Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

I was a big fan of Joe Ollmann's Mid-Life, and when I saw he was publishing a new book, I was excited to read it. Whereas Mid-Life was a piece of fiction with some autobiographical aspects thrown in, his new work The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a well researched, nonfiction biography. Its subject William Seabrook was a journalist, author, occultist, and traveler who explored lots of exotic locales and wrote about them for popular audiences. His biggest contribution to US culture may be his account of voodoo in Haiti The Magic Island and how that book popularized the concept of the zombie for Americans. Even though he was famous in his day and hobnobbed with lots of folks still held in high regard, Seabrook has all but fallen off the radar.
Part of the reason he faded into obscurity is the prolonged downward spiral chronicled in this book. He had penchants for alcohol, womanizing, BDSM, drugs, and pushing boundaries altogether, a horrible combination of attributes that resulted in his suicide by drug overdose in 1945. Those same attributes led him to many interesting situations, including being an ambulance driver during World War I, roaming with Bedouins in the Arabian Desert and mountains of northern Iraq, dining with cannibals in Africa, and spending months in an asylum for addicts. He was able to spin many of these experiences into prose, but as we see in this graphic novel, he was not an easy person to be around.

As you can tell from what I just reeled off, I learned much about Mr. Seabrook from this book. It is jam-packed with information from the various chapters that focus on specific moments in his life. Also, Ollmann does not pull any punches with Seabrook's life, and I have to say that authenticity was double-edged for me. First it is an impressive feat to accomplish, a mark of great craft and attention to detail. Second, it is also pretty exhausting and terrifying to see this depraved and troubled man's life in such detail. I love the obvious love, effort, and dark humor that went into this book, but I also had a tough time getting through parts of it because they were so raw. From start to finish it's beautiful, engrossing, and devastating. I'd definitely recommend it to mature readers interested in this fascinating author, and I'd also add that I would read it in installments. TAMS is not a book to plow through.

All of the reviews I have read have commented on the amount of care, research, and craft went into this book. Genevieve Valentine wrote that "the depth of research is impressive, and there are evocative beats of loneliness or connection that remind us why the graphic novel can be such a powerful medium for conveying such small, human moments." John Paul praised it as "a masterful bit of visual storytelling." Chris Mautner called it an "ambitious biography."

For those interested, Ollmann speaks extensively about his work on this book in this interview.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. The author also has a sizable preview excerpt here.

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