David Heatley on My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and More
Heatley, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down
David Heatley has been all over hte map. As a cartonist, his work has appeared in his own Deadpan, the covers of The New Yorker and Best American Comics 2007 and in The New York Times, The Best American Comics 2006, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, McSweeney's, Kramer's Ergot, and Nickelodeon Magazine. We spoke with him about his latest collection, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down coming from Pantheon. Newsarama: David, let's get this out of the way: why'd you name your book after a Ramones song? David Heatley: Getting a book deal with Pantheon was something I'd been dreaming about and working towards for ten years. When it sunk in, I went through a real emotional rollercoaster: ecstasy, joy, grief, sadness, fear, rage. During that time I was reconnecting a lot with the music I listened to in high school, including The Ramones. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” became something of an anthem for me a few years ago. I learned it on guitar and belted it out. It's a great political song condemning Reagan (and it's easy enough to substitute Bush mentally while listening to it). But for me the chorus is like a prayer. "My brain is hanging upside down and I need something to slow me down." That's how I connect with it. It very naturally became the title of my book after that. NRAMA: I can see the universality of discussing sex and family in the book, but what moved you to spent a section of the book reliving all of the black people you'd been friends with during your life?
DH: For me race is right up there with sex in terms of the impact it's had on my psyche. By that I mean, there were so many layers of conditioning that got heaped on me as I grew up in this society. It can overwhelm you to the point where it completely defines you if you don't do the work of assessing its impact. As a writer dealing in autobiography, part of the process is became aware of what parts of my story are unique and worth sharing. My sex life wasn't all that unique, but I think the honesty I display in it is. Writing out my childhood sexual experiences and linking them to the present felt essential. With the race strip, I could see that I did have a unique situation as a white kid in the suburbs. I went to public school in a very mixed town with a large black population. I went to summer camp with black kids from the inner cities of Newark and South Orange. While I was in high school, a black student (who was carrying a barely functioning homemade pistol) was shot in the back by a white cop. We had riots in the streets. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came and held rallies. None of this is the average white suburban kid's experience and I have a lot to say on the subject. But more than honoring my unique childhood, I felt the need to do the strip because I wanted to talk about race in a frank, unflinching way. I think even white people who aren't overt bigots tend to be so cagey about race that they avoid it altogether or they're oblivious to their racism and can be cavalier about sharing their views. If there's a thesis to the experiment I set up for myself in this story, it goes like this: "If I take all the black people I've ever met and segregate them into one comic strip, can I make any generalizations about them as a group?" And the answer is no.
NRAMA: You definitely don't come across as racist, yet you also depict yourself using slurs when you've been aggravated or crossed. It seems to me that you were pushing readers to question the inherent racism in their lives. Is there a social challenge in there, or is it simply someone reading too much into your strips?
DH: You've hit the nail on the head. I'm very much a liberal / progressive and came of age reading Malcolm X. His point of view was that white people could help blacks by speaking to other whites about their racism. I feel like I'm following his direction to the best of my ability.
NRAMA: Many of the strips in the sex, mom, dad and kin sections are extremely personal. Sharing your own experiences is one thing, but has anyone in your family voiced any concerns about sharing such personal moments?
DH: When I first started doing these strips, there was kind of a chip on my shoulder towards my parents. "I'll show them the truth about who they are!" Luckily those early strips are out of print. What remains in the book is my honest attempt to understand them and to be understood. In a lot of ways my parents didn't get who I was and what I needed when I was a kid. That's probably true for almost everyone on the planet. They did the best they could. With my mom in particular, each memory that felt essential to include had a certain charge of resentment to it. But I found that once I started drawing each strip, the blame fell away. Drawing your mother as a little cartoon character is pretty empowering! I could see in each situation that no one had really done anything "wrong." There was a certain perfection to the drama of all these interactions. I felt genuine sympathy and understanding for both of my parents. I'm lucky to have the parents I do. At least with my mother, the strip has been a way for us to become closer. We met several times for dinner and talked about each of the parts that involved her. We took turns and didn't interrupt each other and just talked honestly about every single thing in my book. It was life-changing to do that. My dad is a little more limited. He tends to compartmentalize what I do into what he likes and what he tolerates, but the gift he's always given me is that he'd rather see me happy and successful than try to control me. He was very cooperative through the whole process and is thrilled to see me recognized.
NRAMA: Was it challenging to get back into the mindset of your younger self when writing about your adolescence?
