in terms of craft and artistic ability, and whose work I probably value more highly in the end: Chester Brown, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, Crumb, etc. All the same, I can’t deny that Heatley’s work seems unique to me. (Though sometimes I wonder if the taboo nature of much of his material may make me overvalue them… I don’t know.)

And also, as I said before, I do think that somehow by putting all these stories together, as inconclusive and unsatisfying as they can be when set apart, they combine in context into something more nuanced and “whole”. The portraits of his mother and father in particular seem almost revelatory after reading the sex and race stories—suddenly a lot of weird, unexplained things in those stories spring into focus.

Finally, I really don’t think that Heatley always shows himself doing the right thing. Did you read the part where he was a camp counselor, urinating on a young child? Did you read the part where he freaked out and yelled at the medical workers in the maternity ward? There’s something there in your criticism, maybe, but it’s a lot more complicated than you’re admitting. I think, anyway. Over to you for now.

FRANK: (Round three—jab, jab, jab.) Look, I’m going on my “gut” reaction to his work. I don’t like it. And the more people try and “convince” me that his choices are artful and inventive, the more I feel indifferent to his work.

When Crumb creates a narrative of riding a woman’s shoe when he was a child and getting off on it, it’s a beautiful, repulsive, remarkable expression of lines and forms.

David’s typical choice: to use small, rhythmic panels that quickly build the scene like notes to one’s self–just do not satisfy me as a reader. There is little arc building and narrative give and take, or even a beginning and end. It’s like being told an anecdote.

These anecdotes, in the “Sex History” for example, can sometimes unite the narrative. But in “Black History”, the thread that binds it all is simply “race” and that just leaves me cold. There’s little cohesion. It’s a catalog. It’s not interesting to me. Not challenging.

“Black History” is a totally boring, list-like collection of stories, that begin and end abruptly. There’s no real narrative thread like in the “Sex History” story. That story “works” because the sexual act is the thread. That’s what connects the stories, the memories. The thread of “race” is not enough to sustain the narrative. And that might be fine for a two- or three-page comic with fifty panels per page, but for a comic of this density to go on and on and on is borderline torture for the reader.

I do agree with you that his work creates associations of long dormant memories, and that is different from “the Browns” (Chester and Jeffrey), but again, SO WHAT?

It’s totally boring. And right when I thought, “this is Black History story is totally boring”, David provides an “Interlude” where his Dad says the magic words, “Goddamn Nigger Bitch”, which will haunt David until the end of this insanely long and tedious story. (More on that later when we have the scanner. Wait ’til you see the end of “Black History”!)

TIM: Okay. Well like I just said, I agree with you on the “Black History” piece! At least on its general formlessness.

As far as “SO WHAT?”, I don’t know, I guess I do think that evoking an emotional response is a valid artistic goal. Do you really disagree? If so, you should say why! I’m interested.

Eric Reynolds weighs in with a pretty amazing comment, which everyone should read for themselves in full. But I wanted to respond to a few bits from it, because it brought up a few things I eventually wanted to get around to talking about, anyway.

First: “I liked “Sexual History” when I first read it. At the very least, it indulged my voyeuristic tendencies enough to enjoy the ride. But I also wondered if I was enjoying it in spite of David, because my armchair psychologizing/reading often seemed at odds with the author’s own conclusions (or my own interpretation of them, anyway).”

That really rings true for me, because I think that on the few times David includes his conclusions (such as the new ending to the sex story, the record reviews and shout-outs in “Black History”, etc.), they almost always seem to be at least somewhat wrong-headed, and to undercut, or to be undercut by, the story itself. For me, that kind of paradoxically adds to the whole experience, though yeah, it’s kind of a similar fascination to that which I sometimes get from reading Dave Sim (not that I’m accusing David of being Sim!) or even from the Dick Ayers autobiography. There are more layers to the comics than the cartoonist seems to realize or understand.

Second: “One thing I tend to agree with Frank about is that although I consider myself pretty thick-skinned when it comes to political incorrectness, I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself.”

[UPDATE: Eric modified his thoughts on this a bit later.]

Here I want to be really clear that I agree that the story is at the very least kind of questionable in terms of its approach to race. When I disagreed with Frank over this story, I was disagreeing with how Frank characterized the way Heatley presents himself in the story. I think he intentionally implicates himself several times. That being said, the more I think about the story, the more I wonder if the whole conception of it wasn’t flawed, as Eric suggests. The approach that successfully worked with sex doesn’t seem nuanced enough to deal with a topic this complicated.

