Estevan and I had the amazing opportunity recently to share some words with a big inspiration of ours: Jeffrey Brown. Brown is known for his autobiographical stories and humorous parodies, as showcased in titles such as Clumsy, Unlikely, Bighead, and Cats Are Weird. Brown was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and currently resides in Chicago with his wife and child. He also won an Ignatz Award in 2003, which is kinda like a big deal. Here’s our interview with him below:
DW: After growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you moved to Chicago when you were 25 to pursue an MFA at the School of the Art Institute. What was going on between high school and college?
JB: I went to undergrad right after high school actually – a small Christian, liberal arts college in Michigan – so basically I had a summer which I undoubtedly spent wondering if I’d ever have sex. I had three years between graduating from there and moving to Chicago for graduate school.
JB: I supported myself by keeping my college day job of decorating wooden shoes, and spent my nights and weekends drawing and painting and wondering if I’d ever have sex, until I had sex, after which I spent that time wondering if I’d ever have sex again. This wondering is all painfully obvious if you read my first few books, I think.
DW: When you finished college, you decided to stop painting and pursue comics seriously. Why did you abandon painting? Have you ever decided to ever use paint for a comic of yours?
JB: I still love painting but I never felt like it clicked for me the way comics has – I never felt like I was really expressing any feelings or ideas in my paintings, whereas drawing comics was not only immediately enjoyable but also felt like I was actually communicating with an audience. I’ve painted a few times since I started doing comics, but haven’t ever had a project that needed to be painted, or wouldn’t be just as good/better if it was drawn. Which isn’t to say the projects wouldn’t be better if someone else painted them instead of me drawing them.
DW: I know that you worked at Barnes & Noble after art school to give you some income and health insurance, but I’m also guessing this helped give you the funds to self-publish your first comic book. How much of a sacrifice did you have to make to publish your first book? Did you still attempt to submit your comic to bigger publishers before self-publishing?
JB: I did pitch my first book (Clumsy) to the alternative comics publishers, including Top Shelf who ended up publishing my work, although at first they and everyone else passed because they thought at best they’d lose at least a little bit of money. I actually overdrew my bank account by publishing the book, so there was something like $100 of fees I sacrificed. Although, in actuality it was one of those things where the bank cleared a check I’d written but placed a hold on a check I’d deposited so that when that check cleared I was already overdrawn. I was fortunate in that I was able to sell enough books soon enough after publishing to not have it be too much of a financial burden for long, and it also helped that I was living with friends, and saving a bit on rent.
DW: Most of your comic books are autobiographical, with the story being centered on yourself and past life. Have you changed any names for these tales, or is everything raw and straightforward?
JB: I’ve changed names, and occasionally inconsequential details, but for the most part the books are as true and accurate and honest as I can remember. I swear that I very rarely have conveniently forgotten anything to include or exclude. I’m interested in exploring the idea of how our minds organize our memories and experience, knowing that how things really happened can be different from how we remember them happening. So even though everything is as true as my mind can make it, ultimately the fact that I’m not using notes or reference or other people’s accounts leaves the door open for inaccuracies. The most important things for me is to get at the emotional accuracy, and hopefully people appreciate that. I have a rule that I’m never using the comics for other motives – never out of revenge, or trying to win someone back, things like that.
DW: How have ex girlfriends reacted to their history being revealed in comics like Unlikely and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me? What about family and friends being featured in the comics?
JB: I’m not really in touch with any of my ex-girlfriends, which could be seen as a message about what they think, but probably has more to do with my own inability to stay friends with exes. My family don’t talk to me much either – it’s probably a bit weird to read a comic about a relative’s intimate life, let alone discuss it with them. All in all I try to be fair to the people who are in my books, and try to make the books less about specific people and more about situations we go through in life, feelings or ideas and thoughts about the things we go through rather than the people going through them.
DW: I’m a huge fan of Bighead and its humor. The comic book and hero are clearly written by someone who grew up with comic books. Growing up, what helped form your creativity in comics? What did you read, mainly? What type of comics did you read when you were older to help inspire the style you use today?
