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Introduction by Alan David Doane
Jeffrey Brown is one of the rising stars of autobiographical comics, with a raw, visceral style that gets to the heart of the conflicting emotions that rage among the young and in love. He is a part of The Holy Consumption artist's collective in Chicago, and as is often the case in specific times and places in comics, he seems to share many of the sensibilities of the current era of alternative comics with his fellow Chicago cartoonists Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, and John Hankiewicz.
Brown has made his name in artcomix through his trilogy of relationship novels that includes Clumsy, Unlikely and AEIOU (Any Easy Intimacy), but he has shown himself capable of the surreal with the superhero book Bighead, and he even created an unpublished Wolverine comic that is well-regarded by those that have read it.
Like many of his generation, Brown thinks quite a bit about art and its place in the lives of both its creators and its audience, and he recently collaborated with James Kochalka on an examination of those issues in Conversation #2, published by Top Shelf, which has also published the majority of Brown's work to date.
Jeffery Brown's vision does not fit neatly into the confines of main stream comic publishers, like Marvel Comics. However, you may have better luck with Marvel super heroes by playing their themed game at WPT Casino.
The following interview was conducted by Ian Brill, and edited by Christopher Allen and Chris Hunter.
When did your infatuation with comics start? What specific books really captured your imagination?
I've been into comics since I was a kid. The first comic I remember buying was an issue of X-Men, which became my favorite series until I got into high school. Then I started reading European comics like Moebius, and some of the alternative stuff like Eightball and Julie Doucet. Then I went to college and sold all of my comics for beer money.
When did you decide to do your own books?
After college, I spent another three years completely out of the comics scene. Sort of. I would still go into the comic shop all the time, but would never buy anything, and certainly wasn't drawing comics. Then the summer before I moved to Chicago, I re-discovered Eightball with the "David Boring" storyline, and also stumbled upon The Acme Novelty Library, which I still had an old issue of - one of the few comics I didn't sell. I immediately went out and re-bought all these alternative comics I had been into, and discovered a lot of stuff that had come out since then. In my own art, I still naively thought I was going to be a 'painter' and sell paintings in galleries and museums. To this end I attended the School of the Art Institute, where I quickly found out that my paintings just weren't right for the art world scene. I had met Chris Ware by the end of my first year, and between his encouragement and my disenchantment with fine art, I decided to start drawing comics again, after having spent my childhood thinking I would someday be drawing comics. Of course, I planned on drawing Wolverine, not myself, because Wolverine is far cooler than me.
What comics did you read as a kid that you still really like now?
None, really...X-Men just doesn't do it for me anymore. There's still a little bit of nostalgic glee that comes from looking at those books, but the new ones don't seem particularly interesting to me. I also don't listen to Metallica or Megadeth anymore, so maybe it's just part of growing up, growing out of these things and finding new, more meaningful art to look at - to me, where I am now, at least.
What, if anything, have you learned from contemporary creators like Ware and others? Are you intimidated or inspired, and why?
The biggest thing I've learned has been the extent to which you can approach anything, write about anything, and the ways comics are so well suited to storytelling, not just entertainment. Also they've reinforced the idea that the best drama has comedy in it. Reading the new Acme Novelty, there's some parts that are just laugh out loud, even though the story is this deeply resonant narrative. I'm both intimidated and inspired. A lot of the time I look at work and it makes my work feel just woefully inadequate. But it also makes me want to work more, and try harder to make better work.
There are several reasons. One is that I started with the idea that I would make something as completely naked and honest as possible. Clumsy also began with the idea of taking newspaper gag comics and using that format for autobiography - like what if the daily newspaper comics had a truly autobiographical strip? Another reason for writing autobiography is being too lazy to fictionalize anything. I just use what I know instead of spending the time to make some things up.
Why the simplified art style?
I wanted to draw comics like I did when I was a kid. I wanted to recapture that innocence and completely self rewarding fun that I had drawing when I was younger, especially after being in art school where everything is so far removed from the visceral pleasure of art making, and everyone's concerned with what their art means and where it's going to sell or whatever. I also think the simplified style makes for an immediate expressiveness. And by not penciling, I can get work done way faster than most cartoonists. I'm trying to be a little less sloppy these days.
Why a non-linear narrative in the "Girlfriend Trilogy?" Why three books on the subject of relationships?