I get the feeling that Heatley must’ve realized this himself, at least subconsciously, which may be why he included the really weird record reviews and shout-outs (to which, too, yeah, I agree with Frank: they come off as condescending). The weirdest of all may be his review of the TV show The Wire on the last page (I don’t know if this is what you’re referring to, Frank), where Heatley writes, “It’s certainly the only TV show to alter my race consciousness. 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. … Did you know it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, too?” Now The Wire is a great show, don’t get me wrong, but this bone-headed, totally self-unaware statement, coming after some dozens of pages of pretty intense racial encounters, is a real WTF moment.

FRANK: Round four. Rope-a-dope.

The “SO WHAT” factor is large for me. It’s too easy. I’ve seen so many students, amateurs, AND professionals use “provocation” as an artistic stance. These creators are calculating (to a degree) what the readers’ emotional response will be, and I feel manipulated by the creator’s choices. I don’t like having my buttons pushed in art just for the sake of it. Generally, I think this masks the artist’s shortcomings.

From the comments section: “Is the motivation to make a good comic, or is it just picking a taboo subject so people talk about and buy the book?”

Dreams, sex stories, “Darkies”, and Dad. Heatley’s subject matter in a nut-sack, er, shell. Nut-shell.

(I have to make one last comment about the “Black History” story. It’s when the “Mumia Abu-Jamal” section starts (he went to some rallies). There’s a largish panel at the bottom of the page where the Mumia rallies begin that is like a record review. It begins, “Mumia, blah, blah, blah, I read his book, blah, blah”, and concludes with, “My wife and I joined his movement in mid-summer 1995.” Bully for you, David. Thanks for sharing.)

And then there’s David and Women.

It is interesting that the first depiction of a woman in the book is being punched in the face by David. And the first story in the “race” section contains the scene described above where David is fucking a Black woman from behind. Curious. What IS his intention in these stories? Wait. Forget it. I DON’T CARE!!

TIM: Okaay. And I don’t really have the energy right now, so I’m probably done for tonight, and won’t respond with final thoughts until tomorrow. Anyway, feel free to keep arguing in the comments ’til then.

TIM: All right. I’ve gotten some sleep, and maybe a little second wind. Though I have to say, I think my initial prediction about neither of us convincing the other seems like it’s going to come true. Basically, I don’t know where we can go from here, really, seeing as you “don’t care” what Heatley’s intentions are. That’s kind of a brick wall in terms of discussion.

But, a few quick final(?) thoughts:

First, I don’t think the charge that Heatley is manipulating his audience really rings true to me. He certainly does provoke emotional responses, but he also, I think, engages the reader’s intellect as well. To bring up the Dave Sim comparison again: Sim’s a guy who tries to manipulate his readers, by using various rhetorical tricks, and jerry-rigging his evidence and arguments. Heatley generally does the opposite; he usually presents events without analysis or comment, leaving it up to the reader to make sense of them. (In the few occasions where he does provide analysis, such as the new final page of the sex story, or in the “record reviews” of his race story, I think they weaken his work, as mentioned earlier. But those are relatively rare occasions.)

Second, I don’t think there’s any way to be sure about Heatley’s motivations in tackling these taboo subjects. Are they exploitative, or courageous? Or both? I don’t know, and while I understand why people would suspect bad faith on Heatley’s part, I don’t think I ultimately agree. Despite what you have said, he simply does portray himself in an often unflattering light. I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the “truth” as well as he can, at least most of the time. And I don’t think it makes sense to say first that he tries to make himself always look good, and then once you admit that he doesn’t, say that it doesn’t matter. Either it matters, or it doesn’t!

Third, and I realize this is only my opinion, and can’t really be argued, but despite the many failings I think can be attributed to “Black History”, I really didn’t find it boring. Exhausting? Sure. (Kind of like this Cage Match, maybe.) But not boring. And I think that the fact that you read the story, which is quite long, under less than ideal conditions—standing in a bookstore (please correct me if I am mistaken—rather than in a comfortable chair, at leisure, with time to digest the content, might have made it more difficult to engage with the story I get the impression from reading your comments that you haven’t really fully engaged with Heatley’s story, or given it the time and thought it deserves to be fair to it. I think that whatever Heatley may get wrong, his stories more or less demand strong engagement if the reader is going to do them justice. He doesn’t spoon feed you; you have to decide for yourself. (And yes, I acknowledge that Heatley’s choice of subject matter is going to cause a lot of people not to want to engage just on principle. But I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction isn’t a very fair or fruitful way to think about his work.)

