A Matter of Jeffrey Brown's LifeA comics interview article by: David Fairbanks
Jeffrey Brown is one of the most prolific independent cartoonists working today. Clumsy, the first work in his "Girlfriend Trilogy," was his MFA thesis at the School of the Art Institute about ten years ago, and he’s been producing award-winning autobiographical, humor and parody comics ever since. His name has become synonymous with both quality and sincerity in comics, ranging from single-page shorts to full 200+ page books. Jeff took some time away from cartooning to chat with us about comics, including his latest work, Darth Vader and Son (reviewed by us here!), released in full color by Chronicle Books.
David Fairbanks for Comics Bulletin: Where did the idea to show the fatherly side of Vader come from? Was it hard getting that Lucasfilm seal of approval?
Jeffrey Brown: I was initially approached back in 2010 by Ryan Germick from Google about doing some sketches for a possible design for their homepage on Father's Day that year. Their idea was something with Vader and Luke, playing on the idea of how awkward family dinners would be, and just how funny the idea of Vader being a normal dad would be. My son was four at the time, and so my immediate thought was to make Luke four years old and put Vader through the same frustrations any parent goes through with kids that age.
Although Google ended up using a different concept, I asked if I could take the idea and make it into a book. They said yes, and I approached Chronicle, who published my cat books and have done a bunch of Star Wars books. Chronicle took the pitch to Lucasfilm, and although it took a little time for the official approvals to all get signed off on, Lucasfilm got the idea right away and were really enthusiastic about it, even from my first rough sketches.
CB: That's not your only project on fathers and sons this year, though, right? What can you tell us about your new autobiographical work, A Matter Of Life
Brown: I've been working on A Matter Of Life for a few years. I've wanted to write something about religion and my dad being a minister for a long time, but I never quite had the right take on it. After my son was born, I kept thinking about things and realized there was something to the idea of my relationship with my dad, with my son and with religion. I spent a couple years just writing down ideas and thinking about the project while I worked on other books and finally had a script I was happy with in early 2010.
I started drawing it then, making slower progress while I was working on Darth Vader and Son, as well as artwork for the film I co-wrote, Save the Date. Anyway, I'm really proud of how A Matter Of Life turned out. It's full color, which I haven't done with any of my autobiographical books before, although I still drew the whole thing in a single blank sketchbook. It's less narrative and more just a collection of stories that collect various thoughts I have about the two main subjects of fatherhood and faith.
The stories are all between one and five pages, and they add up to get at a certain feeling or way of thinking that I can't just put into words. I think there are still some pretty funny stories, but mostly I was concerned with making a book that meant a lot to me and will hopefully hold a lot of meaning for readers. I think it may actually be the most personal work I've made so far, even taking into account the other books where I show intensely private moments from romantic relationships.
CB: I remember you once talking about how you thought that what you were trying to accomplish with your comics more resembled a book of poetry than a novel. It sounds like A Matter Of Life is a return to that kind of thinking?
Brown: It is, yes. I think of these one or two page stories as trying to focus on a particular feeling or idea in the same way a single poem might. Some people tend to think of poetry in formal terms, but I've always been more interested in the conceptual side, thinking about why and how poems can express things in very particular ways. I like when my comics can do that, when they can get at a very specific feeling or idea that can't be expressed any other way. The other part of making it all into a book is context. It's not just the stories each alone operating on the reader, it's how they're placed and what stories I'm choosing to include.
CB: When you do a comic all in one sketchbook, it's all there, hand-lettered and everything, right? You tend to work in ink, without pencils, too. What do you do if you're not happy with a page?
Brown: Part of the aesthetic I've been developing over the years is letting flaws and accidents stay. I don't want perfection of product, I want perfection of idea, and part of the ideas I'm interested in is how flawed and clumsy people can be. In terms of the act of drawing itself, I like there to be a sense of immediacy, of things coming straight from the heart and not worked over extensively. With my first few books, it was easier to let things go, but as I've become more specific about what I'm trying to express, anytime there's something that distracts or disrupts that, I need to change.
I've developed my process enough that when I was working on this book, I knew enough of what I was trying to do, what my limits were and what I needed to make sure of before I started inking or coloring. I guess it's kind of the thought that by not having a safety net, you're going to be more careful not to fall. Confidence plays a part. There are a few places where I redrew a panel on separate paper and taped it in and several places where I corrected grammar or spelling by re-writing text and taping it in. There was one whole page I wasn't entirely happy with, and I ended up redrawing it, again just taping it into the book over the old page.
CB: Save the Date has been a long time in the making now, hasn't it? For those of us not able to go to a screening, do you know when it'll hit DVD?
Brown: It's been a long road for the film to come out, but in the end I've really enjoyed the process and I'm really happy with how it turned out. Right now it's playing various film festivals, and the producers are still looking for the right distribution deal. Hopefully by this summer things will be more clear.
CB: You've tackled dating and heartbreak in your Girlfriend Trilogy, and you're going after fatherhood and religion in A Matter Of Life. Are there any plans for a book on marriage?
Brown: I don't know. Maybe if it gets to the point where I have something to say about it, I would write something, if my wife would let me... So far, marriage has been pretty nice and not very dramatic, and I can't think of what I would express about it that would be interesting for me. Maybe I can write about someone else's marriage.
CB: Your four t-shirt Space Time set just debuted at Threadless. How'd that come about? What was it like writing stories for other artists for a change?
