Elijah J. Brubaker, Reich #1-4 (Sparkplug, 2007-), $3.00, quartlerly.
By Jared Gardner
I’ll admit right up front that I love biographies, and I love biographical comics (a good deal more, on average, than I enjoy many autobiographical comics). I adore Rick Geary’s Victorian Crime biographies (and his most recent comics biography of J. Edgar Hoover, which I would also review this issue if I had more time), and Chester Brown’s Louis Riel is one of my favorite books of all time. The sad thing is that there are far more autobiographical comics than biographical ones, and not all the biographies measure up to the ideal set by Geary and Brown (see, for example, Lutes and Bertozzi’s Houdini). Reich expresses its debt to Brown’s Louis Riel from the start in its system of endnotes for this ongoing biography of the badboy pioneer of modern psychology. And four issues in, it is clear he will soon be sitting on my shelf right next to Brown as a model for what can be done with this form in bringing to life the public and secret lives of the forgotten or misunderstood men and women of the past.
If you are like me, what little you know about Wilhelm Reich could fit on a postage stamp: student of Freud, sex addict, guru to the free love movement and godfather to freethinkers of the 1960s. All of which is true, as Brubaker tells it. But this is also a man of intense brilliance and passions, a deeply ambitious man who made enemies among his psychiatric colleagues right and left (often by offering to sleep with their wives) and a visionary man who might well have found the wrong outlet for his most powerful insights. Indeed, reading the first few issues, one cannot help but wonder what Reich would have been like had he devoted himself instead to art. What would he have produced?
As it was, he ended up focusing his considerable energies and seemingly dauntless courage in the still fledgling world of professional psychiatry, a world, like all professions, of jealousies, provincialisms, and rigid hierarchies (although Reich arrived early enough to find fewer of the latter than his descendants would). And into this world, Reich sought to bring together his two great passions, sex and revolution, arguing for the reformation of the conditions of labor through a reformation of the conditions of sex—and particularly the condition of the average orgasm, which Reich was convinced was tragically lacking. Fix one, Reich believed, and you could fix the other and remake the world.
Of course, Marxists had little interest in psychology, and the psychiatric establishment has less interest in politics, so Reich was in many ways a doomed prophet from the start. But Brubaker is ultimately not interested in defending Reich’s theories and even less interested in turning him into a martyr. Instead, Brubaker seeks to put Reich himself on the graphic couch, to get at his childhood traumas, his deep personal and professional contradictions (his deep love of the People and his complete inability to connect to those immediately around him, for example), the beauty of his highest visions and the ugliness of his grossest personal mistakes. And he does so with an economy and precision that is a wonder to behold. Reich turns out to be a remarkably human bundle of contradictions who just happened to be a misunderstood genius—or a misunderstood genius who was ultimately defeated by the fact that he just happened to be way too much like the rest of us.
I had not seen much of Brubaker’s work previously to picking up an issue of Reich, but I am a committed follower now. Working with outsized heads and compressed bodies that at first seem to suggest a much more lighthearted subject matter than we in fact have before us, Brubaker makes his characters come alive with completely believable and transparent personalities in only a few panels. Reich himself is alternately brooding and open. The regularity of the panels that divide up his pages is in fact the only visual constant in this book, as spaces warp and perspectives shift with each panel, making us feel at times as if we are in a fun house (which in fact we are). There is much in the style he uses here to remind one of David B.’S work in Epileptic, and like that work Brubaker allows dreams and monsters to fully occupy the diegetic space of this rigorously researched historical narrative. And his expressive simplicity owes a good deal to Chester Brown as well. But ultimately, the style feels very much Brubaker’s own, and it feels just right for the strange combination of shadow and sunshine that makes up his subject.
There is still much to come in the story of Reich’s life, just as clearly there is much great work ahead for Brubaker. And Sparkplug, his Portland-based publisher, continues to demonstrate rare consistency in both vision and taste in their choice of projects, making it one of the most exciting comics companies operating in the U.S. today. Reich is one to follow closely for the next year or two as Brubaker finishes this important work. Reich is also clearly one for the ages.