Fourth, I want to second Eric’s opinion in the comments about David’s design sense, which I think is indeed strong. I also think that we haven’t acknowledged just how good David is at isolating evocative, resonant, telling moments, which greatly enhances his storytelling.

Finally, I think Heatley’s weaknesses and virtues as an artist are tightly interwoven. You have to work out for yourself whether it’s worth the effort to read him. For myself, I have to say that for all my problems with his work, I find it unique, memorable, and occasionally powerful. I’m glad I’ve read him; his stories, warts and all, have expanded my concept of what comics can do.

Over to you.

TIM: Oh, and this isn’t really a good place to put it, but I did want to highlight part of a comment from Tom Spurgeon that I thought was particularly smart, and made a point I hadn’t considered, but which seems obvious in retrospect:

“The thing I don’t like about the pink bars in the sex story is that it changes the context by which he refused to treat his wife the same way as the rest of the people in the book, which I thought was hilarious and somehow meaningful in ways other than the obvious ways.”

Okay, I’m done.

FRANK: Round five (circle, keep feet moving.)

All strong arguments, Tim.

I agree that Heatley’s work is complicated. And that my “knee-jerk” reaction (“I don’t like it, it’s boring.”—I still say it’s boring, no matter how many wacky things happen in the story) is not a sufficient counter-argument, but what else can I say? Even when I totally love something, I often don’t have that much to say about it. Formally, it’s interesting, but not overly so. Deadening and repetitive is a more apt description. If I were to dissect it page by page, I’m sure I’d find some surprises, but it just leaves me cold. I look at stuff like Fun Home and think the same thing: “It’s good, but it doesn’t do anything for me.” Totally different styles, approaches, goals, but still in the “I don’t care” category. When someone says they think Brian Chippendale is boring, and that they don’t like it, what am I supposed to say to them? I say, “OK, that’s cool.” I don’t try and convince people that they need to investigate that further. That’s what the TCJ message board is for. I don’t do that. And while the point of this Cage Match may be to convince each other of the work’s merits or its failings, I just don’t have much else to say.

And if I talk about why it makes me angry, or that I think Heatley is a self-centered careerist, then it just sounds like sour grapes.

When I learned that the original sub-title for “Black History” was “To All My Niggas”, it made me angry. Do I have to qualify that feeling I had/have? Why? Why is the onus on me, the reader?

You write, “I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the ‘truth’ as well as he can, at least most of the time.” Funny how his “White privilege” is never really discussed. He doesn’t pull back like in the record reviews and provide a context for his actions/thoughts. He’ll show his Dad using racial slurs, but not much else in the way of “background” or a lucid self-analysis, except within the spare narrative. There are plenty of occasions where he shows himself “looking bad”, but I think that’s just part of the endless list of anecdotes. I don’t feel that it balances out the “looking good”. It’s a self-serving narrative device.

To me, he “gets away” with a lot because the work is sort of beyond reproach because it’s auto-biographical. In a work of fiction, there would be an artifice that would act as a filter. Here the rawness is unsettling. That’s its strength, but it’s also a crutch. He’s always free to expose, expose, expose. He’s “beyond criticism” as someone wrote in the comments section. It’s extremely difficult to pin down why it pisses me off, but it does. He’s a good person in his comics, he’s a bad person. So what. We all are in real life. Heatley “investigates” this. So what. Is it good art? To some, sure. To me, it sucks, I don’t like it. I have problems with it. Obviously.

And lastly: I wonder what his rock star buddy Tunde from TV on the Radio has to say about his “Shout-Out” in the book?

TIM: I wonder about that, too. It would be interesting to know; maybe he likes it? In any case, it looks like we’ve reached an impasse here. You’ve raised some good points, even if I ultimately mostly disagree with you. But I don’t want to keep rehearsing the same arguments, and it may be that we are (finally) coming to a kind of natural close here for the Cage Match. Dan wants to weigh in one more time, but probably won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow, due to the New York Art Book Fair. Until then, everyone should feel free to keep arguing in the comments.

TIM: Dan? Are you out there?

DAN: Well, for now, I’ll bow out. Seems like all has been said that could be said. I would like to weigh in again at some point, mostly in defense of the book as a book, and my own feeling that it’s largely successful on its own terms. I suppose I come down with Tim on most things, but frankly I am also too burnt out on this ongoing book fair and other pressing work to be able to post anything nearly as thoughtful or cogent as what Tim has done, not to mention many others. I think this has been by and large a really fascinating discussion. Thanks.

