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July 1, 2007 | Interview

An Interview with Jeffrey Brown

Tom McHenry

An Interview with Jeffrey Brown photo

Jeffrey Brown entered the comics world with three intimate autobiographical graphic novels about failed relationships. Then a comic about a superhero with a giant head. Then one about cats. And soon: transforming robots. While his thematic scope expands with each new book, Brown's work consistently feels raw and honest.

His linework is often spidery or cramped, and his mistakes are sometimes simply scribbled out. And it's this honesty at every stage of craft -- the fact that Brown writes about losing his virginity, his love of cats and The Transformers; and times he's been an absolute jerk to someone he cared about -- that makes you want to protect him somehow. Like maybe he forgot to erect a wall of irony and detachment around himself, and any minute now the eye-rolling bastards are going to storm in and really work him over.

I corresponded with Brown for a few weeks, hoping to tease out just how he creates this feeling in us and learned he's more than capable of fending for himself.

* * *

I wanted to start in really general terms -- so much of your work deals in memoir, whether it's the purpose of the work in Clumsy or Unlikely, or something tangentially autobiographical like Cat Getting Out of a Bag. Even your gag panels often feature you as the primary actor -- so I wondered what draws you to, well, yourself? What about memoir or autobiography as a genre appeals to you and where do you see its shortcomings?

Initially I began writing autobiography while in art school to create a kind of antithesis to what I saw in the art world of incestuous, self referential art that wasn't really relevant to the actual human experience -- hence creating a book like Clumsy where I was trying to be as honest and human and real as possible. Since then I guess I've continued to build on that, with maybe the vague idea that at some point I'll stop writing memoirs and then you'd theoretically be able to look at all those works and it would be one big complex statement about life. I think also for me, art is about the process of understanding and finding meaning in life, and so it makes sense to use myself because there isn't any subject that could be more relevant to my own life. Which is maybe a little self-involved or masturbatory, except that I've found that my life is by no means so unique that my experiences can't provide meaning or insight to others. I think the distinction between doing it this way rather than with fiction is that as a reader, we tend to feel duped a little when we find out that the artwork commenting on a particular aspect of life came from someone who wasn't especially intimate with that aspect -- not always, I guess, but generally. A straight white middle class male is going to have a hard time creating something about a poor, minority lesbian that rings true. I haven't fully thought out that kind of theory, but the 'scandal' and disappointment with JT Leroy's writings or the James Frey memoir A Million Little Pieces seems to point to some inherent trust a reader gives to work that is presented as personal. And finally I think I use myself because I don't have to feel as guilty about using myself in that way. Although I guess that leaves the question of the other 'characters' in my book. Fiction offers a lot of freedom from the strictures of memoir, and maybe the best art lands somewhere in between the two, but I haven't evolved to that point quite yet.


Just as you see each of your books fitting together to form a larger statement about life, each seems made up of even smaller moments and fragments. Let's take Cat Getting Out of a Bagfor example, that book builds Misty as an entire character through shorter strips and drawings. Any strip could probably function alone, but together something larger emerges. Could you tell me a little about your process for generating these larger works out of smaller pieces? Is there a sense you have for what each piece needs to do to function within the whole work?

I think one of the ways our memory works is by focusing on individual moments that represent larger parts of our life. I can remember a time my oldest brother bought me a Transformers toy after we drove to Toys-R-Us, and at the same time that moment represents my relationship with him and feelings about that. So I usually start with an overarching theme -- in that case it'd be my relationship with my brother -- and then I think of all those little moments that are important somehow, without trying to overanalyze any of it. Once I've got a group of these moments and events together, I start editing, cutting out things that repeat a sentiment, or things that end up not being all that relevant even if they're funny or interesting, although I guess I tend to leave some of those in, because I think they can also inform the context of what the truly meaningful parts are in. Then it's a question of assembling these moments to express whatever idea or thought or feeling I have, balancing out where different parts fit best, the emotional or serious and the humorous, getting the right feel for the book, which is mostly an intuitive process, I guess. In the end it's still letting memory and feeling determine most of what's included in the book, and focusing on the moments that have stuck with me the most.

What about your using titles for each of these moments? These titles are sometimes jokes or meta-commentary on the moment from after the fact. Do you see titles as a chance for you to use a narrator's voice from outside the scene?

 

I like titles. I spend a lot of time actually just coming up with titles. I think of titles almost as one-line poems. I've mostly avoided narration in my comics because I don't want to influence what a reader may think or spell anything out explicitly. So I think of titles as a way of providing additional context to place the moment in, or to give away some related piece of information maybe. Sometimes a title is just there to add an additional level of crystallization to the moment, but maybe the best are titles that deepen the meaning of a moment or even add a slight twist or irony that wouldn't be there otherwise.


I'd like to break things down to a smaller level now -- how important is each page as an individual unit to you? Do you take into consideration visual design issues like which panel comes first or last on a page and how they play off each other?

