Review: Three by Jeffrey Brown
Jeffrey Brown appeared in the comics world a few years back, with his painfully confessional (and almost as painfully crudely drawn) graphic novels [[[Clumsy]]] and [[[Unlikely]]]. He’s expanded beyond autobiography since then, mostly into odd but straight-faced takes on geeky topics, such as [[[Incredible Change-Bots]]]. He had three new books in 2008 – well, at least three new books; it’s entirely possible that I missed something – a big autobiographical book and two smaller, weirder books in a new, very loose, series. So I thought I might as well look at them all together, before he publishes another four or five books.
By Jeffrey Brown
Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, April 2008, $14.00
This one is subtitled “[[[A Memoir in Slices]]],” and, yes, it’s yet another in the tsunami of memoir-comics from major not-usually-comics publishers. (I guess they’re all hoping for another [[[Persepolis]]] or [[[Maus]]], and not looking to far from the apple tree, either.) Brown has a two-page comics introduction, in which he explains the book to someone on the phone – which comes down to “Anyway, they’re a bunch of autobiographical short stories and they’re funny sometimes.”
And that’s not a bad description of the book – it has well over three hundred pages of comics about Brown’s life, but it doesn’t bring his life into focus at all. Each individual story shows the events of a day or a few days, without much in the way of larger connections, and they also bounce around in his life (even though he’s not particularly old yet) without explanation or obvious reason.
(For one thing, he gets married and has a baby somewhere in the unexamined middle. One might think that would be a more important part of one’s life to put into a comics memoir than a random hiking trip, particularly if one wants to avoid sleeping on the couch in perpetuity.)
Brown’s art is still scratchy and vaguely primitivist, but he’s definitely gotten better from his early books. His panels are still rough squares, usually six to the page, but they’re better composed, and his figures have more realistic anatomy. And his stories are better focused than they used to be – they’re still organized around the rhythms of everyday life, but he’s better at capturing that rhythm and letting events speak for themselves instead of over-narrating and –explaining everything.
It’s still an exercise in self-indulgence, of course – look at my pathetic life! – but he’s gotten much better at it. Whether that skill is a particularly useful or helpful one to have is a question I’ll have to leave open.
Sulk, Issue 1
By Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf, September 2008, $7.00
[[[Sulk]]] is a new occasional series, of squarebound issues of various lengths – this first (unpaginated) one is about 64 pages long. I suspect Brown is using these to examine mainstream comics tropes, or the ways he likes to think about those tropes, since this first issue is a superhero story, the second one is one long fight scene, and the promised third is a tale of giant monsters, pirates, and robots.
This first issue is a collection of new adventures of Brown’s superhero character Bighead, who’s a guy in a grey-white suit with a big head. They’re the kind of fairly usual, self-conscious superhero stories that independent creators do now and then – Bighead is captured by his nemesis, then set free because “I forgot to have you battle my minions first”; dies in battle to save the Earth; fights “the author;” and so on.
Brown’s cramped, fussy art style doesn’t lend itself well to superhero adventure; he doesn’t pose his figures particularly heroically – which may be the point, of course – and these small pages don’t flow all that well, either. This isn’t quite a superhero parody, but it is a superhero comic by someone who clearly thinks he’s outgrown them.
Sulk, Issue 2
By Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf, December 2008, $10.00
And the second issue of [[[Sulk]]] is a nearly hundred-page long story about a single fight, called “[[[Deadly Awesome]]].” A fictional version of one of those mixed martial-arts competitions, the Superior Cagefighting Championship League, has a major pay-TV event, and we’re seeing the title bout. An older, wilier, smaller fighter, Haruki Rabasaku, is battling a young, hotheaded heavy-hitter, Eldark Garprub.
Now, sometimes the sympathy of the audience is supposed to be with the young guy trying to make a name for himself, and sometimes it’s supposed to be with the veteran trying to make it through one last boat. But it’s always, always, meant to be on the smaller guy going up against a bruiser with a shaved head. So, even though Garprub isn’t made a villain, precisely, we know that we’re meant to root against him.
The fight goes as we all expect it will, with lots and lots of pages of these two guys hitting each other and narrative captions in the voices of the announcers. Brown plays this all seriously, unlike the Bighead stories, which teeter on the edge of self-parody at best. But, in the end, this is just a hundred page fight scene, with the usual vague talk of strategy and manliness endemic to fight scenes.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.