MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN

MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN
Written and Drawn by David Heatley
Published by
Pantheon

Autobiographical comics are a tricky thing. The best of them take you inside someone’s life and offer up a point of view or unique experience to share. They transcend some of the more basic conventions of comic storytelling and deliver an emotional experience. The worst of them tell you nothing about the author except for the extent of their own narcissism, showing all the depth of a mud puddle. The bad ones lack a point or a heart.

It is an oddity to find both extremes in this collection of work by David Heatley.

MY BRAIN is divided into five sections of comics, each focusing on a different aspect of Heatley’s life: “sex history”, “black history”, “portrait of my mom”, “portrait of my dad”, and “family history.” Three of these sections run from good to excellent- the final three, actually. But the first two, sex history and black history, are among the worst autobio comics I’ve seen in recent memory.

Sex History is, bluntly, exactly what it sounds like. A long, rambling tour through every sexual feeling, conquest, and confusion in Heatley’s life. From the girls he’s kissed, to the ones he’s fucked, to his experiments with men, it’s all here. And boring as shit. It seems like Heatley tries to chalk it up to working out his issues on paper, but what it really reads like is someone who wants to overshare. And overshare. And overshare. There’s no point to the section, and it has no emotional arc or payoff once you get all the way through it. The one thing that stands out is that he chickens out on describing aspects of his sex life with the woman who is now his wife, but then spills out the graphic details on every other woman he’s been with. It’s a nasty form of hypocrisy on top of everything else. And “black history” is no better- it’s the same rambling narrative, except this time it details his dealings with blacks, friend and foe. And exposes him as having some issues with racism. But again, the section lacks a point or emotional payoff.

The good stuff, which he does in shorter strips and stories and puts the focus on family, is mostly terrific. Heatley paints an intriguing picture of his mother and her internal strength, and he puts together a heart-breaking look at his relationship with his father. And you can see him maturing (finally) in the pieces about the births of his children. These sections display a cartoonist with depth and with something to say. They have a point and an involving spirit about them. There’s some amazing material to be found there.

So it’s a tale of two books under one cover. Whether or not you feel strongly about great autobiographical comics to get through the bad stuff is where you’ll have to make your decision.

Marc Mason