Jason Sacks: Daniel, it’s a treat to get to write with you again. And it’s a special treat to get to write with you about Elijah Brubaker’s intriguing Reich, published by Sparkplug Comic Books. There’s a lot for us to dig into with the story of Wilhelm Reich, who is an eccentric a fascinating man. There’s also a lot for us to discuss in the meta-story of Brubaker’s comic.
Reich is a story of contradictions. Wilhelm Reich’s life is tangled and unruly, full of betrayals, eccentric ambitions, and deep insights. We could talk for a long time about that deeply odd man and the strange ways he sees the world.
With Reich the comic, there’s another level to discuss as well. There’s also a lot to talk about with this series regarding the process of creating a work of art. Brubaker’s process of creating this ambitious twelve-issue series brings up questions of artistic aspirations, of youthful enthusiasm colliding with the tangled timelines of adulthood, and of the commitment that an artist has to complete a work he started years before. Reich takes a radical turn in its second half, seemingly motivated by artistic wanderlust, and that turn gives this collection of issues a lot of the energy that I really enjoyed.
Reich starts out as a relatively conventional and highly ambitious narrative, albeit one with some eccentric artwork. In fact, in its early chapters, Reich reminded me of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel or Jason Lutes’s Berlin: meticulously researched historical biography delivered with an eccentric and intriguing approach. The early chapters start with twentysomething Wilhelm as he makes his way in Weimar Germany in the era between the Wars. As we know from Lutes, among many other places, Germany between World War I and World War II was a time of great abandon, when survivors of the Great War lived lives of libertine abandon and in which great ambitions thrived. In the wake of the worst cataclysm to have ever hit the civilized world, what better response could there be than to party? Unless, that is, their response was to change the world forever.
In the wake of World War I many people were seized by a kind of Utopian zeal that proposed to transform the world from its corrupt roots that led to the War to a world without war. Science would be the great engine for transformation. The 1920s and 1930s was an era of great inventions, an era when film emerged as a mass artform and an era in which psychologists like Freud proposed to map and understand the complexities of the human mind. Reich was part of both the libertine and transformative elements of that world. Then a dashing young professor with a libido that matched his considerable ambitions, the young Reich was a dynamo. In fact, that libido was a large aspect of his ambitions, as he proposed a deeply bizarre theory around orgasm and sexual energy that Brubaker presents as being both respected and despised by his peers.
The early chapters have a fascinating flow to them. As Hitler takes power in Germany in the middle issues we feel we know how the second half of this book will run — we will see the individual man crushed under the Nazi boot-heel, individuality crushed under a fascist society. That seems it will happen until Brubaker gives his story a major twist in issue 7 of this twelve-issue run, moving the book into Reich’s future. In the second half of this run, we witness Reich’s complicated life in America, where all quirkiness seems more dangerous than quaint and his obsessions seem more like delusions. The very things that served Reich well in tumultuous Weimar Germany make him an outsider in 1950s Arizona.
Daniel, I’m struck by the idea that Wilhelm Reich is different in the two halves of this series but that he also seems very much the same man. Is he one of those men who is only great in the context of his times? Or was he never great and just a sad, eccentric man who was lucky enough to spend his formative years in a place full of sad, eccentric men?
Daniel Elkin: Loaded questions, Sacks. Loaded questions.
Let me try to answer them in an incredibly long-winded and convoluted manner.
Issue #1 of Reich was published by Sparkplug in 2007, but the earliest incarnation of Brubaker’s fascination with this story seems to have come in a single, small xeroxed mini-comic that he published in 1995. Remember 1995? The Contract with America? Timothy McVeigh? OJ Simpson? The Unabomber? Windows 95? Those were some weird times, my friend.
Anyway, Issue #12 of Reich was published by Sparkplug in 2014. The nearly 20 year journey from idea to completion is something I want to talk about at great length, but later. What I want to talk about right now, and in answer to your questions, is the notion of madness. Sort of.
On the inside front cover of the final issue of Reich, Brubaker writes, “It’s difficult to go amongst mad people, to follow them into their worlds and see them as multifaceted creatures with important, valid ideas. Finding those ideas, separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were, is an arduous task but, most often worth it.”
This seems to be Brubaker’s guiding principle for his choices with this work.
What struck me the most during my most recent re-read of Reich is that, ultimately, this is a book about madness. In one way, this book chronicles what seems to be Reich’s descent into what was deemed “paranoia, manifested by delusion of grandiosity, persecution, and ideas of reference.” In another way, it seems to make the case that the iconoclast is often judged insane by the status quo. Finally, it may be working within the concept that were it not for Reich’s very own work in the field of psychoanalysis, he may never have been labeled “ill” in any form.
So maybe that starts to answer your loaded questions above, Sacks.
I think it is obvious that Reich is a difficult character to pin down and that, I think, is what makes Brubaker’s work so fascinating. You can see Brubaker struggle with how he wants to present this man in the narrative. In reading this series, you can see how much Brubaker “always enjoyed reading about Reich and his large personality, his troubles and hubris.” You can also see Brubaker grappling to “tell a biographical story and condense the human experience into a digestible entertainment.”