JB: Growing up, I mostly read Marvel comics – especially Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine. In addition to comics the Star Wars films were a big creative inspiration, as well as role playing games. As I got older I discovered and fell in love with the comics of Moebius, and from there found my way to both European comics and North American alternative comics – Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Eddie Campbell. I try to absorb from everything I read, and find a lot of inspiration from film, music, prose and art in general in addition to comics.
DW: Is there any superhero or comic title you could imagine taking over and writing/drawing for? Maybe any character from Marvel or DC?
JB: I’d still like to do an X-Men graphic novel, and wouldn’t mind doing something with Thor, or The Beyonder. Or Batman, maybe. In any case it’d have to be a special, limited series or standalone book, I don’t think I have the ambition to take over a series for any extended period. Unless, I suppose, it paid incredibly well but still left me with enough time to work on my own projects.
DW: I’ve read in a couple of interviews that you actually now teach in the same art institute you graduated from in Chicago, School of the Art Institute. How do you enjoy teaching?
JB: I like it – I feel like I learn a lot in the process, though it’s harder for me to adjust to doing things in new and different ways than it is for my students. Teaching college students does make me feel old sometimes. It can be inspiring, though, seeing how they work and what solutions they come up with, things that I might not think of myself. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being young.
DW: Sundance 2012 saw the screening of a movie you co-wrote with Egan Reich and director Michael Mohan to called Save the Date. How did this project first spring about? When can we expect to see the movie
outside of Sundance?
JB: This spring the film will be playing at various film festivals around the US, and hopefully it will get wider distribution soon. The project started six years ago when producer Jordan Horowitz emailed me out of the blue, saying he liked my comics and asking if I’d ever thought about writing for film. I figured I’d give it a try, and rather than adapt one of my books, I wanted to create something new, although the story I came up with was still inspired by my real life. Egan came on to help, since the way I write my comics doesn’t necessarily translate to film, and then Michael refined our script into a final draft that really felt like one of my comics. It was a much different experience than making comics – instead of working alone, I was essentially collaborating with a ton of other people – but somehow the final film really hit the emotional notes I originally envisioned, and all the humor and feeling I try to get across in my comics is there. I’m fortunate that not only did the film get made, I’m really happy with how it turned out.
DW: Your blog notes that you just finished a comic called Darth Vader and Son, but you’re also working on a book called A Matter of Life. Explain!
JB: Darth Vader and son is all finished up now, and will be out in stores this May. It’s basically a collection of one page gag comics about Darth Vader raising a four year old Luke Skywalker, and was a ton of fun to draw. I’ve spent more than the past year working on A Matter Of Life – I worked on artwork for Save The Date and the Star Wars book while I’ve been drawing this new book. It’s autobiographical stories about fatherhood, both my son and I, and then my father, who was a minister, so it also deals with religion and faith and church. It’s full color, and the pages use a base of a twelve panel grid, so it’s a little different from any other autobiographical book I’ve done so far. I’ve got about twenty pages to finish, plus the covers, and hopefully that’ll be published this fall, from Top Shelf. I usually try to have multiple projects going on at the same time, so that if I don’t feel like working on one thing I can work on something else, instead of wasting days when I’m not particularly inspired. I also try to vary the nature of the projects – so while A Matter Of Life is a little more serious or meaningful, Darth Vader and son is just fun and humorous.
DW: Jeffrey Brown is a father and married man. We haven’t seen much of this reflected in your autobiographical comic books. Will we ever?
JB: While fatherhood will be covered by A Matter Of Life, I’m less motivated to write about my marriage. I have to admit it’s pretty domestic and boring. My wife works full time, and since I work from home I end up doing the laundry and the dishes and watching our son weekdays when he doesn’t have pre-school. So maybe that’ll work its way into some comics… writing about someone you’re married to is apparently much different than writing about an ex-girlfriend you dated for a few months.
Writing by Kevin Cortez
Illustrations by Estevan Sanchez