Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jeffrey Brown: The Incredible Changing Artist!

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“At this point, the biggest factor in what I reveal now is in being aware of how many people are reading things,” Jeffrey Brown says from his Chicago home. “My wariness of that is so much more heightened that I don’t have any more ways to trick myself left. Before, I was doing it for myself and then happening to publish it. Now, I can’t get that kind of distance. When I’m drawing it, I’m hyper-aware that at some point someone is going to see it. Especially the first book, the idea of drawing Clumsy in a sketchbook like a diary, and also the idea that when I was first drawing it, I had no idea I would be publishing it. It was this unique art object. It’s one thing to have that art object that people can see and look at, but it isn’t the same as when it’s printed and distributed widely.”

Jeffrey Brown, like the comic counterpart in his autobiographical work, is unassuming and soft-spoken. He’s sitting behind the dining room table of his Chicago home. In the living room sits a Mighty Change-Bots battle royale drawing, perched on a coffee table with color marker color filled in. Brown is deceptively talented: his comics work possesses the charm of a high schooler doodling his life experiences (or robot battles) in a ruled notebook, but he has a strong foundation in the fine arts.  

“Yeah,” he says when told he makes his drawing look easy. 

“Oh, thanks!” He says after doing a double-take, the compliment registering. Like his work, Brown is also humble and unassuming in nature.

“What it came out of was just being at art school and having all this build-up of everything I’ve learned and everything everyone else was doing—this whole big world was starting to weigh down on the actual making of art. Art wasn’t fun anymore, and the most fun art was from when I was drawing comics as a kid. I was trying to get back to that,” he says of his autobio work. 

            Brown moved to Chicago to earn an MFA at The School of the Art Institute, with dreams of being a painter. Grad school was a struggle for Jeffrey, the main thrust of his autobiographical novel Funny Misshapen Body, as he tried to pin down what type of art had personal and creative meaning for him as an artist.

“At that point, I’d started reading comics again, but hadn’t connected with the idea of doing them, other than my sketchbooks. I thought I was going to be a fine artist and work my way up to the galleries and display paintings. It wasn’t until the end of my first year that I started doing comics.”

“Some were cartoony, and not very painterly, but more like color versions of sketchbook drawings painted in acrylic,” Jeffrey says of his paintings. “They were only painting, not in the sense of a fine art context, but they happened to be made with paint. Then I also had these surreal abstract expressionist paintings. Motherwell is an example. It was very much not a cohesive body of work: I took this style and this style, and I knew neither one was where I wanted to go. Right before I started doing comics, I’d started doing more realist paintings from photos or sketchbook drawings, more along the lines of Alex Katz, where he simplified. But again, still, it was not very much about the painting so much as paint being what I was making it out of. It’s why I think the bridge to comics made so much sense. When I jumped from doing these paintings of real people from life and then to comics, it was an easy transition. Those paintings were about the subject matter and not the materials, but with comics it became about both.”

With a range of fine arts loves from the Expressionists (both Abstract and German) to Egon Schiele or Francis Bacon, Brown entered comics with a broader sense of art. Like another of his favorite painters, Pierre Bonnard, Brown’s work is very much about relationships within space, painted in a loose manner that can be seen in Brown’s own work.

As Jeffrey moved closer to his Master’s, sketching his comics on his own time, it was an encounter with a specific local cartoonist that pushed him closer to the language of comics.

“When I moved to Chicago, Chris Ware and Dan Clowes were signing for the David Boring and Jimmy Corrigan books, and I met them,” Jeffrey reveals. “I talked with Dan and connected with the fact that he lived in Grand Rapids for a year, which is my hometown. The comic shop he was going to when I lived there was my local shop, so I was probably buying my G.I. Joe comics when he was going there. Chris had also gone to the School of the Art Institute, and I was starting there.

“They were signing at a bookstore in Oak Park, and a week later, they signed at Quimby’s. I went to the Quimby’s signing and showed Chris what I was doing. When I talked last, he mentioned my showing him my work some time, so I brought a sketchbook and showed him at the signing. I stayed in touch with him and sent him a mini-comic that I put together, a collection of stuff from sketchbooks. He sent a letter back with his phone number, so I called him up and invited him to visit my studio. This is when he was doing the weekly comic for The Reader, so he’d go downtown once a week to do the color separations.”