TIM: That’s it, folks. Thanks, and good night.

UPDATE: David Heatley responds.

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126 Responses to “Cage Match #3: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (2008)”
  1. Alex Holden says:

    I hope you get around to discussing the form as well.
    The (to some, inflammatory) content is pretty easy to get caught up in.

    I often see Heatley’s artwork described as “deceptively crude”. Do you agree with this? I think a better term might be “deliberately crude”. At least in the sex story. I’ve only flipped through the rest of the book at the store.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    I think the form is hugely important — David is certainly very formally conscious, right down to which style he uses for which purpose. I think Frank has thoughts on that as well.

  3. Tom Spurgeon says:


    Do you really think it’s a comic about coming to terms with these things? Or is it a comic that allows Heatley to come to terms with these things? And if it’s the latter, doesn’t his open ambition kind of change one’s perspective on the nature of that coming to terms?

  4. T Hodler says:

    Hey Tom –

    I can’t speak for Dan, obviously, but I think you raise a really good point there. For me personally, that tendency does raise a lot of mixed feelings, but basically I think it is beside the point as long as the story itself works. Dalí was a self-promotional dick, but if you like his paintings, you like them anyway. If not, you probably dislike them for the paintings themselves, not his personality. I hope I’m not eliding your argument… I’m not trying to.

  5. Inkstuds says:

    I do also have issues with the Pink Bars. Ultimately, it is David’s story and he can do what he pleases, but it really takes away from the stories flow and you are distracted by what looks like little post it notes on the page.

    This form of revisionism reminds me of Joey Chips and silly daddy, where he went back and changed stories because they did not fit in with who he was present day(born again).

  6. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Tim, I don’t know David, and I don’t care about his personality. He could be the best guy in the whole world. He could be a puppy-kicker.

    I’m just surprised to see Dan cite those comics as representing his coming to terms with certain things, because I don’t see that within the stories. If Dan does, I’d like to know where and how.

    If it’s not within the stories, then I’d suggest Dan is projecting onto the stories that use for them because that’s a common way people use art. However, then we have to take into consideration David’s own statements about the value of his art — at least as competing values — and one of those values seems to be becoming successful at it.

    In other words, I’m happy to give weight to a text-only way of looking at this issue. Now where the fuck is it?

  7. Dash Shaw says:

    I think Heatley is a complicated and interesting artist.

    If this book really is play therapy, as Heatley says and as it would suggest, it is beyond criticism and (really) a not-for-print book that happened to find publication, which is an extremely romantic/ideal situation. The problem is that Heatley’s been tipping his hand too much recently (the bogus pink censor bars, the MoCCA lecture where he sounded, to me, like a careerist.) But, then again, isn’t honesty about tipping your hand? I guess I’d like it if sincerity/honesty as a form of seduction or manipulation was addressed directly in his work, because it ends up being what you have to debate. It’s a hard thing to talk about. But at least his work can spark a debate like this!

  8. Brad Mackay says:

    “…once the ‘shock’ of his work wears off, the lines, the forms, the cartooning is all clearly sub-par.”

    C’mon! That’s a pretty simplistic take on Heatley’s work Frank. It’s like what my Mom would say if i gave her a copy of one of David’s books!

    I sat in on a presentation he gave at TCAF in 2005 (i think?) where he walked the audience through his process, and I was both surprised and heartened with the degree of deliberation behind every line he puts on the page. If i remember correctly, he originally started making more polished comics but was concerned that they looked too polished – so switched to his current style. I like it – always have – and find it fits comfortably alongside the likes of Beyer and Panter (and thematically with Crumb et al.).

    It may look sub-par, but the storytelling is undeniably strong — i mean, who can forget how his Sex History story felt when you first read it? C’mon!

  9. T Hodler says:

    Tom: Ha! Touché. I’m going to eat lunch now and think about it.

    Also, great comment, Dash.

  10. Sean T. Collins says:

    I haven’t taken a look at my copy of the collection yet, though I was kind of gobsmacked to find out about the censoring of My Sex History. It seemed to me that the whole point of that strip was to be completely un-censored. It’s the sexual autobio equivalent of a real splatterfest like Dead Alive, where the constant, vulgar spectacle of it all takes a Louisville Slugger to your brain until it’s beaten into a new way of reacting to what you’re seeing. The over-the-top-ness is the point. Isn’t it?

