Written by Gabe Bullard Thursday, 09 August 2007 17:00
Best known for heartfelt autobiographical comics like Clumsy, Jeffrey Brown flexes his comedic muscles in the Transformers parody The Incredible Change-Bots. In this wide-ranging interview, Brown discusses both his serious and not-so-serious side, plus gives a glimpse at what else he has coming down the pike.
144 pgs. FC; $15.00 (softcover), $30.00 (hardcover)
(W / A: Jeffrey Brown)
Chicago cartoonist Jeffrey Brown is probably most famous for his heartfelt, autobiographical graphic novels. His first book, 2002's Clumsy, chronicled a failed long distance relationship. Its follow-ups in the Girlfriend Trilogy, Unlikely and AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy (all available from Top Shelf Productions), further proved Brown's ability to turn real life into tragic yet heartwarming comics.
But Brown does more than just tragedy. In 2004, he released Be A Man, a parody of Clumsy that retells select chapters from the book with Brown replaced by a more forward and macho version of himself. "A few months ago I realized I was much too sensitive and pathetic in Clumsy," Brown writes in the introduction. "So I wrote Be A Man and fixed myself, creating the Clumsy you all wanted to see." His other comedic works include the collection of gag strips I Am Going To Be Small and the superhero parody Bighead, and he continues his parody work with his latest graphic novel, The Incredible Change-Bots.
Change-Bots is a full-color book about a group of space robots that are "More than machines." Undoubtedly, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the transforming space robots that stormed the box office earlier this summer.
PLAYBACK:stl caught up with Brown at a signing at Star Clipper on Delmar in the U. City Loop to ask about life, Change-Bots, and his plans for the future.
Interview conducted by Gabe Bullard.
PLAYBACK:stl: You recently became a father, right?
Jeffrey Brown: Last November, so he's about eight and a half months old now.
How do you think that's affecting your work?
I think maybe the focus is kind of changing even more. I'd already gotten away from writing about relationships and started writing about other things and bigger life issues. Now that's turned up a little further. I haven't written specifically about being a Dad so much, but it kind of informs everything else.
Your work is divided between more emotional or serious works like Clumsy and more lighthearted works. Is there a reflection of you in the lighthearted works?
Definitely, sometimes it's an even more honest look at myself in those books, because I'm making fun of myself more. To me, it's more straightforwardly making fun of myself. But, it's also hidden behind other characters. It's never clear which parts I'm really talking about something that's part of myself or something that's an idea I think is funny, so it all gets mixed up. Those books are fun in a different way. There's more freedom, I feel like, when I'm working in those books. I have fewer restrictions that I place on myself.
Was Be A Man a natural reaction to Clumsy?
Be A Man was kind of a reaction to people reacting to Clumsy. I realized what some people were getting from Clumsy was very one-dimensional, they were just completely focused on this one aspect of me as a character. Be A Man was pointing out that I'm aware of those things and also that I'm not just those things. A lot of times when people that have read Clumsy are kind of like, "Ehhh..." and didn't care for it too much, they read Be A Man and think it's really funny, then they go back and read Clumsy and it takes on a different meaning somehow. You realize there's more there than you're seeing.
What about criticisms of the drawing style?
At first the criticism was focused on character and was kind of weird. It was almost criticizing the actions of the characters and not the story. For a while, there was more criticism about the drawing and that aspect, but that seems to have subsided because more people realize that the drawing style is an aesthetic choice. Then they question why that choice was made and how it affects the stories that are being told.
Clumsy is probably the most ‘faux-primitive' drawn. One thing I was trying to do when I started Clumsy was recapture the experience of drawing when you're a kid. Not just the look of it, but the actual act of drawing and how enjoyable it is. And to do that I thought I'd get rid of all the art school knowledge and all the craft and technique and just strip it all back to this basic point and try to reinvent how I was drawing things. Since then the style's kind of evolved. For a while right after I did Clumsy, I thought I'd do a book and draw it fairly realistic, but that didn't feel right. But then drawing the way Clumsy was drawn didn't feel right either. With Unlikely, you can see it's a little more detailed and little more refined and it's gotten more refined from there. The way I draw arms has kind of stayed the same, they're these bendy, spiky appendages and for me that's more fun. There's more shading and detailing and things like that have become more refined. I've kind of settled into a pretty comfortable style for the autobiographical stuff.
