Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Personal Is Personable: An Interview with Jeffrey Brown

It was a cold, slate day in Sacramento (are there any other kind?) on January 9th of this year when the first annual Indy Euphoria event took place. This event sought to shine a spotlight on emerging independent and underground comic artists, graphic artists, zinesters and toy designers. Among such local comic/arts luminaries as Tim Vigil, Paul Allen and Skinner sat one Mr. Jeffery Brown.

Jeffrey Brown is a (under) world-renowned comic book artist from Chicago who has gained a sizable fan base and recognition for his series of introspective and hilarious comics based on his personal life – love, loss, love, sex, love, etc. Along with Harvey Peckar, Adrian Tomine and Gilbert Hernandez (to name but a very few), Brown pioneered the art of comics that focus more on the personal aspect of everyday life rather than on superheroes in tights beating baddies to a pulp (Brown’s first comic book, Big Head, was indeed about a hero in tights, but with a meta approach to crime fighting.)

Brown’s signature artistic style is easily recognizable; loose, scratchy, devil-may-care, personable, and highly detailed. With several titles under his belt (Clumsy, AEIOU, Unlikely, the Sulk series, etc.), Brown is currently in the process of putting the finishing touches on the sequel to his Transformers satire/homage, Incredible Change-Bots. A newlywed and father, Brown makes ends meet doing what he loves and is best at: drawing funny and poignant comics.

True to the Jeffrey Brown we know from his autobiographical comics, he’s one of the nicest, soft-spoken people you will ever meet. Brown took time out of signing/selling comics at his Indy Euphoria table to graciously answer some annoying questions he’s been asked a thousand times before. True to form, he was extremely nice about doing so:

THE RUB: How would you say that your art has changed from the first time you started drawing comics to now?

Jeffrey Brown: When I first started, I was in art school and I was trying to forget everything I knew and get back to drawing like when I was a kid. I wanted to reduce everything to the most direct expression I could get at. Over time, everything I knew has creeping back into my art. I try to keep that kind of quality of not over-thinking things too much. But at the same time, I think my style has become more polished over time.

TR: Your style was looser before, and now it seems more – I don’t want to say “tighter” – but it seems more careful.

JB: Yeah, not necessarily a conscious decision, but just in terms of how I’m working, this just feels right to do it this way now, so that’s how I do it (laughs).

TR: What kind of got you on this path? You mentioned you were drawing as a kid, but when did you first moment that you realize that this [drawing comics] is what you wanted to do?

JB: By the time I was leaving for college, I had stopped reading comics and was no longer thinking about drawing comics for a living, let alone a hobby even. I was thinking that I was going to be a fine artist. While I was at art school, I wasn’t really happy with my work there. The faculty wasn’t happy with my work either, and I kind of went back to drawing comics just to maybe clear my head a little bit. And just to do something different. Also, the most fun I had making art was when I was a kid drawing comics, so I thought, “here is something I can do to kind of reset my brain a little.” So when I started drawing comics, everything seemed to click. It just felt like, “this is really what I should be doing” – not trying to be a painter or something.

TR: Did you start out the way most of us started out, drawing pictures of Wolverine and Superman?

JB: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I was drawing lost of superheroes and Star Wars and stuff from different cartoons. Also stuff form Dungeons and Dragons: kind of sword and sorcery drawings.

TR: You have a lot of personal accounts in a lot of your books. Do ex-girlfriends in particular ever get mad at you?

JB: Um… not that they’ve told me. One thing I always try to do when writing an autobiographical work is to be fair to people. Part of it is that I try to make myself look as bad - if not worse - than anyone else that I’m writing about. The books are about how flawed we all are. I certainly never set out to make someone look bad.
I think the other thing is the books are less about specific people than about these situations that happen in life. I think in that sense, hopefully, the people whose stories I’m using understand that it’s less about them or me than about these experiences, and sharing those experiences to kind of understand life better.

TR: You’re a dad now. Has that influences your art or changed the way you draw?