  11. Heidi M. says:

    At a brief B&N panel I moderated on Monday, Heatley was very frank about being a narcissist and how that informs his work. I got the impression that the effect on the audience is a secondary motivation for him.

  12. Dan Nadel says:

    Tom, I think the stories are used to come to terms with things AND also about coming to terms with things. The latter is implicit in the act of creating such a thing, and the former I glean from interviews with him. As for how open ambition factors into all of it… I dunno. I need to puzzle that one out some more.

  13. Dan Nadel says:

    Dash gets it right: “I guess I’d like it if sincerity/honesty as a form of seduction or manipulation was addressed directly in his work, because it ends up being what you have to debate.”

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    “I like it – always have – and find it fits comfortably alongside the likes of Beyer and Panter (and thematically with Crumb et al.).”

    You said what? Next to Beyer? Next to Panter? And Crumb?

    go ahead, say that again. You can like it, I just want to hear someone say it again.

  15. Tom Devlin says:

    I would like to put forth a motion that Heatley should be referred to as “Pink Bars” from now on.

  16. Anonymous says:

    the thing with beyer, panter and heatley is they’re all so idiosyncratic. it takes it a bit beyond criticism, where if you insult the drawings, you’re insulting the drawer as well (which is apparently what frank is doing here).

    sorry to post anonymously.

  17. Frank Santoro says:

    wait, what am I doing?

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hey! That cover is a rip off of Dan Clowes!

  19. Brian says:

    The idea that a drawer is beyond criticism for being idiosyncratic is insane.

    The idea that David Heatley is an idiosyncratic drawer (or cartoonist) is likewise flawed. Beyer is an awful comparison. Mark Beyer is actually distinctive and alone in what he’s doing, even if Rory Hayes stands as a precedent. Heatley is not any more idiosyncratic than Jeffrey Brown, who is himself easily comparable to any number of college kids doing autobio minicomics. It’s just generic cartooning, no better than the doodles I do.

    There’s no sense of place, or emotion, or anything being conveyed by how Heatley draws. Beyer conveys a whole sense of dread out of weird perspective, layout, and obsessive markmaking. Heatley can draw himself with a boner over and over again to lay out his sexual history, which is completely different. I hate to say “I can do that” when looking at a piece of art but seriously there are any number of middle school students who can make lines into a drawing of a penis.

    And Gary Panter is just straight-up masterful.

  20. Patrick says:

    I kinda get whiplash going from Tim’s part of the dialogue to Frank’s, since Frank seems so viscerally repulsed/annoyed by the book. Early on, though, Frank says:

    “I’ve been waiting to see this cartoonist take the next step and I think his new book is incredibly disappointing.”

    …which makes me think that Frank must see (or have once seen) something promising in Heatley’s work. If so, what?

  21. Frank Santoro says:

    I saw something promising five years ago. it was fresh. but five years later, to me, it’s the same one-note song.

  22. Eric Reynolds says:

    What a fascinating debate. I was surprised by some of my own reactions to this book, especially considering that much of it wasn’t new to me. I would never have said anything about it on the net except I am inspired enough by this debate to join.

    Dash and Spurgeon articulate well for me how the inherent tension between Heatley’s work and his public persona elicits such polarized reactions. I tend to wrestle with the same impression that I think Dash has, that David’s self-promotional efforts tend to undercut the suggestion that the work functions as play therapy. I haven’t figured out how to reconcile that, or if I should even try.

    I’ve often liked David’s work in the past, particularly his fictional “Overpeck” in MOME, but I have very conflicted feelings about My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, particularly in what the juxtaposition of the sexual history and black history strips under one cover reveals about each other, as well as their creator. I liked “Sexual History” when I first read it. At the very least, it indulged my voyeuristic tendencies enough to enjoy the ride. But I also wondered if I was enjoying it in spite of David, because my armchair psychologizing/reading often seemed at odds with the author’s own conclusions (or my own interpretation of them, anyway).

    But the sexual history strip invites so many different readings now in this new context, with its new epilogue and other editing (including the bars) that it’s a fascinating subject for discussion.

    The whole book has an element of wanting to have things both ways. It wants to provoke, unless you’re someone David doesn’t want to provoke (such as old African American buddies or his wife). It wants to have a therapeutic affect on the author, but also indulge the author’s narcissism (in a purely clinical way, those two notions would seem mutually exlcusive to me). It wants to be completely “honest” but also seems to define “honesty” in a “just the facts, m’am” kind of way that doesn’t assign truth any real value beyond the purely objective.

