Porn again

David Heatley finds grace in his troubling thoughts.

CONFESS ARTIST Heatley reveals himself.

CONFESS ARTIST Heatley reveals himself. Illustration: David Heatley

Take a cursory look through My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, David Heatley’s autobiographical book-length comic, and your eyes might bug out. In the first section, “Sex History,” Heatley’s rather adorable, simply drawn characters—including, of course, himself—scamper around nude, engaging in a profusion of sex acts, as though in a porn version of Peanuts. In “Black History,” the artist, who grew up immersed in hip-hop culture in the mixed-race town of Teaneck, New Jersey, depicts his sometimes conflicted relationships with African-American friends and schoolmates. Heatley intersperses his graphic memoir with a selection of dreams, illustrated in blazing colors—in one, a woman orders “three pounds of vagina” at a butcher shop; in another, Heatley’s dream self is chased by a homeless black man.

Look under the dust jacket, though, and you’ll find a key to all of this sweetly illustrated turmoil. A small cartoon runs along the book’s spine: Beneath the caption “God,” a ray of light embraces the praying Heatley. A stealthy spiritual thread runs throughout Heatley’s debut, and the troubling emotions found therein are exorcised through confession. After chronicling every one of his sexual experiences, Heatley describes his six months of abstinence while his wife was pregnant. “Black History” concludes with a fit of rage the author had after an aggressive subway encounter with a black woman; when the meltdown subsided, he had a revelation: “If I treat people like objects in my way,” his cartoon self thinks, “they’ll focus their rage on me.”

The 33-year-old artist, who lives with his wife and kids in Jackson Heights, Queens, admits that his belief in God—“not in a Christian God but something that kind of directs my purpose”—informs all of his work. “Where all the strips end ultimately is coming to some sort of place of grace or spirituality or acceptance.” He’s compared his comics to an illuminated manuscript; the delicately colored, closely packed panels also bring to mind the stained-glass windows of a church. “There’s really something prayerful about making this stuff,” he says, “like bearing witness to yourself and the world.” The title of My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down is lifted from a Ramones song, the one where “Bonzo goes to Bitburg.” But the author sees worship in Joey Ramone’s delivery, too. “ ‘I need something to slow me down’—those are the words. I hear Joey raging up against God, like, ‘I’m suffering down here. C’mon, give me some relief.’ It almost feels like one of the psalms.”

My Brain is rounded out by two warts-and-all sections devoted to his relationships with his parents, as well as a family history that begins with his great-great-grandfather’s arrival in America and ends with the birth of the cartoonist’s children. But for all his self-exposure, the author ends up covering himself, a little. Heatley’s “Sex History”—early childhood fumblings, polymorphous couplings at Oberlin College, dating in mid-’90s New York, compulsive masturbation—originally appeared in his self-published comic Deadpan. For the version that appears in My Brain, however, he’s placed tiny fluorescent triangles and rectangles over his characters’ genitals—an act of concealment after so much confession. “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind. It’s really about longing and bad sex and lack of connection.” The bleep-outs “almost draw attention to it, but it’s like another layer of the narrative—me kind of covering up a little bit before publication.”

That nod toward modesty is indicative, he says, of his interest in keeping his work as direct and accessible as possible. “When I first started doing comics, it was like: The more extreme, the better. Now I just want it to be this big, loud broadcast. I don’t need it to be just for the wounded few out there.” Heatley says his four years working at an advertising firm “was training for boiling down ideas to their most elemental. All of that has definitely influenced my comics: Why say it in ten words when you can say it in five? Get it as tight and concise as possible. It leaves more to the reader to fill in their own history around it and read their own life into it.”

In that spirit, the cartoon version of David Heatley, awkward and a little blank, is very different from the real-life David Heatley, who’s confident and talkative. Sitting in his studio on an industrial block of Long Island City, Heatley wears a brilliantly colored LaCoste shirt, his dirty-blond hair in a Tintin cut, unlike his floppy-coiffed cartoon alter ego. “I wound up getting kind of a makeover since I made this book,” he admits. “I used to have that combed, longer hair. Anything I draw about my life from now on will be the new and improved me.”

My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon, $24.95) is out now.

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