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The life of Wilhelm Reich as drawn by Elijah Brubaker

Elijah Brubaker's 'Reich' is a biography in comics of the psychologist and scientist Wilhelm Reich
Wilhelm Reich believed diseases such as cancer and mental illness were result of repressed orgone energy
Remembering Wilhelm Reich, who died in prison in 1957, after persecution by the U.S. government

When Wilhelm Reich died in prison in 1957, he was a scientist disgraced. Remembered, if at all, as the inventor of the orgone accumulator (William S. Burroughs and William Steig, among others, were devotees), Reich was once an associate of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and immigrated to the United States in 1939. By the 1950s, however, he found himself the target of government persecution, largely for his theory of Orgonomy, which posited that diseases such as cancer and mental illness were the result of repressed orgone energy. Such energy, Reich believed, was a kind of life force, although his detractors framed it in more prurient, even sexualized, terms. Eventually, he was jailed and much of his research materials, including copies of his own books, were destroyed.

Reich may seem an unlikely hero for a comic, but that, Elijah Brubaker suggests, is the point. The Oregon-based comics artist has put out 11 issues of “Reich,” a biography in graphic form, with Portland’s Sparkplug Comics; a 12th and final issue is still to come. For Brubaker, what’s compelling about Reich is less the image we may have of him than the tortured and conflicted human underneath.

Recently, Brubaker and I corresponded, via email, about Reich, comics and the rigors of the extended serial.

Why Reich? He’s a fascinating figure, if (at this point) largely overlooked.

As a kid, I got into William Burroughs and heard of Reich through his writings. At first, I was drawn to the outlandish, fringe nature of Reich’s ideas about “sex energy” and UFOs and cloudbusting. I loved “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” with Jack Palance and “In Search Of...” and I was really affected by that Nostradamus movie narrated by Orson Welles, called “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.” I was attracted to anything that made the world seem even bigger and crazier than it was. That’s what Reich represented. I could always have some cool, crazy thing to talk about because I had Reich in my back pocket.

Once I got it into my head to do a biography, Reich was right there, waiting for me. As I read his work more closely, and read everything I could find about him, he became an even better subject. He went from being some cool mad scientist who was unfairly jailed by an oppressive system to a real human being in my mind. Once that happened, it was pretty easy to get the writing started.

Did you always intend for “Reich” to be a long-term series?

I had the notion to do a long-ish biography before I even knew who it was going to be about. I felt like it was time to challenge myself as a cartoonist and at the time, the book market was realizing graphic novels were a thing. All this great work was flooding bookstores: David B’s “Epileptic,” Kim Deitch’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel.” I saw that stuff and I said, “That is ambitious; I should be ambitious.” I don’t think I have a whole lot in common with any of those guys storytelling-wise, but I stole as much from them and others as I could.

You’ve been working on this, issue by issue, for nearly a decade. What are the challenges of that time span? The rewards?

When Sparkplug started putting “Reich” out, it was quarterly and I managed to stick to that for a year and a half or so. About half the book was released in a relatively short time, but I had a kind of mid-life crisis, and then my publisher, who was also a very good friend, died. So there was never any plan for this book to take so long to get into the world. I expected to be done with it about seven years ago.

One of the benefits of working on the same story for so long is that I can see the progress. I can get pretty down on myself for being a mediocre cartoonist but I do think the later issues of “Reich” are much stronger than the older stuff.

How did Sparkplug get involved?

I’d met Dylan Williams maybe a year before he started Sparkplug and he was always super supportive and cool. I’d show him my minicomics and zines and he’d be all over them. When he started publishing stuff other than his own comics, I hit him up to do a horror comic I was working on. He politely declined because it just wasn’t there yet.

A couple of years later, I put out a “Reich” minicomic, which was a poorly printed version of “Reich” #1, and Dylan liked it. We were hanging out at the Wordstock book fest thing in Portland, and under his breath, as he was leaving, he said he’d be interested in publishing “Reich.”

What are your expectations of your readers? How do you create stand-alone comics that are also part of an ongoing biography?

When I started I had no expectation of readership and the first few issues just, kind of, stop. I think I had an almost antagonistic relationship with readers. If you don’t understand issue 2, that’s on you, maaan. You should have read issue 1. The series was definitely directed at the type of person who collects comics and follows the story beginning to end. As I started to realize the book was going to take longer than expected, and that more and more people would probably pick up a random issue at a zine show or something, I started making adjustments to my storytelling techniques. I don’t think it was conscious at first but I did start fretting more when I was coming to the end of an issue. I still don’t think I’ve successfully made any of the issues really stand-alone, but hopefully they’re interesting enough to make people seek out the rest of the book.

As Reich got older he became embattled, paranoid. We see this in the later issues, as he begins to be harassed by the government, and his theories grow unhinged. Is such a shift difficult to portray?

I’ve never understood the notion of a likable character. That’s boring and superficial. I know a ton of likable people but deep down, we’re all inhabited by vortices of raw emotion, we make bad decisions, we do and say weird things all the time. That’s the stuff I want to get at, and “Reich” has allowed me to dig into it.

I don’t claim to represent Reich as he was. All I know is my interpretation of what I’ve read of him. I have my own biases and urges as a storyteller, but I’ve tried to make my approximation of him as accurate as I can.

Comics require a certain shorthand of text and image. How does that come into play in a story this complex?

I’ve been a cartoonist my entire life, and that’s the language in which I’ve taught myself to think. I don’t really think of text and image as separate entities I have to blend together. Of course, they are, and I do, but it all happens somewhere in my lizard brain.

I’ve been searching for an accurate analogy, and thankfully I can’t find one. There is nothing else on earth like making comics, and I love being able to play around in this art form. I mean that sincerely. I love it, with all my heart.

Do you feel Reich’s theories have validity?

That’s sort of a sticky wicket. Reichians are a sensitive bunch. Orgonomy is such a multifaceted collection of disciplines and interesting ideas. It may be valid as a psychotherapeutic tool or an interesting lens through which to view social constructs. Overall, though, it’s lost in a quagmire of strange philosophy and bad science. Reich’s pre-Orgonomy work holds a lot of real value, I think.

Are there plans to collect “Reich” in a single volume, once issue 12 comes out?

I’ve talked to people here and there about collecting the thing because that was the intent all along. I waffle on a daily basis, though. I don’t want to know an artist who would look back at decade-old work and think it looks great. I’d have to do a lot of redrawing as well as correcting all my weird spelling mistakes and probably re-letter the entire book.

Reich has become something of a pop culture figure, referenced by Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Robert Anton Wilson. Is that his legacy?

Unfortunately, I do think that is his legacy. You’ll always be able to hear how the feds came and burned all his books for no reason. Like most things in life, however, the real story is a little more nuanced. Reich was hounded in the particular way only the U.S. government of the 1950s could hound people, but he also alienated and dismissed many people and organizations that were willing to help. Much of his persecution could have been avoided. All in all, it seems like none of us have much control in how we’re remembered by those we leave behind.

Twitter: @davidulin

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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