DH: It was relatively easy for me to access the mindset of any given age. Those old selves are very much alive in me. But it was difficult to emerge from my room after writing all day and try to connect to my wife and kids. I felt like I was still eight or thirteen years old when we'd sit down for dinner. I was shell shocked. It got to the point where if I knew I was dealing with particularly painful memories, I'd save those sections for when I knew I'd be alone. That way if I needed to take a break and scream or punch pillows or cry, I'd be in a safe environment (and my kids would be safe from me).
NRAMA: The Sex and Black History sections of the book are packed with what seems to be almost every memory you have of those times. Why did you
choose to expand those sections so completely?
DH: It's a mysterious process writing this stuff. It feels more accurate to say I got seized by the material than to say I chose to write it that way. The sex history story came about when my wife was pregnant with our first child. There was almost a biological urge I had to just run away. I think that's why so many men have affairs when their wife gets pregnant. It's a scary thing to watch your wife turn into a mother! Stirs up all the feelings you have about your own mother. So in a way I was channeling that urge into something healthy. I created this towering monument to all my sexual experiences (I'm sort of kidding, but not completely). I'm also a big believer in process artwork - devising conceptual parameters and then following through as if it's a game. So the game on both of those strips was to try to be comprehensive. Get it all out. Clean house. It may seem like a complete encyclopedic work, but it's actually very carefully edited and paired down. Everything in those strips is serving some kind of larger narrative purpose.
NRAMA: This is your first full-length graphic novel. Why'd you decide to tackle such an ambitious project at this stage of your career?
DH: I didn't plan it this way, but I'm really proud of how this book came together. My first comics were illustrated versions of my dreams. Then I got the idea of doing comics about my sex life and doing portrait comics about my father. All these strips made it into my self-published comic book Deadpan (still distributed by Fantagraphics). If I was planning anything it was probably that I'd keep publishing these comic books until I had enough material for a collection. But I met my first editor Michael Homler at a party and he asked if I had any book-length projects to propose. I gathered what I had so far and wrote a book proposal describing possible additional strips like "Black History," "Family History" and "Portrait of My Mom." And I got a book deal. I spent the next four years drawing those strips and learning how to organize the material into a book. So basically I had to learn how to go from being a comic book artist to an author in that span of time. It was tough, but I'm much happier where I am now. It makes sense for cartoonists to be treated like authors, to have literary agents, to get real book advances. I'm very lucky that Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Dan Clowes changed the climate for everyone with their work. Their work is just too good to be marginalized. They're the main reason my work is being taken seriously.
NRAMA: What do you consider influences on your work?
DH: I just mentioned Ware, Clowes and Spiegelman's influence. But Chris Ware especially. He's done more to expand the graphic possibilities of comics than anyone in the medium's history (even more than Crumb, in my opinion). Alison Bechdel's book Fun Home blew me away. Carol Tyler's "The Hannah Story" is a masterpiece that pretty much makes me cry every time I read it (including last week). There's John Porcellino, whose books Perfect Example and The Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man are brilliant. Crumb, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, David Mazzucchelli, Debbie Dreschler, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth are all really important to me. Seth's art in particular has such a deeply soothing effect on me whenever I look at it. Ron Rege, Adrian Tomine, Dave Kiersh, Gabrielle Bell, Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, C.F., Dan Zettwoch, Mat Brinkman, Leif Goldberg are all amazing contemporaries of mine. I could make this list forever. As far as artists / painters: Philip Guston, David Park, Basquiat, Saul Steinberg, Jim Nutt, HC Westerman. I'm incredibly inspired by video game design from the late 70s and 80s. I think some of the best cartoony graphics ever made were done for Nintendo arcade games like Donkey Kong Jr., Dig Dug, Q-bert as well as Commodore 64 games like "Montezuma's Revenge," "Karateka," and "Goonies." Favorite children's book authors / artists are Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry and Clement Hurd. I'm also deeply inspired by too many musicians and filmmakers to name, but an experimental filmmaker named Scott Stark was a big inspiration when I was in film school.
NRAMA: Wow. That’s an amazing list on many levels! With your first book out soon, David, what's next for you?
DH: I just won a NYFA grant for fiction for my graphic novella-in-progress Overpeck. It's a fictional portrait of the neighborhood I grew up with in between Kindergarten and Third grade. All the characters came to me in my dreams. It deals with childhood sexuality, abuse, redemption, spiritual awakening and has more magical elements and much more playful compositions. It'll be my next book from Pantheon – hopefully out by 2010. In the mean time, I'm in the studio right now recording an EP to go along with my book. I'm recording with my friend and brilliant, Grammy-winning producer Peter Wade. We recorded a cover of the Ramones song my book is titled after, and we're doing four or five other original tracks. It should be on iTunes around the time of the book's release. I'm also working on an animated music video to go with the EP (and help promote the book). It's been an action packed summer and I'm really excited for the fall.