For parodies I've tried different things. Change-Bots is in full color and that was something new to do.
Were you planning on Change-Bots coming out along with the Transformers movie?
When I found out about the movie, that was the plan. They started showing up in my sketchbook four or five years ago. I thought it'd be fun to do a Transformers parody. When I found out about the movie, I thought, "If I don't do it now, if I wait a couple years, everyone will be wondering, ‘Why didn't you do this two years ago? This is way late.'" Then it would look like I did it because of the movie. So I figured it'd be better to get it out now.
Have you seen the movie yet?
I still haven't seen it. Back to the new baby thing, it's hard to get out of the house to see a movie. With DVDs nowadays, it's so easy to just wait. It's just as much to buy the DVD and have the movie forever as it is to see the movie one time in the theater.
Are you drawing all the time?
Yeah. After I finished Change-Bots, I finished up this book called Little Things, which is coming out from Simon and Schuster next spring. That's a big collection of autobiographical stories. There's a little bit of relationship stuff, but there's more dealing with friendships or being sick and these other parts of life. The first stories from that book I drew back in 2005, so it's been a long time in the making. After I finish that, I've been kind of in limbo. The next book for Simon and Schuster is about high school and college art school. I've been scripting that.
I'm drawing smaller projects, but it's hard to get momentum until I start on a project. Usually I have several projects going on at a time, and when one gets far enough along I stop doing the other ones for a while.
What else are you working on?
I'm still finishing up the Little Things book, working on covers and other things. That's not quite off the table yet. The high school/art school book is called Funny Misshapen Body. I'm finishing up the script. I'm getting to the panel-by-panel stage. I start with an outline, then I kind of refine the outline, then I start to figure out how many pages each part of the outline would take and keep breaking it down further and further. Right now I'm in the panel-by-panel stage. That book's going to be about 400 or 450 pages. It'll take me about a year, that's my estimate at this point.
My plan is to also start a series of mini-comics with Top-Shelf called Sulk. It'd be three or four issues a year of a 32-page comic. That's where I would continue to do parodies and things. I'd like to do more Bighead stuff. The thing I'm working on is an Ultimate Fighting Championship kind of tribute, parody thing.
Will you start writing about the baby in your autobiographical work?
He shows up in one story in Little Things. That story's about fatherhood, so it's about the baby and meeting my girlfriend's father. It's all kind of vague to explain. I don't know how much he'll really show up in the comics. James [Kochalka], in his sketchbook diaries, has Eli show up all the time and you see everything that's happening to him. I feel like I don't want to do that for my son. On one hand, I want to protect him and on the other hand maybe he'll follow in my footsteps and be an autobiographical cartoonist. So I don't want to write about his childhood cause then he won't be able to.
Any plans for other media projects?
I've worked on a screenplay with a couple people that made be made into an indie film. It started out as semi-autobiographical but once I started writing with someone else, it's gotten away from that and turned into its own thing. That was interesting. I've never written screenplay stuff before and I'm not sure if it's really for me, but that's one project.
I might try and do some short animated thing, kind of like the Death Cab video [for the song "Your Heart Is An Empty Room"] as a trailer for the "Little Things" book.
For the most part, I have so many comics I want to do. I also might start doing some kids books at some point. In my head those aren't too far from the comics I guess.
Is that inspired by the baby?
It's one of the things other than being a comics artist that, growing up I thought, "I might want to do some kids books someday." Having a kid has definitely upped the ante.
The first book I have planned actually came about from reading...it wasn't a Dr. Suess book, but it was another rhyming little kid's book. I'd written this rhyming poem about cups back in college that would totally work as a kid's book. I have a few other things. My brother had this really interesting dream I thought would make a pretty good kids' book.
For the next couple years it'll probably be the comics and maybe I'll move on from there.
Click here to read a 6-page preview of The Incredible Change-Bots, courtesy of Top Shelf Productions! For even more Jeffrey Brown goodness, visit http://www.topshelfcomix.com/.
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