Biography is tricky business, and graphic biography, I would imagine, even more so. Presenting a person’s life in this sort of format requires not just extensive research, but large choices — what to put in and what to leave out, not to mention pacing, layout, and design. Expand that over 12 issues and then stretch that over (in the case of the Sparkplug books) seven years and choices of consistency and intent have to also be factored into the equation. Just as Reich seemingly transforms, so too does Reich. In the course of creating this series, Brubaker is developing his prowess as an artist. The Elijah Brubaker of 2007 is not the same cartoonist as the Elijah Brubaker of 2014. By reading this art, we also are reading the artist. Which now, I guess, brings us back to your earlier questions of “artistic ambition, of youthful enthusiasm colliding with mature approaches, and of the commitment that an artist owns for completing his work.”
Sacks: You can always count on me to bring those loaded questions to bear, Elkin. I’m not sure if I always answer my questions and yours in a satisfying way, but I’ll keep trying.
You’re totally right that there’s a world of difference between the work that Brubaker delivers in the early issues of Reich and the later issues. In some ways they parallel the way that most peoples’ lives change as we get older.
In early issues of Reich, Brubaker takes on a deliberately eccentric art style. There are touches of Richard Sala in the way that Brubaker uses his blacks, with maybe some Chester Brown in the simplicity of his forms and many flourishes of curliecue linework and almost three-dimensional figures that represent Brubaker’s own approach.
The overall effect of this eccentric style is to keep readers slightly at a distance from the story being told. The characters have enormous noses and raggedy hair and almost seem at times to be flying through their stories rather than loving through them. It’s as if Brubaker’s style is telling is that these are people different from ourselves. Their lives and existences are at an oblique angle to our lives in some way. It’s difficult to imagine our parents and grandparents interacting with these almost alien creatures
In later chapters, Brubaker has tamped back that eccentric approach. His characters are stylized much more normally. Brubaker’s approach still has its unique edges and quirks, but these are deliberately real people and it’s pretty easy to imagine our parents or grandparents interacting with them.
It’s intriguing that Brubaker’s eccentric artistic approach is in direct contrast to his disciplined approach at writing endnotes that document the decisions that he has made with his characters. Many pages at the front of each issue are endnoted, as if the artist is creating a research paper about his eccentric subject.
In the later issues the approach flips, and it does so at the same time that the story flips. After an abortive collection of endnotes in Reich #8, Brubaker stops supplying readers with notes (perhaps symbolically Reich #9 has a blank page where the endnotes usually appear). At the same time Brubaker’s art style becomes more and more mature, dropping its learned eccentricities, as if the artist is gaining confidence in his work.
As Brubaker’s style becomes less eccentric and more mature, he seems to feel less of a requirement to “show his work.” It’s an interesting transition, and one that most adults go through as we move beyond school and into the working world. As adults moving into adult careers, our rougher and more eccentric edges are smoothed away. We learn to channel our efforts into areas in which we know ourselves. By knowing ourselves, we also learn to trust ourselves. We know ourselves better. We don’t need to prove we’ve done our work.
Bringing this back to Willy Reich, I wonder if there’s a parallel to the choices that Reich makes and the way that he grows into his own skin. Or am I babbling into the wind with a glow-in-the-dark yoyo in my hand, Daniel?
Elkin: I think I still wear my rough and eccentric edges, Sacks, but only on “Casual Fridays”.
Still, another way we could look at how Brubaker’s art changes through the course of the series is to apply a different critical lens. I could easily make the assertion that it is not just a result of his maturation as an artist, but that it also functions as a deliberate artistic choice. Notice that it is at the halfway mark in this series that everything shifts, not just Brubaker’s style, but Reich himself. In issue #7, Reich has moved from Europe to America and has had to adapt to a whole new set of values among a new set of friends, confidants, and lovers. It makes sense that Brubaker shifts his art style to parallel this new world and the new challenges Reich faces.
It is also in this second half of the series when Reich starts to manifest a noticeable shift of personality. No longer is he just an aloof, socially awkward, “forgivable because he is a genius” type of asshole. Starting in issue #7, Reich begins to show serious signs of paranoia and delusion, driving those who care about him away, playing him into the machinations of his detractors.
By shifting his art style to a less stylized version as his character becomes more and more unhinged, Brubaker seems to be making a larger statement about how the social order deals with issues of mental health and questions of reality in relief against insanity. In the intellectual culture of Europe, especially pre-World War Two Europe, Reich’s eccentricities made sense within the context of the community in which he ran. In the “New World” of 1950s America, though, his predilections and personality made him stand apart, subject to suspicion and judgement, which then becomes a self-perpetuating situation. As the social order isolates Reich more and more, his paranoia and delusions seem to become exacerbated, which forces even more suspicion and judgement, which then further intensifies his instability, and so on and so forth.