Brown: That was yet another random meeting. I was at Darktower, my local comic shop, and Lance Curran from Threadless -- who handles their Comics-On Tees series -- happened to be in the store at the time. He was talking to the owner Mark Beatty, who introduced us, and I ended up hitting it off with Lance. After the first Comics-On Tees series did well, Threadless made plans to do more, and Lance asked if I wanted to "curate" one. I had a lot of fun with the concept. At first I was at a loss of what to do, but after talking to the other artists (Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, Jeff Lemire) the idea of some kind of retro sci-fi theme came up. I wanted to make my scripts specific enough that they didn't have to do that work but also wanted them to make them their own. It was really amazing to see how they turned out. There are some deviations from the scripts that are just perfect, really great stuff.
CB: Did you pick the cartoonists you got to work with? Could you see yourself writing something a bit longer for someone else to draw in the future?
Brown: They had wanted to work with Jeff Lemire, who's a friend of mine, and Paul and Anders are both good friends who I thought would be great to work with. Really, there's another couple dozen artists I would've liked to work with. I could see myself writing something for someone else, I've got a couple stories in mind that I'd be happy to have someone else draw. It's just a matter of finding the time for everything.
CB: We spoke about Brandon Graham's Prophet at C2E2. What are some other comics you're enjoying lately?
Brown: As far as regular monthly comics go, I pick up anything from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips -- Fatale, most recently. I'm fascinated by Dave Sim's Glamourpuss. I've also been really enjoying whatever UK publisher Nobrow has been putting out, especially the comics of Luke Pearson.
CB: Top Shelf just recently jumped into the digital comics game, launching their own app with a bunch of their best titles, including Clumsy. What's your take on digital comics? Since most of your books are in black and white, are there any plans to make them available on the Kindle?
Brown: I'm not sure what Top Shelf's plans are as far as specific platforms like the Kindle. I'm assuming they're trying to work toward having things available through as many avenues as possible. Personally, I'm not opposed to digital comics or anything, but I'm not necessarily excited by them. I'm a lifelong bibliophile, and there's something about books as objects that still resonates with me in terms of both the reading experience and, especially with comics, visual artifacts.
I'm resigned to the fact that things are changing, but I also think there will still be a place for physical books. Maybe the same way that digital music doesn't invalidate live concerts. In the end, my first concern is just drawing, expressing the ideas I want to, making art.
CB: You're teaching regularly at the Art Institute now, right? Are your students mostly aspiring cartoonists or other artists who have an interest in cartooning? What's it like being back there as a teacher?
Brown: I'm teaching one class a semester. This year, I taught the same class both semesters -- a class basically about comics process, covering everything like writing, pacing, layout... Basically how to start constructing longer comics if you're a beginner or strengthening your focus when making comics if you're already making comics. Next year, I'll teach a different class for the spring semester, which will be a fun class with lots of different exercises to get everyone to do something different from how they normally work.
The classes are usually a mix of students who really aspire to make comics full time and others who either just have passing interest or want to try it out. I enjoy teaching. I feel like I learn a lot from having to verbalize to the students about what they're doing and how they could do it differently, and making them more aware of what they're working on has also made me more aware with my own work. I'm also always surprised by a lot of what the students make. When I think about the art I made in college, it's pretty amazing to see what these students are doing.
CB: I'm sure you've been asked this before, but is it ever difficult or problematic to have these parts of your life out there on the page? Obviously it wasn't something on your mind with Clumsy, but that was a few books ago.
Brown: I guess sometimes it's problematic. Maybe people forget that each book only shows part of me, that there's more to me and those events than what I've written. In a way, it almost turns these memories and parts of myself into fictional stories, so it's kind of giving up ownership of them in the service of art. I do really think about what I'm writing about more now, so there's maybe more work going into that side of writing -- the thought process behind choosing what to write about, and how.
CB: Your son Oscar had his own minicomic and is presumably going to be a pretty big part of A Matter of Life. Is he content to just star in comics, or is he a cartoonist too?
Brown: He does draw a lot. For a while, he didn't draw much. He'd say things like "I can't draw as good as Daddy," and I'm trying to not give him a complex or something. Last year, he had some kind of breakthrough though, and he draws a ton now -- mostly his own semi-made-up sea creatures and dinosaurs. He hasn't made his drawing into comics per se yet, but he likes the Toon Books, the Smurfs comics and especially James Kochalka's kids books.
CB: It was actually the Kochalka boys' comics that spawned that question. It'll be interesting to see what kind of comics the kids of independent cartoonists end up creating when they’re older.
Brown: Yeah, we've already seen what Sophie Crumb has done, but I don't think any other alternative cartoonists' kids are quite old enough to have been seen. The only other example I can think of is Vaughn Bode's son Mark. Of course, there's always the possibility that Oscar will follow his other current dream of becoming a paleontologist.
CB: I think when I was around his age, paleontology was pretty high up on my priorities. Jurassic Park just amped it up.
Brown: I was just a little too old when Jurassic Park came out. The other funny thing is that when I was his age, there were, like, five or six different dinosaurs. Now there are thousands!
CB: And so many of them have feathers now too! What else can we look forward to past A Matter of Life?
Brown: Change-Bots Three is coming up, and I may do an expanded version of the Oscar minicomic in book form. I have a kid's show idea that I think I'll turn into a book, Lucy and Andy Neanderthal. And a dinosaur kid's book that I'm currently calling Time of the Dinosaurs.
CB: Finally, to you, what’s the best part about being a cartoonist?
Brown: I love drawing, and I get to do it all the time, occasionally for decent pay, even. I'm sure I'd be making comics even if it was just a hobby, but it's hard to beat being able to do what you love for a living.
Jeffrey Brown’s comics work includes Clumsy, Unlikely, Any Easy Intimacy, Funny Misshapen Body, The Incredible Change-Bots, Darth Vader and Son, and many more that can be found at your local comic shop. A Matter of Life is tentatively scheduled for October of this year. You can follow his blog at http://jeffreybrowncomics.blogspot.com