Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Odds and Gems #5: Jeffrey Brown's AEIOU

Words: Gene Kogan . Pictures: Jeffrey Brown

As any hardcore comic book fan will attest, with missionary fervor, we make it our life long agenda to expose and convert as many people to the form as possible.  We pass out comics like Jehovah’s Witnesses, to anyone kind enough to accept them.  This is, of course, an anxiety ridden proposition, as we’re mortified by the prospect that someone will reject our beloved stories, as if we had a hand in composing them.  Because of this, we really focus on the greatest of artists, time tested stories, and lovable characters, to sway the philistine civilians.  And we come bearing explanations, charts, awards, New York Times reviews or anything else to validate our recommendations and to keep said target from crossing the street to avoid the obsessive nerd.  But I digress.   Of all the works and artists I’ve pushed on this exhausted crowd - a list that includes Sandman, Maus, Bone, Usagi, Fables, 100 Bullets, Watchmen, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Eddie Campbell, Robert Crumb – only one artist has hit the mark every time. 

Jeffrey Brown seems to have some kind of magical, hypnotic allure for everyone.  Not once has anyone expressed disappointment or indifference at the recommendation.  With all due respect to Mr. Brown, I find it truly amazing that his work, among all the others I’ve recommended, never fails to make an impression.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Brown’s work.  I have most of his published work and if I didn’t love his comics, I wouldn’t recommend them in the first place.  But considering the quality of the works I’ve passed out over the years, including those mentioned above, it’s remarkable that Jeffrey Brown stands alone in this achievement.   What is it about his work that endears it to so many?   His art is loose, sketchy and inconsistent.  At first glance, it seems almost amateurish.  Certainly, anyone who is already a fan of his work knows this is not the case, but at initial introduction, it’s easy to make that quick judgment.  Yet, each and every time I was met with an enthusiastic request for more recommendations, both of Brown’s work and those of other similar artists.  And that’s just it.  There really are no similar artists.  Jeffrey Brown is unique.  He’s a singular talent and his appeal really has no parallels.  It’s something certainly worthy of further examination.   But that’s not why I’m here.    

[The sketchbook AEIOU is drawn in, next to the author's copy of the xerox limited edition.]

In the last 10 years, Jeffrey Brown has become one of the most prolific comic book artists on the planet.  He’s puts out a new book seemingly every 15 minutes.  And amazingly they’re all excellent.  His topics vary greatly, and have included autobiographical work, short stories, observational comics, superhero and pop culture parodies and a treatise on cats.  But Brown first became, and still is primarily, known for what has been dubbed the “girlfriend trilogy” which is actually comprised of 5 books:  Clumsy, Unlikely, AEIOU: An Easy Intimacy, an epilogue titled Every Girl is the End of the World for Me and a self parody comic called Be a Man, an answer to all the blowhards (mostly from the blog comment crowd) who felt that he came across too wimpy in Clumsy.  If you’ve never read his work, you are doing yourself a great disservice.  I would immediately pick up Clumsy or one of his other works.  You will be amazed.  

[The back of the xerox copy. All the text was hand written, only the drawing was printed.]

I say this with all sincerity: Clumsy may be one of the greatest graphic novels ever published.  You can debate this all you like, but I genuinely believe it.  There is a remarkable lyricism to it; a wonderful rhythm.  Rich in humor, tinged with sadness, it’s a joy ride on an emotionally long and twisted road, in spots bumpy and smooth, with an incredible view.  It’s powerfully simple, yet clairvoyantly complex.  It’s brutally honest, stripping the artist naked, often quite literally.  And in its story and art, taken as a whole, Clumsy is like no other comic preceding it.  It’s a true original.  For me, that puts it up there.  Unlikely, Brown’s follow up to Clumsy, falls a step below, only in that it’s lacking the novelty and originality of the first release.  But in every other respect, it’s a work of equal brilliance, if not superior is some ways, with Brown maturing as an artist and storyteller.  AEIOU stood out from the first two, in that it was looser in structure, with greater gaps in the story, and a diminished sense of linear flow.  Every Girl and Be a Man are both fun and clever and all the works make a wonderful whole, while individually, they’re terrific stand alone stories and vignettes.  As the nickname given these works suggest, these stories are about his relationships, how they played out, how he dealt with them and the impact they had on his life.  He makes it very clear that this is not a document of his relationships, but his perspective on them.  His art is not immediately attractive, as it’s scratchy and uneven.  But there is so much wonderful detail in his panels and the images have a complexity to them that only reveal themselves once you’re sucked into the story.  They are easily some of the most expressive comics ever produced, with certain panels having such an emotional punch, you have to sit and dwell on it before continuing, often self-referentially.  And it resonates.  I remember thinking about these books months after, revisiting them to look at sequences and referencing them when coming across similar moments in my life.

[The inside of the xerox copy, with taped in note fragment.]