    It all makes for a compelling read, let’s be clear; all of these conflicts within the work, and between earlier drafts and this one, add layers of potential readings that really makes this book an all you can eat buffet for critics (The hard part is going to be keeping Frank from gorging himself).

    One thing I tend to agree with Frank about is that although I consider myself pretty thick-skinned when it comes to political incorrectness, I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself. I find that idea much more uncomfortable than purely transgressive work from people like Johnny Ryan. If you’re a black person who once met David and he doesn’t remember it, do you exist?

    On a less critical level, I would also love to know what a psychoanalyst thinks it means that David was compelled to cover his representations of penises with pink censor bars but racial stereotypes like Sambo lips are unworthy of censoring.

    Anyway, in the spirit of David’s m.o. for letting it all hang out, I hope he can forgive me for posting this.

  23. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Dan, I disagree with you that sorting through an issue is implicit in making art about it. I’m not exactly sure why you give clarifying weight to certain statements. I’m also pretty sure I just made up the phrase “clarifying weight.”

    Eric: I like a lot of David Heatley’s work, but your comment at the end? It has never occurred to me Heatley is letting it all hang out, except maybe a page into that sex story but even that went away by the end. In fact, the thing I liked about the sex story is that it seemed to me to saying the notion of letting it all hang out was a lie.

    Not that it’s relevant to anything, but I think I liked Overpeck more than anything in Brain. I’m not sure I’d bet a million dollars I still would like the one over the other after reading them both again, but if the Nazis were to break in right this moment and say there were going to burn one or the other and I had to make a choice, I would totally not win an Oscar because it would be really easy.

    The thing I don’t like about the pink bars in the sex story is that it changes the context by which he refused to treat his wife the same way as the rest of the people in the book, which I thought was hilarious and somehow meaningful in ways other than the obvious ways.

    I can’t get over the sneaking suspicion that as much as I like a lot of his work, that sex story was the 30 Days of Night of alternative comics, in that everyone even vaguely working in or reading that type of comic went “what a fucking awesome idea” 10 to 1 over reacting to the comic.

    Tim, that is one goddamn long lunch.

  24. Eric Reynolds says:

    My comment about Heatley letting it all hang out referred more to something I read in an interview with him, where he talked about how important it was to just be as honest and inclusive as possible, to more or less let it all hang out. So I was more referring to what I think he’s trying to do than what I think he’s doing, per se. That said, I’m not sure I can buy that the idea of My Sexual History was to put to lie the idea of letting it all hang out, I would need to read it again with that in mind.

  25. Anonymous says:

    The “he’s racist” reaction is something i would have expected in the 90’s, but not today. Please acknowledge that our idea of “the other” is more complicated than we’d like to admit!

  26. Brian says:

    I think Frank is acknowledging the idea that racism is more complicated than Heatley would like to admit, and that this then sabotages his comics about such issues.

  27. Eric Reynolds says:

    I’m not saying “he’s racist”, of course it’s infinitely more complicated than that.

  28. T Hodler says:

    Eric –

    That is an amazing comment you just wrote.

    And Tom –

    Sorry. I tried to kind of respond in the actual text of the post (though I didn’t do so explicitly), but that probably wasn’t obvious enough. (And in retrospectt, I didn’t really respond to it at all anyway.) Basically, I misunderstood the point of your initial comment, and jumped right in arguing against a different point altogether.

    I still might be misunderstanding you,but just to be sure, let me take your points one by one:

    1. Do you really think it’s a comic about coming to terms with these things?

    I think the new last page of the sex story is about that, and I think it’s the worst page of the story.

    2. Or is it a comic that allows Heatley to come to terms with these things?

    This seems more plausible to me.

    3. Doesn’t his open ambition kind of change one’s perspective on the nature of that coming to terms?

    Yes, I think it does. But, and I could be wrong, I don’t think his open ambition is actually depicted in the comics very often, except for maybe on the cover comics where God’s holding him in his hand and such. But yes, I think it complicates how I look at his comics. It makes them kind of more fascinatingly self-contradictory, and more difficult to fully unpack.

    But I don’t have much more to say about it than that right now. I shouldn’t have jumped in on your question to Dan!

    Let me know if I need to take another lunch to think about this some more…

  29. Alex Holden says:

    What I got out of Tom’s comment about ambition changing the reading of the book is:

    Is Heatley tackling taboo subjects (at least in following sex history with black history) to get attention/publicity?