JB: Yeah, it’s definitely changed my perspective of life in general, let alone how I write. My way of looking at things that has changed. What I’m interested in writing about is also changing. An example would be if I watch movies now, when there’s a situation with a child, it has a bigger emotional impact on me than it did before. When I’m writing now, there’s just a different take on what’s important and what’s meaningful.

TR: Are you married?

JB: I am married now, also. We did baby first, married second.

TR: How is married life treating you?

JB: It’s good. It doesn’t seem that much different. It feels more… official. It also make it easier to explain our relationship, whereas before it was like, “well, we’ve got a kid and we live together and technically she’s only my girlfriend, but it’s more than that.” But how do you explain that? But now I can say ‘we’re married!’

TR: Would you run into that a lot? Were people like, “What?!? How does this work…?”

JB: It was maybe less coming from them than it was my own insecurities. Just trying to explain or defend myself. “No, no. You don’t understand. She’s not just my girlfriend. We’re in a committed relationship. She’s my life partner!”

TR: Have your wife or you son figured into your comics yet?

JB: A little bit. Part of it is, I’ve written so much autobiographical work that there’s just a little bit of material I’m interested in tackling now. Also, over time, I’ve become more conservative about personal details I’m exposing to the world.

TB: Do you find yourself editing your personal details because you have a lot more notoriety than when you first started out?

JB: Not in any specific manner; I think it’s more of just that the ideas I’m coming up with are different. It’s not that I’m editing-out something necessarily, it’s just that I’m not even thinking about writing it in the first place.
I still feel like I want to balance what’s important and expressing these ideas, as well as being respectful of people. It’s hard to say if it’s being married and having a son and being protective of that. How much of it is that, and how much of it is having written so much autobiographical work already? And now I’m just kind of moving away from that. I dunno.

TR: Given the personal nature of your work, have you ever had an overwhelming moment at a convention like this where you had a fan cross the line?

GB: No, no, not at all.
I think with my work, one of the ways I approach my writing is to tell stories the way I would with a close friend. So there is a sense of intimacy that comes right off the bat for a reader.
I think for the most part, what happens is maybe, people feel a little more at ease or comfortable around me – maybe less in person. But people will share their personal stories when they email me, or something. So there’s a kind of connection, but it hasn’t been to the point where it’s been weird or creepy.
I think by virtue of exposing myself, so to speak, there’s a certain amount of trust I’m placing in people as an audience. And by trusting them, that’s rewarded with a mutual respect or something. I think people are kind enough to be aware of that. Maybe more so than someone’s whose work isn’t deeply personnal. Almost like those [artists and writers] are more at risk of running into a situation where they’re going to have a scary experience.

And this, unfortunately, is where my tape recorder ran out of batteries. There were two or three more questions wherein I ask Mr. Brown what some of his favorite current comics are, what pen he enjoys drawing with the most (Uni-Ball Micro Deluxe) and what music he enjoys listening to (I seem to remember the bands Mt. Eerie and The Microphones being discussed)., but sadly, they were not recorded

Thanks go to Jeffery Brown for sitting down and discussing his work with me. It’s never advised to ever meet your heroes, unless you welcome disappointment. In the case of Jeffery Brown, that idiom couldn’t be further from the truth. Jeffrey Brown is a much nicer, warmer and genuine person than he comes across in his own comic, and I am exceptionally glad to have met him in person.


  1. wow great interview man! i love that toaster

  2. awesome, i love jeffrey brown's work...totally jealous you got to talk with him...and i used to live in the bay area so i can totally relate to cold slate days in winter...word...

  3. Jeffrey Brown was great to talk to. After a while, I forgot that he was "Jeff Brown," and thought of him more as a really nice and talented person I just met named Jeff. Oh, and he has great taste in music.

    I also chatted with Nate Powell, who was equally cool and talented. He had a table right next to Brown's at Indy Euphoria: a little slice of Chicago in the City of Trees.

  4. Lucky you I really enjoy reading his work :) It really inspire me

  5. I have all your books! I love your drawing. Do you love kumquats?