The modest and unassuming Ware, particularly through his work in his own Acme Novelty Library, was redefining comic book storytelling, and striving to develop a more linguistic graphic connection between both words and pictures, creating his own fluency in the language of comics.

“One day he was coming downtown for that and came to my studio, and we went from there. That was a big part of my switching directions,” Jeffrey says. “He was looking at my paintings and looking at my sketchbook, and seeing things in my sketchbook and pointing out things that I was doing (that I knew I was doing) from a different perspective. I think he saw, even though I wasn’t drawing comics per se in my sketchbooks, that there was all that influence there. The things he was responding to in my sketchbook, I realized ‘Oh, that’s the type of stuff I love doing.’”

Brown’s first autobiographical graphic novel, Clumsy, details a former long-distance relationship in snippets and vignettes, while his follow-up, Unlikely, details his first serious relationship. Clumsy has a rambling nature, the art deceptively complex, but drawn directly in ink in his original sketchbook. The originals are literally drawn freehand in small journals, possessing a spontaneity and energy that the most overworked artist can’t achieve.

“The first few stories were in my head and I wrote them as I went,” Brown says. “Then I started scripting the stories. I’d settled on the six-panel-a-page format, and I would write numbers out one through six, and then what was in each panel, and then draw the stories. Then I would do the next set. It was just straight ink, and no penciling or thumbnailing beforehand.”

With Clumsy finished, Brown decided to wave it under some publishers’ noses, and worked to get the graphic novel circulated. But like anything worth achieving, it didn’t come that easily.

“I submitted it to a bunch of places. I think some of those places I submitted it to, it may not have been a complete copy, but bad Xeroxes, straight out of the sketchbook. Then I printed up the Xerox versions and sent those out, too. Fantagraphics got the form letter; a few places I never heard back from; and Top Shelf’s Chris and Brett were both responsive, and said ‘This doesn’t look like something we’ll publish right now, but if you do decide to self-publish, we’ll help you with distribution.’ I don’t think they do it that much anymore, but at the time they filled that role. I think AdHouse now is doing that now, but at that time, I think Alternative was doing it, Top Shelf did, and Fantagraphics to a lesser extent.

“Even though the publishers had all passed on it, the responses that I was getting were encouraging enough to make me think that self-publishing was viable. Chris Ware was also pushing me to do that, saying ‘You should really do this.’ He was the one who put me in touch with Paul Hornschemeier. Working with Paul is what made self-publishing possible, because he knew what to do and did a lot of the work on the book in terms of designing it and putting it together.”

The final product? Clumsy is the size of a thick digest, crammed full of telling bits of Brown’s past relationship. Brown portrays himself as sensitive, anxious for the approval and acceptance of his girlfriend; it’s all sincere, funny, and lacking drama in portraying the drama of a relationship. Brown followed it up with Unlikely or How I Lost My Virginity, which details his first serious relationship. Neither of those, or the third book AEIOU, are told in chronological order, but in scenes short and long from his recollections.

            “For the autobiographical comics, like with Clumsy, part of that book is about memory and how we remember a relationship, and the way your mind jumps back and forth from different moments,” Jeffrey says. “You’re constructing in your head the meaning between those things. It’s not a conscious construction: your brain is doing things that you don’t realize. I wanted to trust that. I’m maybe a little more deliberate in how I’m arranging things in the autobiographical work now, especially from the relationship books and Clumsy.

“If I remember a moment that, on the surface seems insignificant, why am I remembering that very specific moment and not something else? If I am remembering it, then there’s some important, even from the context of being in the relationship still, or having been in the relationship. I don’t have the perspective to understand how relevant that moment is, or what it meant. I tried to pick those moments and put them in a context where, when you step back and look at everything, then you can see what the meaning there was, or why that moment is significant.”