By choosing to render his characters in a more “realistic” way in this later part of Reich’s life, Brubaker seems to be commenting on the very nature of this circle, playing, as it were, with the appearance vs. reality theme that courses through great storytelling. As things “appear” to be more grounded in the ideas of what we agree to be “real”, the more we examine the assumptions behind this construct, the more we find out that what we understand as true is just a veneer glued to lies or manipulative misconceptions.
So too is how Western society deals with issues of mental health. As we cling to our narrow focus of accepted thought and behavior, we “disease” that which falls outside of that purview. Instead of accepting it as part of the continuum of awareness and learn from these perspectives, we medicate or isolate it, thus imposing a “reality” on perception that, upon examination, seems to perpetuate a lie.
This change in style may also reflect Brubaker’s thoughts about his own relationship with the subject of this “biography”. There is the sense that the longer Brubaker spent working with his own understandings of what drew him to Reich as his artistic focus in the first place, the more complicated that impetus becomes in his mind. Seven years is a long time. I know that at forty-eight, I no longer see the world in the same manner as I did when I was forty-one. Exposure to new ideas and fresh insights into old thoughts have brought me to a different place in my conceptions of things both external and within. And as much as I have developed, I can only imagine how that process must be even more so with an artist as generative as Elijah Brubaker.
As thoughts shift, so too does style. The longer one sits with something, the more likely their relationship with it changes. Brubaker is just echoing that reality through his art.
Sacks: Lovely thoughts, my friend, and they bring me to the same takeaways you did about how my life has changed in the last seven years — let alone how much it’s changed since 1995. In fact, that twenty year gap from start to finish on this series is the same twenty-year gap that spans Reich #6 and #7 and can lead to meta-thoughts about how both Willy Reich and Elijah Brubaker’s lives changed in twenty years. Since we don’t have Brubaker here on the psychologist’s couch, however, I’d like to turn back to Reich as the leading character in this drama..
Reich #6 depicts a series of life-changing events that are rich and resonant. On page four Reich’s wife Annie comments (on a train ride as the pair flee Germany) that “just a few years ago Germany was a guiding light of culture and progressive thought. Now, it’s a vile, soulless place.” Behind Annie, Brubaker draws a Picasso-inspired background that foreshadows the terror that the Nazis will bring to Europe. In that sequence we see Brubaker’s eccentric approach as its full flowering and power. Foreground, background and character all accentuate the horror of the moment. As the issue progresses, we see Reich wander through Europe, but even on a ski trip to the Swiss Alps, he seems forlorn and pathetic. In his wandering to London, Reich seems almost consumed by an enormous black umbrella.
When Reich returns to Berlin, Brubaker draws the city like a German Expressionist drama, all hyper-stylized angles and deep shadows. A terrifying Nazi rally on page 10 includes the burning of Reich’s books. Our protagonist is despised by the malignant ruling authority and his life is truly in danger. This triggers a reverie by Reich about some of the most important moments of his life: losing his virginity to a prostitute; his contemplation of suicide; the death of his vicious father. Page 23 ends with a statement that would be heartbreaking in any comic: “My father was dead. I was not yet eighteen.” Flipping the page, Reich receives equally devastating news: his former mentor Freud has died of cancer.
The world has fallen apart around our protagonist. He is truly bereft and his world seems consumed by darkness. Though this story is presented in the third person, Brubaker gives readers such a close look inside Reich’s head that issue six almost feels like a first-person narrative.
Reich #7 takes place twenty years after Reich #6, and the contrast is as startling as if 1995 me met 2016 me. Linework is simpler, backgrounds are more open, and enormous, startling events no longer threaten to burn down everything that Reich has fought for. He’s been tempered by his time. He’s been humbled and his world has become smaller and less eccentric. Brubaker’s storytelling also reflects that passage of time. There are moments in Reich #8, especially, that feel literally a world away from everything that has come before. Significantly, those issues feel thoroughly presented in the third person, in an objective manner that implies truth and solidity.
The changes that Brubaker makes in this book mark the passage of time for him as a creator but they also mark the passage of time for his main character. These changes provide subtle and powerful reinforcement of the complex richness of a human life. They also show the subtle beauty that comics can frequently have; Brubaker’s complex exploration of these ideas is deeply resonant because he provides the reader no roadmap — just as life, too, has no roadmap. “As thoughts shift, so too does style.”
Elkin: There’s so much to love about how Elijah Brubaker has presented the life of Wilhelm Reich. Each of the twelve issues of Reich brings something new not only to our understanding of this especially complex man, but also to our understanding of Elijah Brubaker as an artist. When people ask me about what comics I would recommend to someone who is tired of the cape and tights crowd, someone looking for something complex and rewarding, someone who is interested in complicated characters and intricate themes, I point them right to Reich.
My hope is that some day in the not too distant future, Sparkplug Books will collect all twelve issues of this series into a trade paperback version, not only so I can read and watch the story unfold unfettered, but also, hopefully, that Brubaker might add just a little bit more to this fascinating story.
Until that happens, though, you should gobble up what you can of Reich. Sparkplug is offering the series up as a “bundle” right now.
Go get it.