Shortly after reading Clumsy and Unlikely, I was in LA on business.  And as I tend to do each time I’m in LA, I stopped by Meltdown Comics, one of my all time favorite comic purveyors.  There, at the counter, as I was checking out with my typically enormous pile, I spotted an odd book.  A small, thickish thing, held together at the spine by what appeared to be black electrical tape.  The cover was white and had an odd drawing of a stubbled face holding a telephone receiver with a word balloon that read “Thanks for calling.” It was the last copy they had.  Intrigued, I picked up the book and examined it.  The back had a shadowy image of a woman with “an easy intimacy” written above it and AEIOU down the side.  It stated “edition of 390” and had “$23” encircled.  It wasn’t until I looked inside that I realized the book was by Jeffrey Brown.  Of course, I immediately added it to my pile, no doubt challenging the structural integrity of the counter.

I was truly excited by this book and couldn’t wait to examine it further.  It was the first thing I pounced on when I got to the hotel, being careful not to handle it too much, as I got the sense it might come unhinged from the binding at any time (it never has).  The majority of the book consisted of comics, but there were pages of puzzles, checklists, weird odds and ends.  There was also a page which had a little piece of paper with some writing taped to it.  It was a truly a bizarre little construction.  I read the book on the plane back to New York.  I wish I could say I loved the story immediately.  I didn’t.  It had similar components to Clumsy and Unlikely, but it was much looser, both in its drawings and the writing.  The art was scratchier and messier then in his earlier books, and the story seemed to have gaps and jumps, which affected the flow.  Perhaps if I hadn’t already read Clumsy and Unlikely, I would have appreciated it more, but having been spoiled by those books, I found it less endearing.   It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I reread the mass released version (several times) that the story really grew on me.  I found the liberal structure lent the work a more poetic quality and it playfully engaged the imagination, allowing the mind to project and fill in the gaps.  While I enjoyed Clumsy and Unlikely more initially, it was AEIOU I kept returning to for subsequent reads. 

[This story appeared in the xerox version, but wasn't reprinted in the Top Shelf edition. Jeffrey originally wrote this after Dan Nadel invited him to submit something to the Ganzfeld, but he didn't like it as much. You can also see on the side of the pages, there's a star - Jeffrey hand-drew that on each copy too.]

Still, it’s the format that really lingered.  The book had a special place in my collection and I’ve been endlessly fascinated by it since I first picked it up.  It’s a book tailor made for this column.  In fact, it was the inspiration for it.  It was going to be the topic of my first column.  Unfortunately, in researching the book, I found exactly nothing relating to it.  No listings, no reviews, nobody offering it for sale, a very few even aware of its existence.  The only things I was able to find were ads in a couple of Brown’s other books referencing it.  What struck me was the proclamation that this third book of the trilogy would “never be reprinted.”  Of course, “never” in comic books has a very different definition than it does in the dictionary, and obviously a mass version was eventually released.  Because of this, anything written about it referenced that mass version.  So I put it on the backburner and moved on to other items.  It wasn’t until I decided to contact Jeffrey Brown that I got started on this piece again.  Jeffrey was kind enough to fill me in on how this edition came to be and could not have been more insightful with his explanations.  It certainly did nothing to diminish my reverence for the book.  Quite the contrary.  

“It started out that I was going to hand draw six copies - one 'original' copy, and five that I could sell. The idea being something about intimacy and all that. After about 12 pages (even with only 1 or 2 panels a page) I quit, and just finished the one copy. I decided that I'd print 390 xerox copies, each with a hand drawn cover - there's 390 (or was it 392?) panels in the book, so each panel was redrawn for a cover. Some panels were cropped in different ways, some were drawn so you get pretty much the whole panel. I also took all the letters/notes/etc. from the relationship, cut them up, and taped a piece into each copy. I sold them mostly at local shops here in Chicago and at conventions. Originally I really did plan on having that be the only 'printing' of AEIOU, but in the end there were more people asking about it than I figured would be really upset about it being reprinted, since each copy was still pretty unique.”

I was completely unaware the cover of my book was hand drawn.  I knew each cover was different, but I naturally assumed it was printed that way.  It turns out the writing on the back was also handwritten on each copy.  What I found most remarkable is the print run reflecting the number of panels in the book and each panel then being reproduced as a cover.  It’s such a wildly creative spin.  And I’m certain nothing like that had ever been attempted.  It’s also mind boggling to think the entire book was meant to be hand drawn in an edition of 6.  It would have taken the theme of intimacy to an extreme, but certainly makes sense within the context of what Brown was trying to achieve.  The sketchy style, the loose feel, hand drawn in a tiny edition, it all very much plays into this theme of intimacy.  

[More stuff taped into the original sketchbook.]