Each of his autobio books are drawn directly in sketchbooks. Brown pulls out the final product, and each is an individual art piece of the book as object. Where his mentor Ware produces his comics as a finished gallery piece of a book, Brown works in reverse, making each book as a singular work of art and then reverse-engineering it into a book. Despite his fine art background, it’s jettisoning as much of that as he can to bring himself back to the sincere amateur artist, unknowing his critical training while letting his developmental do the work.

“On the one hand, it’s trying to consciously discard all of those things that I’ve learned,” he says of his comics work. “But on the other hand all that stuff ends up being there in ways that I don’t realize. I feel like, as I make more comics, that there’s a better synergy between those, but at the same time something is lost, where with drawing Clumsy and even Unlikely, I was so much less self-conscious about the actual process. I wasn’t overthinking things, which I do sometimes now.”

Since Clumsy, Brown has enjoyed a publishing relationship with indie publisher Top Shelf. He sees the benefits of that outweighing anything self-publishing has to offer.

“When I do a book with Top Shelf, I just send the files on and don’t have to worry about the design, working with the printer, and a lot of [other] work,” Jeffrey says. “Theoretically, I would still come out ahead by self-publishing, in terms of finances, and there are other advantages. I’m so not interested in doing that work, especially now. I’m mostly a stay-at-home Dad and my time is limited to work, and I don’t want to have to spend the time I do have to work doing the more business side of stuff than I have to already. 

“I think about doing a small print-run book, or something more unique that would make sense for a small print run,” he admits to the personal satisfaction behind self-publishing. “I started doing mini-comics here and there again, but not really to sell, but for me, and I’ll give them away until they’re gone.”

Cat Getting Out of A Bag is Jeffrey’s first homage to the felines, followed by Cats Are Weird. Like his autobio work, his cat books are drawn in vignettes, each page or two an anecdote in the life of a housecat. With sparse dialogue, his cat books show Brown’s strength in pacing and in his ability to build in the quiet moments between people/cats and one another or their environment.

“When I pitched the first one to Chronicle, I had already finished thirty or forty pages,” Brown says. “They saw it and got it, and didn’t need to see anything else. With the second book, they didn’t need to see anything, though I did explain to them that it would have two cats and one would be in color. The first book was drawn in a sketchbook; when I draw in sketchbooks like that, it’s drawing on the fronts and backs of pages.

“When I did the second book, I drew it in a larger sketchbook, and each page of the sketchbook had two pages on it, and I only drew on one side. The cat stuff comes easier, in a way, because I don’t have to overthink it. I just know ‘Make cute cats.’ Occasionally, there are stories that are a little deeper, like the relationship between a person and a cat. Mostly, it’s just cats being funny, and the idea that cats in comics have a long history, and trying to put a spin on it where I’m not anthropomorphizing them, and am taking all the human out of the cats as much as possible.”

“One of my favorite toys, of any toy when I was a kid was Windcharger,” Jeffrey says of the Transformer from 1984, a red sportscar that turned into a robot in two steps. “It was really simple and small enough for me to take to church every Sunday. I think I definitely played G.I. Joe more, and overall had more G.I. Joe toys. I just started doing these little sketches in my sketchbook for change-bots, and had enough idea, and friends who had seen the sketches said ‘You should do a book.’ I did the first book and started to really like those characters.

Children of the ‘80s lived in a multi-media world of kitsch and commercialism, with toy lines emulating the Star Wars and G.I. Joe model of toy/cartoon/comic book. Even though a lot of the Transformers comics were crappy, with paper-thin plots and cardboard characters who always said one another’s name in bold print, Jeffrey decided to create his own four-color love letter to Transformers with Incredible Change-Bots, his personal pastiche. Drawn like the Transformers and G.I. Joe comics he and his brother made as a kid, Change-Bots starts as a parody of Transformers, and then veers off into its own absurdist direction. It’s Brown’s big foray into color and, in keeping up with the homemade vibe, he used magic markers.

