Review by Frank Plowright
My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is an extraordinarily dense read that at first appears crude and off-putting. Sticking with it, though, unfolds a cross-referenced journey through creator David Heatley’s life via five topics. This lack of linear progression is a work-intensive method that’s initially unsatisfying as the concentration of extremely small panels rules out anything other than surface gloss. For all the unsavoury revelations comprising the first chapter on sex, there’s frequently only the barest insight regarding Heatley’s behaviour and the decisions he makes. Plenty of Larry David style “Why would you do that?” moments are scattered through the narrative, yet often the only conclusion we’re left to deduce is that it’s part of Heatley’s character.
The elements we do discern are reflected by others as Heatley becomes known by the company he keeps. This changes frequently, because in his youth he appears a boy who can’t say “no”, and later relationships and friendships peter out for the same reason, although he’s become more practiced at hiding away.
It’s with the chapter titled ‘Race’ that the book starts to open up and elements of the previous chapter are clarified as we trot through Heatley’s life again from a different perspective. This is followed by ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’ and ‘Kin’, each adding to what becomes a comprehensive autobiographical picture compiled by anecdote, recollection and minor incidents. Nearly all puzzling elements are eventually clarified, and the repetition applies an understanding that the first chapter alone lacked. As an example, Heatley portrays himself in his mid-teens constantly wearing a headband, a puzzling fashion statement eventually revealed as the sleeve of an old shirt.
The art remains problematical, though. The deliberate savage simplicity brings to mind the work of Mark Marek, and while there’s a considerable skill in being able to produce any narrative in such cramped fashion it requires an immersion to mine the rewards, and based on the art alone its an immersion many won’t commit to. The book will slot back on the shelf and the more attractive style of Joe Matt, mining similar territory, will win the day.
Dream sequences also feature, and are the only strips presented in more traditional larger panels where Heatley’s flat style further distances any reader unable to find fascination in the dreams of others.
There’s a final oddity to be mentioned. Heatley’s love of hip-hop is deep and detailed, so the selection of a Ramones lyric as the title is incongruous, and remains unexplained with no direct correlation to anything within.
My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a frustrating book. There’s an obvious and developing talent on display, and the patience to present autobiographical material in a complex fashion, yet when untangled Heatley’s experiences rarely transcend those of anyone else. The fascination is in the puzzle rather than the content.
The US Amazon page contains an exclusive strip produced by Heatley for the listing, and it should also be noted that further strips appear beneath the dust cover.