Going Brown

There’s a saying about the debut album by the Velvet Underground,
the ’67 Portrait of the artist... Warhol/Eno/Reed concoction with the peeling-banana cover:
that everyone who bought the record went on to start their own band.
Silly, yes, but the lesson — that you don’t need gristle-free chops
or a Conservatory degree to make solid, even transcendent, music —
still strikes a chord.

Jeffrey Brown is the cartoonist version of the cliché. At least
his work is — the artist in fact has a fine arts degree (an MFA, no
less) and illustrating skillz up the wang chung, though he buries
his craft so deeply that a cursory breeze through his comics might
miss it. Open Brown’s first graphic novel, the 2002 sketchbook comic
Clumsy, and you’ll be stooped by how simply it’s drawn, the
palsied line, sloppy shading, malformed figures with fileted limbs.
In short, its clumsiness. You’d have to be alert to notice how
accurate the perspectives and proportions are, and how much detail
he squeezes into each ostensibly rushed panel. “By cutting out all
that excess rendering and posturing and reworking, just throwing the
feelings down on paper, there’s an immediacy to the lines that comes
through,” Brown says. “I try to draw how I could when I was a kid.”

Sounds like a cop-out. If the result weren’t so disarming,
pulling you unaware into its gaping maw. Brown’s 2003 book,
AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy, (self-published, US$23) was the
third and last episode in his “girlfriend” series, after Clumsy
and the achingly bare Unlikely, published the previous summer.
AEIOU continued his formula of constructing subtly masterful
stories from the disassembled bits of a waning relationship,
minutely recreating each wrenching moment with a shrink’s expert ear
and an infant’s awkward hand. It’s a fascinating mix, given how
effectively his wilfully crude art summons complex emotions that
slicker work often freezes in its mechanical fingers, if it tries
them at all. He says, “I was tired of the lack of humanity in the
art I saw while in grad school [The School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, from which he graduated in 2002]. I just thought maybe
people would like to see that the idealized, romanticized,
fictionalized portrayals of relationships in our popular media
aren’t necessarily real or absolute.” ... behind the couch.

The 31-year-old began cartooning in earnest five years ago,
scooping an Ignatz Award nomination for Promising New Talent his
first time out, with Clumsy. The fullness of his
draftsmanship is amply displayed at a website he shares with John
Hankiewicz, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen
( All four are members of Chicago’s
morbidly gifted comics coven. Unlike the quishy trauma of his
heartache books, Brown’s minis (sold and sampled online) are
blisteringly funny, betraying a keen eye for composition and the
fangs for meaty satire. In one story, a superhero parody that could
have been written by a recalcitrant Dr. Phil, his protagonist
Bighead incapacitates the villainous Bullman by sitting him on a
couch and counselling, “You don’t have to fit the preconceived
cultural paradigm.” To which Bullman retorts, “Dammit Bighead, you
always make me feel like I’m walking on eggshells!”

But Brown’s autobiographical work is the summit of his skill thus
far, its purposeful gawkiness a surprising foil for the adult
stories he seems to effortlessly conjure, the strange, discomfiting,
blissfully messy embers of a dying romance. “I hope [readers] laugh,
and can learn about how life is,” he says, “and see that they’re not
the only [ones] out there screwing things up all the time.”

With a handful of full-length books and several minis to his name, you might think Brown would be
resting his wrist for the next marathon shift at his drawing board.
There’s also that full-time job at the bookstore. “Well apparently
by cartoonist standards I’m ‘prolific,'” he replies. When we spoke three years ago, he quickly stanched the suggestion. “[I’m working on] a 40-page story for the next [Drawn
& Quarterly] showcase,” he said, “a parody of Clumsy and a superhero
book from Top Shelf next year, plenty of anthology, magazine and
book appearances. Some pages in the McSweeney’s comics issue.
In February, MiniSulk, a self-published 64-page collection of
shorts. Some other stuff. I dunno. Finding a new girlfriend maybe.”

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