“It’s hard because there are thirty characters, and the amount of space I have in the book, and focusing on making jokes all the time, character development isn’t so great,” he admits. “I started to have this idea of who these characters are, and they became less parodies of the Transformers. Shootertron became less a parody of Megatron and became more of his own character. Big Rig, from the start, was never so analogous to Optimus Prime. At this point, it’s become fun to work with them and still be able to get at these jokes about Transformers. The second book starts to veer away from the straightforward parallels.”

As Change-Bots kicks in, Brown imbues them with just as much heartbreak and conflict as battles in the desert. He follows it up with Incredible Change-Bots Two, and then a third volume with special guest stars! Sort of…

“I could do a G.I. Joe book, but I decided to fold that into a third Change-Bots book,” Jeffrey reveals. “There are things in the second book that are totally unintentional, that will fit perfectly with it, and let me do more with some of the characters. There will be this epic, third final battle book.”

            The color nature of Change-Bots forces Brown to be more exact with his drawing. While coloring his Change-Bots mural, he admits he’ll have to go back over lines with a black pen, and then draw in even further details. For something that looks homemade and primitive, it requires an impressive amount of work.

“I think the only difference is in terms of process, where I’m a little more careful about the compositions and how I’m drawing things,” he says of Change-Bots. “With autobiographical, I try to let a lot come out without intention, to let my subconscious determine things more. The Change-Bots is a lot more controlled. The first book, a lot of it happens in the desert. The second book has that, too, and I think I’ll think about more of that in the third book. Coloring a city scene is a little more labor intensive. The markers I use is part of it.”

            Jeffrey Brown’s identity as a freeform cartoonist is a double-edged sword: he can only pull it off because he is good enough to have a strong foundation in drawing, but it’s also tough to maintain as a self-critical artist.

“At first it was easy, because I didn’t really discover mini-comics and ‘zines until I moved to Chicago. That was six months before I started drawing Clumsy, and all that stuff was still new,” he remembers. “In terms of doing comics, it was easy to start over and go from this new place, whereas now, all this baggage has started to climb on from the comics side of things. I’d managed to shove a lot of the fine arts baggage away. Maybe some of the fine art stuff has come back, too, in terms of my doing a second cat book and asking ‘Is that entertainment?’ and drawing the lines between ‘What’s art and what’s my art?’ You start thinking about these issues that can be really distracting from actually getting work done. You start second-guessing yourself towards what something should be—Should this have a deeper philosophical slant to it that should be more important? Is this okay that it’s fluff?

            “It’s much harder to set that stuff aside now than when I started doing comics.”

            His investment in the book as object, in terms of his original art and presentation of his work, places him counter to comics’ upcoming digital landscape.

“On the one hand, personally I don’t like reading things on a screen very much,” Jeffrey reflects. “But I’m smart enough to acknowledge that in all likelihood, my son in twenty years will read more on a screen than not. There are so many advantages to digital, in terms of access to thing that, at some point outweighs—I definitely don’t think ‘No, digital’s bad!’ It might not be my personal preference, but in the end digital is probably good and inevitable.

“That said, in terms of a reading experience, a physical book is vastly different. Maybe you pick up a Marvel floppy monthly, and they’re all the same format, so the transition from that to digital is maybe not so big. But in terms of prose, and magazine articles, doesn’t seem such a jump to what it is physically to what it is digitally. But when you have books like Chris Ware’s books: reading those books as objects is an entirely different experience. Even with my books, the idea of a book being something personal you can read and close the cover to? There are aspects to a physical book that can make the experience richer. In the end, I think there’s space for that.

“For me, personally, I can see myself getting an iPad at some point, and starting to read digitally, but there are other things I’ll prefer to get a physical book and read. Like the stuff I really love? I’ll love to have something I can interact with not just visually, but also physically.”

Jeffrey Brown will be on hand Friday May 13 for the opening of his Incredible Change-Bots Two art show at the Scott Eder Gallery in DUMBO Brooklyn. The show will feature all the art work from the latest Change-Bots book, as well as a host of large drawings he's been working on since last fall - large character portraits, Electronocybercircuitron, a giant battle scene and more. There'll also be a special Change-Bots print for sale. And, Saturday night, May 14, he'll be at Desert Island in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a signing.