Review: ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down’ by David Heatley
My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
By David Heatley
Pantheon, September 2008, $24.95
Right at this moment, I know more of the minor details of David Heatley’s life than I do of my own. This is because I don’t typically spend my time obsessing about the minutiae of my past, while I have just spent several hours reading Heatley’s comics – in which he obsessively chronicles every tiny detail of his life (as organized into thematic categories) that he can possibly remember.
[[[My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down]]] collects many (all?) of Heatley’s previously published short strips, and organizes them into something like a memoir in comics form – but a memoir tightly focused and monomanically detailed in its chosen areas. It’s divided into five sections – Sex, Race, Mom, Dad, and Kin – and everything else in the world (including religion, which seems to be very important to Heatley) gets left out or included only at odd, disjointed moments.
Each section, except the last, starts off with a batch of dream comics. These are about as compelling as anyone else’s dreams ever can be, particularly since Heatley has a deliberately crude and flat style. He does generally draw his dream comics with larger panels and more varied transitions than his longer pieces, which gives them some more visual interest. But, still, they’re someone else’s dreams, filled with intensely personal imagery and characters that we don’t recognize (because we haven’t yet met them in the autobiographical stories). So they’re opaque at best, incomprehensible at worst.
The meat of the book is the five long pieces that make up the heart of each section. The first two – “[[[Sex History]]]” and “[[[Black History]]]” – are in a deadening and unwavering six-by eight panel grid, with anecdote following anecdote rigidly until Heatley runs out of things he can remember that are related to the theme. Individual anecdotes can start anywhere in the grid; as soon as he runs out of steam on one topic, he dives right into another one, until he finally exhausts himself and comes out at the end.
“Sex History” is ridiculously detailed, starting with “show me yours” play when Heatley was five years old, and continuing relentlessly, year by year, through every single sexual contact Heatley has ever had with another human being. (Except for those involving his wife, Rebecca, whom he leaves out due to chivalrousness, fear, or a rare moment of good sense.) It’s certainly of sociological interest, but Heatley is more interested in detailing each individual act (first time I did this, first time someone did that to me) than in making any connections or linking all of these anecdotes into a larger story. “Sex History” has a lot of sex in it, but it’s like a modern porn movie: each sex act is discrete and separate, having nothing to do with the acts that precede or follow it. He did manage to make me feel inadequate about my own past, which I suppose is some kind of validation.
“Black History” is similar, but even odder in conception: it’s the story of Heatley’s relationships with every black person that he can remember, interspersed with capsule review of the rap records that he was listening to at the time. Again, it starts when he’s about five, and moves forward and backward in time as he follows one relationship up to the present day (or whenever it was that he last saw that particular person) and then drops back to pick up with the black person he met next in his life. The whole thing is a weird stunt, and it’s just as disjointed as “Sex History.” Heatley isn’t quite trying to do the old “I’m not like every other white person, because I understand the plight of the oppressed” thing – or, at least, he knows that act exists, and tries to steer around it – but the very fact of creating a story like this makes him look like a panderer. Even worse, none of these relationships seem to be very deep. That could be an artifact of the style of story – he does refer to some of these people as his best friends at the time – but it comes across as “then I met this black guy, and he was OK for a while, and then I never saw him again, oh, but I met another black guy….”
“Portrait of My Mom” and “Portrait of My Dad” are slightly different, physically: they’re laid out something like a broadsheet Sunday-comics page, with lots of different features, each with their own titles. All of them, obviously, still cluster tightly around Heatley’s obsessive themes, but making each of the strips physically separate allows them to have independent existences, unlike the bits in the “Sex History” and “Black History” stories. This is still Heatley being incredibly obsessive in his navel-gazing, but it works better as comics, giving a kaleidoscopic view of his relationships with his parents. (Not of his parents themselves – Heatley’s eye is always firmly focused on himself, and other people impinge in all of his stories only insomuch as they directly affect him.)
“Family History” is the only story in the last section, “[[[Kin]]],” and it’s a return to the claustrophobic eight-by-six grid of the first two long stories. After a brief introduction, Heatley tells – in a very cramped, programmatic way – the story of his ancestors, which of course leads up to his life. He does actually overshoot his birth, which surprised me, to tell the story of his life and marriage – still in that very cramped, staccato style – up to the birth of his two children.
Heatley definitely has talent and ambition, but, right now, he’s the only cartoonist I know who can make Joe Matt look self-effacing, outward-focused, and well-adjusted. I won’t say that he needs to get off the autobiographical kick, but it would behoove him to focus his ramblings into specific, particular stories. If he focused on something less nebulous than “my entire life having to do with X,” his stories would have a lot more punch. He’s good at remembering and explaining the little details of his life; now he just needs to find ways to shape and frame those details.
(And there’s not one single reference to the Ramones, or any kind of punk or post-punk, in this book; Heatley’s musical tastes, as far as he explains them here, run more to hip-hop. A less generous reviewer might say that he was lured into this book under false pretenses…)
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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