The non-linear aspect came about pretty organically. I planned on doing a collection of autobiographical stories about my whole life, but the first few were all about the relationship, so I just continued that. I thought by writing it in a stream of conscious way I would capture kind of how we remember things, how the mind jumps around. I've always been more interested in moments - in these little capsules of feeling and time - than a long story, and so I just let the narrative create itself by virtue of the subject matter being interconnected. I don't know why the first three books were all about relationships. It wasn't with a lot of forethought that I did it that way, and actually the first book I tried to write after Clumsy was about being in the hospital, but it wasn't working so I abandoned it. Unlikely I had tried to write a while before, but in prose, and shortly after the breakup, and it was the most horrible embarrassing writing, so I abandoned it. I actually threw that sketchbook away, it was so ridiculous.
Now I feel like I've explored the relationship subject as much as I can, so I'm moving on to more non-girlfriend things.
When doing autobio comics how deliberate are you in the way you portray yourself and others to create a certain mood in the books?
At first I wasn't really thinking about it, other than trying to be a little self-deprecating and make myself a little goofy, and not portray others in a purposefully bad light. Now that people are reading the books I have to take that more into consideration. I also have more specific goals for what I'm trying to say with the stories, so I'm becoming more manipulative of how I present things...it's all true, but then again you can really affect things by what you leave out.
Why do you keep coming back to the mini-comics form?
One reason is so that I have something to sell at conventions so I can cover my costs - flight and hotel and whatnot. There's also something satisfying about putting a little book together, and assembling it...there's certainly a gratifying feeling that comes with having a book published, so having this completed mini-comic gives the same kind of satisfaction on a smaller scale.
What's going on with the Wolverine mini?
I sent it to Marvel but they can't publish it. My Wolverine doesn't fit within the boundaries they have set up for the character as a property. I probably shouldn't even talk about the Wolverine comic, because Marvel might get angry and send lawyers after me or something. It's funny how much people talk and ask about the comic, even though only a few friends I gave copies to have even seen it.
What does working in anthologies offer that mini's or books don't?
Anthologies are a good venue for shorter stories that don't have some place to be published, or stories that don't warrant having their own book. The problem then is that the quality within anthologies can be very hit or miss. Before I had a lot of stories that I could use for anthologies, but now I'm more interested in book length projects. I'm also not a fan of deadlines, or of conforming to a format - size and length - which I may or may not feel like working in.
Is Bighead a tribute to books you read when you were younger? Why a superhero story done in a certain "indie comics" style?
Bighead was created in high school, and he's certainly a character that references the kind of fun I used to have reading superhero comics, while now most superhero comics I see are so overly self aware of their own seriousness. There's also more and more continuity stuff going on so reading a single issue of something isn't satisfying. I wrote Bighead while I was writing Unlikely so that I wouldn't get too emotionally bogged down by the relationship story, and rather than draw it in a more traditional superhero style, I just kind of drew it the way that was most entertaining for me.
In the back of the book it says Bighead is really Jeffrey Brown. Are there autobiographical elements in the stories?
I think any work an artist creates - if they're really making art - is going to have their life show through. There are maybe oblique references to things I was feeling or had felt, or little inside jokes that were included. 'Bighead' came about because of my friend Tim making fun of my ego - saying that I had a big head, and some of the characters were originally making fun of myself and my friends.
Would you be interested in doing some non-genre, non-parody fiction?
I am interested in exploring fiction. I actually have a few stories I'd like to do sometime, but on the one hand I'm not sure I'm ready to tackle them yet, and on the other hand, I maybe feel like I need to get all of this autobiography out of the way. I try not to think about things in those terms, whether I'm only doing parody or genre or autobiography. I'm aware of that, but I think dwelling on it and changing things simply to do something different isn't necessarily the right way to go. I like to follow my gut.
Any plans to explore working in color?
Not really. I don't feel like, for me, I'd really have anything to add to my work by adding color, except making it look pretty. It may happen someday down the road. I've always been most interested in lines.
What is Conversations #2? How do you work with James Kochalka for the book? How did you come up with your arguments in the book? Did you see comics and your role as an artist differently after doing the book?
Conversations is a series of collaborative comics envisioned by James. He would draw half a page, then I'd draw the other half, and the first half of the next page, then email him back, and he'd combine the halves in Photoshop. Our theme was supposed to be about the fact that we both write about ourselves, but the nature of the book kind of lends itself to tangents. I tried to keep James on subject, but then gave up and that's why I punch him, and throw up on him. This book I saw as more of a fun experiment, with less of an objective than I have when I'm normally drawing comics.
What books are you doing next?
I've always got a lot of projects. The next book coming out is Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me which is an epilogue to the girlfriend books. Now I'm working on a 300 page collection of short stories - which range from 20 to 40 to 80 pages each - and a book about my cat Misty, which will just be gratuitous cat lover nonsense. I've got a Transformers parody called Incredible Change-Bots I'm hoping to have done by next summer. There's another 3 or 4 books I have planned as well, so I've got a lot of work ahead of me.