March 22, 2017

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The Very Model of a Modern Man- a review of Joe Ollmann's The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

William Seabrook was a man who believed in experience. Whether that was learning about voodoo, eating with cannibals or tying women up, the man was ravenous for that next thrill. And as well as living all of those experiences, he wanted you to know that he had done all of that. His strange quest to eat human flesh, to say that he had dined with the cannibals, is the most sensationalistic portion of Joe Ollmann’s book The Abominable Mr. Seabrook but it shows so much of Seabrook’s obsession to be the man who was known to have done that. And it continued to define him even after he had published his accounts but he had started to realize that his experiences weren’t quite as authentic as even he thought they were. Even if Seabrook wanted to be known as the man who tried cannibalism, there’s also the strange desire to be authentic to his public persona.

That cannibalism is only one of the many colorful aspects of Seabrook’s life. Ollmann’s biography shows a man from a conservative upbringing who refused to conform to polite society. It’s not even that he was rebelling against his upbringing but more that Seabrook just was never satisfied. Whether it was the women in his life, the opportunities that he had to travel and to share his adventures or the self-destructive alcoholism that took over his later life, the story of Seabrook’s life is about a man who was looking for fulfillment. And near the closing days of Seabrook’s life, Ollmann hilariously reveals the possible reasons for Seabrook’s drive and it’s a reason that makes Seabrook very human far more ordinary than his adventurous pursuits would lead you to believe that he was. 

Tackling Seabrook as his subject, Ollmann’s almost deadpan humor gives you a bit of room to view Seabrook as something less than awful. It's Ollmann's straight-forward delivery that makes Seabrook's ugly actions somewhat palatable. Building his story on a tightly constructed 9-panel frame, Ollmann’s cartooning has a strong sense of forward momentum. And at first, that momentum is fueled by Seabrook’s own desires and hungers. But that momentum eventually turns from forward drive to an uncontrollable and directionless march toward drunken entropy as Seabrook loses himself in his bottles and demons.

From a distance, Seabrook really is a bit of a monster. O.k. He is actually a really big monster but Ollmann’s depiction of the man is also oddly charming. In trying to fulfill his many appetites, Seabrook leaves a trail of devastated women behind him. A contemporary of the Lost Generation of writers post World War I, Seabrook frames his desires and his actions around explore and expand not just his mind but America’s minds. As much as he was a journalist, Seabrook also believed that he was an explorer of new frontiers and it was his responsibility go where we couldn’t back in the 1920s and 1930s. As Ollmann writes and draws him, Seabrook is a man who believes in his own hype even as he knows that he can’t live up to it. 

Today, we would probably call Seabrook an adventure junkie, a guy who gets as drunk off of the thought of subjecting a woman to bondage as he does by drinking bottle after bottle of whatever alcohol he can get his hands on. But for all of his horrible qualities, Ollmann also captures the parts about Seabrook that appealed to and attracted lovers and friends. The cartoonist depicts that early-20th-century-male swagger in Seabrook, the man as comfortably at home entertaining high society over polite drinks as he was at being carried on a litter through the jungles of Africa. Seabrook isn’t any kind of he-man but he’s a charming man about town, ready to regale you with his voodoo and cannibalistic adventures.

In the grand scheme of history, William Seabrook has become a minor character but Joe Ollmann’s biography of Seabrook shows us a man who is as much a man of his times as he is of our times. In The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, we see a man who lives to satisfy his own needs and desires, something that’s as much of a transgression in the 1930s as it is in 2017. In that way, Seabrook is a modern man. For the most part, Ollmann is able to sidestep any obvious signifiers of time so that Seabrook’s story isn’t tied into the early 20th century anymore or less than it could be tied into the present day. Seabrook’s story is not merely history thanks to how Ollmann tells the story; it’s simply the story of a man who was never truly happy within the constraints of his own life.