  30. Alex Holden says:

    what I mean by that is:

    Is the motivation to make a good comic, or is it just picking a taboo subject so people talk about and buy the book?

    Heatley’s self promoting tendencies certainly put that on the table, in my opinion. Which colors my reading of the work.

  31. T Hodler says:

    Hmm. That’s interesting. I didn’t get that at all if Tom meant that, and it’s something to think about. Basically, I don’t think the verdict on Heatley’s motives is obvious enough for me to accuse him of that. Others may disagree, of course, but personally, I’d keep an open mind without some kind of evidence that that was his reasoning.

    But it’s worth pondering, I suppose, especially in regard to the “Black History” story, which is certainly less successful in many ways than the “Sex History” strip.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I´m not a fan of DH and hadn´t read the black strip yet.
    But in my opinion there is something missing in this debate: DH is an artist. And as an artist he might be trying to discover something by experimenting and experiments in art may seem odd to people, as history shows.
    I remember Frank S. telling in an interview that when someone told him how to finish “Storyville” he got mad. I understood that completly.
    I like Santoro´s intentions as an artist, though I cannot understand a thing in Chimera´s “plot”.
    Somedy can argue that it doesn´t have narrative craft at all.
    But I would never say that. I would say: “look at this guy, he is trying to discover something”.
    An will stare happy because of that, though I cannot understand.
    I think DH is trying to discover something, about the unknowable of us a human beings. We, humans ar so strange, absurd and full of contradictions.
    Nothing is clear for us.
    And here you are trying to explain art, and maybe the intention of DH to get a hint of the mistery of life.
    My question is: can this be archieved?
    Perhaps even Heatley can´t understand his own art.
    Maybe it just deserves to be experienced.
    good night

  33. nrh says:

    I don’t know why everyone’s shrugging off the art critique a little — isn’t the most important function of an autobiographical cartoonist the way they portray the world around them, the feeling that someone sat at a desk and turned all of these people and things into marks? If anything is going to damn Heatley it’s that weird sense you get from his drawings, that he’s actually taking away from the humanity of the world without him…and might some of the more abrasive French auto-bio cartoonists be a more apt comparison than Joe Matt, Crumb, Green and so on?

  34. Frank Santoro says:

    no one is trying to explain his intentions. none of us are telling him “what to do” or “what not to do”.

    It’s great that David is experimenting, trying to make sense of the world around him.

    but, I don’t like it.

    So what that David is trying “to figure it out”?
    I should lower my standards because he’s “experimenting”?

  35. Anonymous says:

    That´s right Frank, the thing about “lowering my standards”
    When I read your CM i felt that you were aplying standards. In a way ou are not only saying that you don´t like it, but I feel you are also aplying standards like “this doesn´t fit in the standard-good craft section, this doesn´t fit in the standard-good sincere section”.
    And I don´t beleive in standards in art (and your comics are for me a living proof of that).

  36. Frank Santoro says:

    “And I don´t beleive in standards in art (and your comics are for me a living proof of that).”

    hey good one!

  37. Simon says:

    i don’t really have anything to contribute to the conversation at large, but i wanted to add that white people who only listen to the native tongues and think they’re totally down with rap are really lame.

  38. Eric Reynolds says:

    Tim wrote:

    “For me, that kind of paradoxically adds to the whole experience”

    I couldn’t agree more, and in a way I think this effectively argues the merit in his work. The work is undeniably compelling in a way that very few comics are. But one reason I like “Overpeck” so much more is that somehow, by stripping away the autobio, all of the truly weird Freudian aspects of David’s work just becomes fun and weird, and somehow more meaningful. In the context of autobio I end up second guessing everything. This may just be a personal preference; I encouraged Jeffrey Brown to do fiction for Mome for many of the same reasons.

    I want to clarify something I wrote earlier. I posted my earlier, long comment without having looked at the book in a few weeks. I went back and looked at it tonight. Earlier I wrote:

    “I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself.”

    I need to clarify this a bit. First, I probably should have said “itemize” rather than “categorize,” for whatever that’s worth. But also, looking back at the book tonight, I see that David actually calls the strip an “incomplete” history. This was contrary to what I remembered, and it’s an important point. I think the reason I misremembered this is due to the fact that I’m pretty sure the solicitation copy explicity referred to it as a “complete” history. I very much took issue with the very notion of it as a “complete” anything and appreciate that David actually never claims this in the book. But the fact that I could confuse this still gives me pause…

    Also, to touch on one other thing. Frank has been very critical of Heatley’s formal skills. I take a certain issue with this. I think David’s sense of graphic design and storytelling is actually fairly sophisticated. I think David’s weak at representational drawing but has a strong sense of comics and panel to panel progression and has rightly determined that the smaller, rhythmic panel approach better serves his skillset. It’s to his credit, really — he plays to his strengths.