It depends...sometimes a page ends being more important in terms of the information it's relaying, so I lose track of the visual design, while other times the action within the comic dictates a more design oriented approach.

In either case I tend to follow my gut instincts and approach aesthetics from an intuitive position rather than a carefully thought out or planned method. I do most of my layouts in my head first and work from there. With the autobiographical comics I'm usually working within the rhythm of a six-panel grid format, so the pacing and design is all fit into that kind of skeletal structure, and having worked with it for so long now I have a pretty good feel for how things will play out on a page or from page to page, even when I'm just starting the scripting process. For my other comics -- like the most recent book, The Incredible Change-Bots, it's an entirely different process, and the design of each page is much more organic and having panels play off each other within a page or setting things up from page to page is much more common. In those books, I'm still working from my gut, but I'm also more likely to think about the design of each page and am maybe a little more visually motivated.


You brought up something else I wanted to ask about -- the standardized panel grids. What are the benefits and drawbacks of using these "skeletal structures" over the course of an entire work as opposed to something more organic in page layout?

Although some people think the standard layout is boring, the one big advantage is letting the impact of a particular panel be determined by its content, rather than having the form tell the reader how much attention they should be paying to something. Also, in terms of the way I pace those stories, maintaining that general grid form has been a way to control the speed with which a reader covers each page; because each panel is going to take roughly the same amount of time to read, I can have greater control over this pace without worrying if the reader is going to breeze through a splash page or get bogged down every time a page has more panels than other pages. I've started to play with that form a little bit with the autobiographical stories, although so far they've generally varied only slightly from the six-panel grid. The whole six panel grid started because my original intent was to draw these moments as if they were daily newspaper comics, only to find that 3 or 4 panels wasn't enough space, and the six panels fit pretty well in the portrait sketchbooks I like to draw in.

What's striking then is when you've got something like in Cat Getting Out of a Bag where the book is almost entirely in a 9 panel grid until there's this one two-page spread where the cat slides right off of one page and into another -- escaping the panel border, the established grid and even the divide between pages. It's funny but almost shocking in its variation. Is this another kind of play with standard forms you established?

 

I've never been a big fan of experimentation for experimentation's sake, or of gimmicks...for me, throwing in a change-up like that has more of an impact when it doesn't happen so often. When I first came up with Bighead back in high school, every issue was composed entirely of splash pages, so every page is just one big glorious panel. The whole idea behind a splash page is its impact, making a 'splash'...so I'm very careful about when and where I'll play with the form significantly. I'm doing it more and more, although I probably won't experiment as much as some of the other new generation of cartoonists like Paul [Hornschemeier] or Anders [Nilsen]. For me, I've just never been able to mix that play with the content in any significant way. When I do anything, it tends to be fairly understated or subtle, and I'm content to have it that way.


Comics seem to have a default distance between the reader and the work that is very close, especially when the reader knows the work is autobiographical. When you tightly control the reader's experience, does it create an even closer distance between the reader and your work, or does it give you more opportunities for ambiguities and omissions?

I think books in general are intimate -- they're these hand held, tactile objects, that never go beyond arm's reach, and as objects have personalities in addition to whatever their content is. I try to not control the reader much, other than in terms of pacing and how they get information -- in terms of what the reader's response is, what they feel or think about what they've read, or how they interpret things, I leave to them as much as possible.

That's one reason most of my autobiography has no narration, because I wanted to avoid having any indicators of how the reader should be taking something because of what some omniscient narrator says. Something happens and they can think it's funny or sad or pathetic. In a way this ambiguousness is what actually brings the reader closer, and maybe makes the work more universal, because the reader can bring their own experiences and feelings and thoughts into how they interpret what they're reading. As with any form of autobiography, there's always the question of the author's objectivity or lack thereof, and what they're leaving unsaid.


Lastly, are there any other craft elements you want to expand on? Something key to your aesthetic that you always wished people asked about?

One thing people don't seem to ask a lot about is the format of the original art, which goes hand in hand with the aesthetic. I typically draw directly in blank sketchbooks, at the same size as the comics are printed at, directly in ink with little if any penciling, with the end result being a sketchbook that contains the complete book. People are always interested when they see the books, but don't ask about that much. I think there's an assumption that most cartoonists draw on big sheets of bristol, which is still the case with the majority of cartoonists probably. For me having the book exist as its own original work of art ties in to my experience with art history and art school, and as much as I like the idea of the completed printed book being the 'art' so to speak, the process is an important part of arriving at that -- how the final product is made is part of what it ends up meaning, I think. For most art, I think reproductions don't do the actual piece justice -- I can't count the number of times I've been astounded to see the difference between an actual work of art from what I've seen in books and magazines. I'd like to think that seeing the actual, original drawings for comics would add to the appreciation a reader has for a particular work.

image: Jeffrey Brown


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