Ignatz Award-Winning writer Jeffrey Brown has become known, over the past few years, for his raw, deeply personal, and very funny comic book memoirs. Beginning with Clumsy (which James Kochalka called his “favorite graphic novel ever”), Jeffrey Brown has established himself through a mixture of raw intimacy and a drawing style reminiscent of the work of Charles M. Schultz. Brown’s latest work, Little Things, is a collection of shorter autobiographical work in which we follow Brown as he climbs mountains, obsesses about girls, becomes a father, and travels to Portland, Oregon (complete with cameo appearance from Craig Thompson). Through some alchemical blending of his relentless focus on his day-to-day existence — the rough expressiveness of his drawing technique and his wry gift for observation — the mundane details and rhythms of every day life become elevated into touching, funny, downright fascinating art.
Brown and I conducted the following interview over e-mail:
Isaac Butler: The memoir/confessional genre is extremely popular in comics right now. In fact, when I recommend a comic book to a friend, most of the time they’re non-fiction and (with the exception of Joe Sacco and a few others) they’re memoirs. Why do you think there are so many people working in autobiography in the comics medium? What drew you into working with your own life as the subject?
Jeffrey Brown: I think a big part of it is the ability of comics to give voice. With one person writing, drawing, and lettering a story, you get the author’s voice from all those places and in ways more subtle than any one of those ways alone. For me, writing about my own life was a response to art school and what I saw as a majority of fine art being made there that wasn’t very personal or didn’t seem to relate to real life. So I wanted to write something that was the opposite, something as completely honest and human as possible. With my first book, Clumsy, specifically, I wanted to write about relationships in a way I also wasn’t seeing in the mass media.
IB: Is there a difference for you in the way you work on fiction and on memoir?
JB: I tend to work more freely on the fiction, in a looser, more stream-of-consciousness method. With the memoir work, I have a good idea of what I’m trying to express and how these true stories will achieve that, whereas in the fiction, I like to let the stories wander and see what happens. As a consequence, the memoir work has more detailed scripts, and I work with what is basically just an outline in the fiction. Drawing is different too. With the autobiographical comics, it seems to come more naturally — it’s like channeling out memories onto paper or something, and with the fiction, there’s also more freedom with the compositions and styles.
IB: Your signature style (which I guess everyone refers to as “scratchy”)… How did you develop it? Is there an artistic or ideological rationale behind the way you draw, or is just how it comes out?
JB: It came about organically, for the most part, as a simplification of expression and also as a reaction to other styles I’ve drawn in, which were much more detailed or rendered yet weren’t really saying anything. I also wanted to recapture the joy of drawing that a child has, and I wanted to get at that kind of purity of expression. It comes back to the idea of voice, I guess, of having the drawing contribute to the feeling of the book on another level. Part of it is just intuitive too, though, I suppose.
IB: In Little Things, there’s a part where you briefly respond to one of your critics (the “poetry chapbook” moment), and, in some ways, Be A Man is one long (totally hilarious) retort to people who didn’t like… well, I guess… you or the you that is portrayed in Clumsy. Given how you open up intensely private things (losing your virginity, having a baby, reading an ex-girlfriend’s journal, etc.), have you had to grow a thick skin over the years? Is it strange to have that much information about you out there in public and to be the one who put it there?
JB: In some ways, I think I have a thick skin, and in other ways it’s hard not to be sensitive to the criticism. The moment in Little Things was more just something I thought was ironic, and Be A Man was for myself as much as anyone, more making fun of myself and maybe showing people I was aware of everything they were criticizing — the book was titled “Clumsy,” after all. In a way, the openness of the books is its own defense, it’s like stating I have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, even if I’m writing about what would normally be embarrassing events. It’s like taking control of all that. It’s only strange if I think about it.
IB: Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of hoopla around faked memoirs — from that one about the French girl who was raised by wolves during the Holocaust to J.T. LeRoy… Has any of that affected how you think about your work? Does factual accuracy really matter, or is it the quality of the work that counts?
JB: It hasn’t changed how I work, but it has made me think. The whole James Frey fiasco made me wonder about why it is that we demand truth and honesty in autobiography, and I think it comes down to trust — the reader needs to trust the author, and feeling like there’s a trick or dishonesty might make it seem that any greater “truth” the work is revealing is also a lie. Personally, I’ve always thought of my writing style as kind of like telling stories to my friends, so it would be a kind of betrayal to the readers if I started faking things. So I think the factual accuracy is tied into the quality in my case.
IB: Do you find that being a dad has changed your work?
JB: Being a dad has changed everything. The first change is time — finding time to work and the balance between working and spending time with him has been a constant struggle, as has been learning to work from home without being distracted by him. The subject matter of my work — the ideas and issues I’m writing about — have been changing too. I’m definitely dealing with more father/son kind of material, even if I’m not dealing specifically with writing autobiographical comics about fatherhood just yet.
IB: You mention a lot of music in Little Things. What are you listening to these days?
JB: Unfortunately, for me, since I quit my day job at Barnes & Noble to become a full-time cartoonist, I’ve been out of touch with music. It’s much harder to find time to discover new music, so a lot of what I’m listening to is just the new albums from people I’ve been listening to for a while, like Beck or Death Cab. Some of the new stuff I’m listening to are The Dodo’s and Mount Eerie’s new album, Black Wooden Ceiling Opening. I’m also listening to a local Chicago band called Unicycle Loves You, whose debut album is great.
IB: What other comic books out there are you digging right now?
JB: Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw, Too Cool To Be Forgotten by Alex Robinson, and Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Josh Cotter are three books I’ve enjoyed recently. The Hellboy movie has me reading the Hellboy comics again, and I’ve been reading some mainstream writers more — Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis mostly, so maybe just on the fringe of the mainstream.
IB: What are you working on next?
JB: I’m working on Funny Misshapen Body, the next graphic memoir. It mostly follows me through high school, college, and art school with stories about how I became a cartoonist. There are also bits about being sick, living in crappy apartments, drinking, smoking… but somehow it all ties together to be about being an artist.
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