Books·How I Wrote It

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook: How Joe Ollmann wrote his first graphic biography

The acclaimed cartoonist on getting under the skin of a fascinating figure in American writing.
Joe Ollmann is the author of the graphic biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. (Drawn & Quarterly/Taien Ng-Chan)

"Seabrook's one of those guys who'd try anything once," says acclaimed cartoonist Joe Ollmann. And he does mean anything. As Ollmann recounts in the graphic biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, the early 20th-century travel writer was an alcoholic and BDSM enthusiast who road-tested cannibalism and coined the term "zombie."

In his own words, Ollmann describes the process of writing his first-ever graphic biography. 

Seabrook's weird world

"My first encounter with William Seabrook was in an anthology of zombie stories. Seabrook's story in that collection was an ostensibly true zombie story from his book The Magic Island, about voodoo and Haiti. The story was interesting, but what was more interesting to me was the autobiographical information provided about Seabrook. This guy was fascinating. He was a cannibal, a bondage fetishist, an alcoholic. He had worked with Gertrude Stein and Dalí and Man Ray. And just a taste of this was in his autobiographical paragraph. To me, it was astonishing that this man was so fascinating, yet no one I had talked to about him had ever heard of him. So I bought all his books — he published 11 books in his lifetime, including an excellent autobiography called No Hiding Place." 

Opening the archives

"Seabrook's second wife, Marjorie Worthington, wrote a biography of him in the 1960s called The Strange World of Willie Seabrook. She told many of the same stories Seabrook told in his book, but slightly differently. I went to the University of Oregon to go through Marjorie Worthington's archives there. I stayed in a crappy hotel for four days and put special gloves on and went through all her stuff. I flew to North Carolina to meet with a collector there. At that point, I was like, OK, you have to do something with this now. But it was such a daunting undertaking. There's the historical research of the life and the book, but there's also the visual research. Different continents and cultures, from costumes to cars. I knew it was going to be a long book, and 300 pages of comics takes years and years to do."

The pull of the bottle

"The book starts with the opening line 'Seabrook was drunk again.' That was always how I wanted to open it. Seabrook battled his whole life with alcoholism. He wrote a book called Asylum about spending seven months in a mental hospital trying to dry out. When he got out of the mental hospital, he basically said, 'Well, I'm cured! But I love drinking. So I can have a drink now because I'm no longer an alcoholic.' That saddened me so much. Reading that is like watching a horror movie — 'Don't take that drink! The killer's right behind you!'

"In the book, Seabrook's drinking is omnipresent. In almost every panel, he's got a drink in his hand. That's because, reading his writing, it struck me the same way. It's so much a part of him that it just happened. It almost made me ill at the end of it, drawing all those panels with him just emptying bottles into himself."

Words first, pictures later

"Generally, I write first. I'm more of a writer who draws than an artist who writes. I don't necessarily think in visual terms — I'm just thinking of the story and the writing. So it doesn't occur to me how it's going to be drawn. I think in terms of the story, and then once I switch over into artist mode I figure out how it would work best. For this book, I literally wrote the whole thing first, then did some massive editing. Then I printed the text and circled it with a marker, then cut it up and broke it down and paced it into the nine-panel grid that I use. After that, I'd draw little squares and do rough storyboards of the action."

A page in progress. (Joe Ollmann)

Full circle

"I wrote the book as a linear biography, except for the opening scene. I set the opening in 1945, close to the end of Seabrook's life. I wanted to do him in a monologue, just setting up points of his life and reflecting back on it, and also to show what was coming, to let people know what they were going to be reading about. This opener was inspired by a letter I had come across that Seabrook had written to the army, begging them to let him back in. He had joined the army as part of the press corps, but then ended up in three mental hospitals one after the other. So he wrote this letter to the army apologizing, basically saying 'I hope this period won't defeat my chances of being in the army, because I need this job.' Seabrook lived for his work, and if he had been given that chance to go and work and be vital again, that might have saved him."

Joe Ollmann's comments have been edited and condensed.


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