My exchange with Brown was illuminating on many levels.  I think the most common, and probably the most annoying, question an artist or a writer gets asked is “where do you get your ideas?”  The question is absurd and completely divorced from reality, but it raises an interesting notion, that Brown addresses here.  It’s really not about an idea, it’s about execution.  An English professor once offered me a cure for writer’s block: open up a dictionary to a random page, blindly point a finger and whatever word it lands on, that’s what you write about.  The point was, of course, writing and composing is not about ideas, it’s about execution of the ideas.  You can write about anything well; or poorly.  What’s fascinating is seeing an artist at work.  The creative decisions made, the thought process behind them, the themes, the styles, the financial considerations, the physical limitations, the manipulation and molding of ideas, the trials, the errors, before finally cementing the eventual finished product.  Brown’s explanation with regards to this book and how it relates to the idea of intimacy is a wonderful example of this process.  I continued to pry topic, this time addressing the content of AEIOU, particularly, its loser arrangements and his liberties with the linearity of the story.  I had questioned whether this was a 
deliberate decision prior to commencing the work or if he had manipulated panels after. 
“It was all drawn that way. It was another conceptual decision, dealing with the whole intimacy theme. Firstly, in the sense of the actual relationship, I found that maybe information wasn't being shared that would've changed things. So even though there was this intimacy between two people, there was a sense of finding out that this person or situation wasn't how you thought it was. Second, on another level, I was addressing the issue of intimacy with my readers. My previous two autobiographical books were about relationships, and as audience grew I found the experience strange - that readers I didn't know knew these details of my personal life - but at the same time, I knew they didn't know me the way close friends and family knew me. So I wanted AEIOU to have that sense of paradox, where you're getting this intensely personal information, but you still don't know how well you know the people involved or what the whole story is.”

This was not Brown’s first experience in producing a work of this nature.  Clumsy had its origin in a similar format.  When Jeffrey Brown showed the original sketchbook version of Clumsy to friends as a novelty, the response was so positive, it inspired him to self-publish a hundred numbered copies, each with personal touches, like hand drawn stubble on the cover and a hand drawn image on the back.  He primarily gave it out to friends and family and sold some through local institutions, like Quimby’s in Chicago.  And he’s returned to the format since, albeit in less elaborate works.  I was curious as to what appealed to him about this format, and what compelled him to continue producing small press comics, such as These Things These Things, Go Back in Time and Fix Things, Jeffrey Brown Loves You, But He’s Not In Love With You, to name just a few, with unique elements, such as hand colored covers and individual notes or song lyrics.     

“I think context can be a huge part of what any artwork means, and since so much of my work deals with finding personal meaning in life, it makes sense to have things that give people an additional level of that in form (self produced, limited quantity) in addition to content. It's harder to do as much of that as I used to, since projects and fatherhood take up so much time, but I also like having that satisfaction of putting something together. Maybe there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with having a new, small thing out in between larger works, too.”

Currently Brown produces a mini comic that he brings to conventions, called Process.  Essentially, it details the process of creating his work.  It comes in an envelope containing scraps and fragments from a particular project he worked on, including sketches, notes, scripts, unfinished art or pages.  It’s a wonderful concept I wish more artists would explore, as it tangibly bonds artists to their followers and personalizes their experience.  Obviously, he can only produce these in limited quantities, as he has to collect enough of these scraps to include in the envelopes, so he only makes them available at conventions, but check his blog, www.jeffreybrowncomics.blogspot.com, to see when he will appear in your area, and by all means, pick one up.    

[Another version of the cover.]

In retrospect, it would have been a terrible shame to produce just 6 copies of AEIOU.  And despite my collector’s heart preferring to keep the book limited to the 390 copies originally produced, I genuinely feel it would have been wrong to limit the distribution of this story.  Great works should be out there and readily available.  This isn’t a print to look at or frame, it’s a terrific story and hardly seems fair that followers of his work would be excluded from enjoying it .  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad these copies exist, as they’re special books, rare, lovingly produced, and so personal that it forms a connection between Brown and whoever holds one in their hands.  But I’m also happy the story is out there and accessible to everyone.  Besides, in its demand, there was a real opportunity for Brown to make money off this book.  We all want to believe that artists produce their work strictly for the love of it, and financial consideration should never rear its ugly head.  But that’s not realistic.  Certainly, no rational, sane person becomes an artist if they don’t have love for it, nay absolute need for it.  But an artist, just like anyone else, has a right to comforts in their lives, to support themselves and their families and to make a living.  We’re all lucky that Jeffrey Brown is able to make a living off his work, which allows him to produce more of it for our enjoyment.  And the more of these great works he can produce, the better off we’ll be.  And we can continue hitting homeruns with our recommendations.   

Gene Kogan first wrote for Yellow Rat Bastard magazine (published by the hipster store chain of the same name), and covered luminaries including Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire and Bill Plympton. Shortly after, he followed it up with online column Back Issue Reviews. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Liz, their son, Shaylem, their dog Mabel Eddie Campbell Kogan and way more stuff than is probably legally allowed in an apartment.