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The Man Who “Invented” Zombies

(Last Updated On: April 5, 2017)
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Acclaimed Canadian cartoonist Joe Ollmann has published The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.

The zombie myth, a metaphor for slavery, wasn’t created by a white guy. But William Seabrook’s 1929 bestseller The Magic Island was the vector that transmitted it from Afro-Caribbean folklore to American popular culture. Now acclaimed Canadian cartoonist Joe Ollmann has published The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, a biography of the journalist, travel writer, and sadomasochist who partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Upton Sinclair, whom he entertained by telling them humans taste like veal.

Let’s get the C-word out of the way. “Real” Haitian zombies don’t eat anything (the merest taste of meat or salt frees them from supernatural bondage and returns them to their graves), but in his 1930 Jungle Ways, Seabrook claimed to have been served human flesh by the Guéré tribe in what is now Mali. It was a lie, but he later bribed a hospital attendant for a cutlet from an amputated leg, which he grilled and ate in his flat. That grisly anecdote isn’t what drew Ollmann to Seabrook’s story.

“I’m uninterested in cannibalism and avoid people who are. That’s probably why my friend Bill Seabrook, a very nice retired schoolteacher who lives in Greensboro and is an expert on the father he never knew, helped me with this book. He’ll be appearing with me at Scuppernong on April 10th, but avoids those obsessed with the more lurid aspects of his namesake’s life, the cannibalism and the black magic and the S&M, for which I don’t blame him.”

I ask why he chose to tell Seabrook’s story in comics form, although I know this is like asking a prose biographer why he didn’t do his book as an opera.

His answer is typically self-deprecating. “I think you can condense large portions of time effectively in comics, although a better artist could have used the form more gracefully. I’m limited, so I did the best I could. Someone with real chops could have drawn the hell out of certain scenes. I actually contemplated doing it as a straight book, because drawing is hard and takes so long. But ultimately I’m a cartoonist, so that’s what I do.”

I like his book a lot and most reviews have been very favorable, but one NPR critic questioned expending so much effort on a sadomasochistic alcoholic who drank himself to death.

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“What bothered me was that she didn’t like the man, so she didn’t like the book. I believe some basic human elements are interesting to read about if they’re told well. It’s basic psychology to examine behavior, bad as well as good. I run a graphic novel book club and we just did Beverly by Nick Drnaso. Some people hated it. They were repelled by the themes. People want to read happy things, nice things. I’m attracted to reading about nice things too, but also things that aren’t. I found Seabrook’s autobiography fascinating. He’s self-deprecating but very self-forgiving, portraying himself as more loveable than I imagine him being. He mentions his faults, then makes light of them. His second wife tells a different story. I’m really conflicted about the guy. I liked him more at the beginning and less at the end, but still had sympathy for him.”

I ask Joe what made an autobiographical cartoonist turn to someone else’s life. He says that he’s always loved spooky stories, and that he first read Seabrook’s 1928 essay “Dead Men Working the Cane Fields” in Zombie!, an anthology by the British horror editor Peter Haining. “Dead Men,” which would become a chapter in Seabrook’s The Magic Island, tells the allegedly true story of zombi cadavres (the physical walking dead, as opposed to ghosts) raised from their graves by a married pair of overseers employed by the American Sugar Company, who worked their undead slaves day and night and pocketed their wages. The Magic Island became the inspiration for the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie.

“It was just a great piece of writing. The prose surprised me and the little bio made me seek out more. I just had to find out more about this guy. Somehow, ‘more’ turned into five years of research and another five years of writing and drawing.”

He mentions the irony of Seabrook’s account of live white people exploiting undead black ones inspiring a film in which Bela Lugosi tries to turn the heroine into the “White Zombie” of the title. “That’s like most appropriation of black culture, Elvis and jazz and all that.”

I note that Joe seems to favor a really traditional layout.

“I’m an idiot savant, and pacing works best for me with the nine-panel grid. I liken the panel to a movie screen, which doesn’t change shape to accommodate wider shots. Although I actually broke that rule a few times in this book, where I thought the travel scenes needed extra scope,”

Joe is looking forward to being at Scuppernong on Elm Street at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 10th. He’ll get a chance to ask his subject’s son what he thought of the book. “Bill is going to join me in speaking there. He and his wife were so nice last time I was in Greensboro. He had a recording, a metal disk from a radio show, so I got to hear his father’s voice. They were so kind and helpful to this weirdo from Canada.”

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