  39. ULAND says:

    I have to say that I’m pretty dumbfounded over Heatley identifying himself as a narcissist and admitting it informs his work. To me, that’s like me telling you I have athletes foot and then putting my feet up on the table. Narcissism, in the classic sense, is not some kind of cute affectation, it really is a kind of sickness.
    For someone who’s apparently interested in therapy, it seems kind of odd to let that go unchecked.

  40. ULAND says:

    More Narcissism:
    “The 33-year-old artist, who lives with his wife and kids in Jackson Heights, Queens, admits that his belief in God—“not in a Christian God but something that kind of directs my purpose””

  41. blaise says:

    “I’m doing a strip now called “Black History,” a page of which I’m showing here too. It’s using the same conceit as [My Sexual History]. i.e. Can I really understand my relationship with women by showing only the moments when I was having sexual contact with them (the answer, hopefully, no). Can I make a sweeping statement about black people, by segregating them all into one comic strip? Again, I hope not.”

    from his drawger account

  42. T Hodler says:

    Hey Blaise —

    I’m glad you pointed out that quote; it’s good to have more context.

    Not to be a jerk about it, but I would point out that the way he sets it up in that quote doesn’t really work. The “Sex History” strip isn’t about every woman he’s ever met — it’s not “Women’s History”. Instead, it only lists everyone he’s ever had sex with. So the two stories aren’t really parallel. (If I really wanted to be a jerk about it, I’d point out that it’s a little troubling and revealing that he even thought they were parallel. If a woman doesn’t have sex with him, she doesn’t exist?)

    But to be more generous about it, it’s good to remember that Heatley doesn’t intend his story to be a sweeping statement, as Eric also pointed out earlier by highlighting the word “incomplete” in the story’s subtitle.


  43. Alex Holden says:

    Something that caused my initial thought of “is this guy just trying to be controversial?” was the page of Black History that Blaise linked to, in which the line art is inverted, making it look more blackface. It also features the subtitle “To All My Niggas”. I don’t recall seeing that in the final version.

  44. by Michael DeForge says:

    I agree with Eric’s comment re: Heatley’s sense of design. His page layouts have always been the most compelling aspect of his work to me (I don’t really care for his writing at all.) I think it’s worth taking a look through the process posts on his Drawger site linked above before writing him off as a “hack.”

  45. Dustin Harbin says:

    Two things, quickly:

    1) I’m surprised, Frank, that someone as well-spoken as you has distilled his argument down to “I don’t like it. It’s boring.” Especially after the in-depth drubbing you gave Heavy Liquid a few months ago. Get your head in the game, Rocky!

    2) I have no critical (or even formal education) background, but it has never occurred to me to separate the artists’ intentions, background, persona, blah-blah-blah, from the piece of art. I think all that stuff informs the audience’s reaction to a piece; for art to be “successful”, it probably needs to be able to stand without all that stuff, but I think–especially in terms of comics, and especially especially for autobio comics–that all these ideas of therapy and narcissism and political incorrectness and etc. are very much a part of things.

  46. Frank Santoro says:

    My head is in the game, Dusty.

    “I don’t like it” is my jab. “It’s boring” is my my rope-a-dope.

    I’m gonna tire Tim out by the 7th round.

  47. Dustin Harbin says:

    It is clear that you have eaten lightning, but I have yet to see you crap thunder.

  48. Frank Santoro says:

    Easy to sit on the sidelines, Dusty.

  49. Heidi M. says:

    >>>This really calls into question the original story's veracity and clashes hugely with its tone, because there's really just no hint that this has been such a serious issue for him,

    Drawing a story with every sexual experience you have ever had gives no HINT that the guys is a sex addict?

    Sorry for the call out but that really amused me.

    Heatley's work is more formally inventive than Joe Matt or Chester Brown — who are also sexually obsessed, masturbate to porn and draw comics about it –

  50. Dustin Harbin says:

    You’re right. I haven’t read the Black History yet, and so can’t really comment.

    I guess I miss the Santoran formal angle; which, even though I disagreed with a lot of the Heavy Liquid stoning, gave me a lot to think about after the fact, which is always the best thing about this blog, and what sets it apart from many others.

    I’ll be quiet.