The mind’s I
Graphic memoirs explore dream boundries
Cartoonist David Heatley is a completist. “Sex,” “Race,” “Mom,” “Dad,” and “Kin” title the five chapters of his graphic memoir, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, and the heart of chapter one is a 16-page, 700-plus-panel summary of almost every sexual encounter in Heatley’s life to date, excluding his wife, Rebecca, whose pregnancy with their first child inspired the comic. Likewise, an even-longer “incomplete catalog of every black person I’ve ever known” (Heatley is white) dominates chapter two. Chapters three, four, and five dramatize his family tree from the Irish great-great-grandfather who helped carve the iconic lions outside the New York Public Library to the exact configurations of his father’s dirty sock drawer and his mother’s recipe for “struvella” (“1. Combine eggs, flour, sugar, oil and salt. 2. Deep fry.…”).
Most intimate of all may be the fascinating, full-color depictions of Heatley’s dreams, which are interspersed throughout the book. Perhaps one reason it’s commonplace to call other people’s dreams boring is because we cannot see what they saw in the recounting. Comics literally fill in the picture. Unconscious, Heatley runs, he hides, he rapes, he kills, he alternately saves and fails his family, he prays and is, he hopes, absolved.
Is there a purpose to so much disclosure? I think so. Heatley shows no typical days in his life, only the indelible moments of high emotion: desire, anger and anxiety (hardly a panel passes without slanted eyebrows: “/ \” for hope and fear, “\ /” for rage and aggression). Traversing as many as a dozen such extreme states on a single page alternately exhausted and exhilarated me as a reader. Taken as a whole, however, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down amply demonstrates that each individual constitutes a universe. Merely existing is creative triumph.
The book’s final comic is entitled “Epic Journey.” In it, Heatley narrates across eleven panels: “I’m a little boy./The people closest to me have all been badly hurt./We walk together./We fight with each other./We fight horrible people who try to attack us./We find the original cause of all the hurt./He’s a sad, scared, feeble little boy, too./He cowers in front of us, wretched, filthy and broken./We surround him with love and he is healed./He joins us./We keep walking.”
Among Heatley’s fellow travelers is Theo Ellsworth, author of Capacity, a very different—but no less exhaustive—graphic memoir. Ellsworth is a former Missoulian and much of his material originally appeared in zines distributed by local indie publishing collective Slumgullion’s bicycle-powered bookmobile. Rather than outward experience, his subject is his innermost imagination.
“Since I was very young, I have known that I was meant to tell the stories of the characters that I see inside my head,” writes Ellsworth, who now lives in Portland, Ore. “Climbing back there and visually recording my findings has always been a weirdly natural process.”
Indeed the striking accompanying illustration, typical of the book, shows a rollercoaster-like road system traversing living forests, creature-rich rivers, wise-eyed mountains and so on, into deep space, from which waves a friendly paw.
Yet, as Ellsworth describes it, investigating this world is almost impossible without losing a coherent sense of self and story. If waking existence unspools far faster than our ability to gather it, after all, imagine the even-more-difficult task of fully possessing everything we dream. By analogy, Capacity offers the tale of a young puppeteer putting on a play for himself. “He did so simply for the novelty,” Ellsworth writes, “of getting to be both…the actors and the audience simultaneously.” He continues:
“But his puppets built their own puppets, and those puppets, in turn, built their own. And all of the puppets put on their own plays for the puppets that came before them. The plays were filled with strange ideas that the boy had never thought of before. He suddenly realized that he should be writing these ideas down, but his hands were already full. To make matters worse, the theatre was on a wagon that had begun to roll steadily down hill. By the time he had safely stopped the wagon, he couldn’t remember any of the ideas, and the puppets refused to repeat a single word.”
Such conundrums are as old as literature, present in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, the poetry of Coleridge and Keats, and even the movies Terminator and The Matrix. Like life itself, they have no solution because, save death, they accept no boundaries. But in David Heatley and Theo Ellsworth, they have a new generation and variety of explorers. Join their journeys and readers, too, will be both turned upside down and filled to the brim.