Comic aficionados have been aware of Jeffrey Brown’s talents since the publication of Clumsy in 2002, a raw and honest graphic novel about a promising, but ultimately doomed, long-distance relationship. It was Brown’s ability to capture the seemingly insignificant moments of a relationship — which were all significant, in retrospect — that set his book apart from love stories featuring only big, cymbal-crashing moments of thunderous confrontation and/or wild abandon. Originally written as his MFA thesis at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and sold as a stapled-together ‘zine at a local comic shop, Clumsy exceeded Brown’s expectations and found a publisher in Top Shelf Productions, eventually selling more than 20,000 copies. It was also featured on This American Life.
Brown then proceeded to release a number of other revealing, autobiographical graphic novels, including Unlikely, a tale about losing his virginity, AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy, and Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me, a manifesto for hopeless romantics and one of my all-time favorite book titles.
Brown’s interests are varied, and he’s also penned his share of superhero comics including Bighead and The Incredible Change-Bots and the humor books Cat Getting Out Of A Bag and Cats Are Weird. He was featured in the 2007 Best American Comics collection, McSweeney’s and the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase. Brown is an Ignatz Award winner for the mini-comic I Am Going To Be Small.
Last year, Brown co-wrote his first screenplay, Save the Date, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The movie stars Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie and Martin Starr and is a semi-autobiographical comedy centered around two sisters.
As if that weren’t enough, two days after I asked him to do this interview, Brown’s new book Darth Vader and Son hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List. Darth Vader and Son is a bittersweet look at what it would’ve been like if galaxy conquering, absent father Darth Vader had been present throughout Luke Skywalker’s formative years. The book was done with the full cooperation of Lucasfilm Books.
Brown’s next graphic novel, A Matter of Life, further explores the subject of fathers and sons. Although his dad is a minister, Brown is an atheist. Brown calls it his most intimate book, thus far.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brown was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in high school, which he later detailed in his graphic novel Funny Misshapen Body. These days, he’s married with an eight-year-old son, Oscar, and they live in Chicago, where he teaches cartooning at the School of the Art Institute. He and I first met at the San Diego Comic-Con convention in 2011 and have maintained an occasional correspondence throughout the year. He couldn’t be a nicer guy.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about your memory when it comes to revisiting relationships and depicting them in your work. You’re amazing at recalling the moments that may seem of little consequence at the time but, in hindsight, could serve as a roadmap for how a relationship is progressing. Do you keep a journal or does it all just come flooding back to you when you write?
Jeffrey Brown: I’ve never kept a journal, although I can look back at my sketchbooks and jog my memory. I don’t know if I just have a weird memory or something. I can be a little obsessive, and part of that is playing things over and over in my mind. I also have an idea that if these are the things I’m remembering, they’re somehow meaningful in a way I might not consciously understand. So a lot of my process is about trusting the part of me that’s focused on some small event, even if I don’t really understand what it has to do with anything. I’m also a big fan of small moments, and I think those are times when I maybe feel most alive. Most of our lives aren’t spent experiencing big, earth-shattering events. Our lives are mostly composed of tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that we don’t always take the time to appreciate.
Rumpus: What’s an example of one of those small moments from a relationship that continues to plague you? Do you sometimes wish you could turn it off, or do the potential benefits of the mechanism — specifically, turning your life into art — outweigh any drawbacks of your obsessiveness?
Brown: Oh, no, the moments don’t plague me. I love them. I think that’s one of the misconceptions about my relationship books: that these sad, awful, awkward moments are negative. Really what I wanted to celebrate about relationships was both the good and bad together, how those ups and downs are both part of what we go through. Obviously I’d prefer to have more ups, but being able to appreciate a realistic view of relationships is important. I think, overall, the positives to my obsessiveness outweigh the negatives, even if there are times when that obsessiveness starts to interfere with life.
Rumpus: Does it keep you living in the past?
Brown: I think other than a brief time when I was drawing Clumsy, where the present got a little confused with the past, I definitely live in the moment. Part of that was becoming aware of that possibility and continuing to keep an eye out for when that’s happening. Trying, at least. If anything I think I start thinking and worrying about the future too much. I think my imagination is vivid enough that sometimes things that haven’t happened — that won’t, or can’t — feel to me like they have.
Rumpus: So, is it easier going through a rough patch in a relationship, or even going through a breakup, knowing that you’re going to be able to channel it into a project? Like: “This is a lousy argument, but at least I’ll be able to turn it into something, later.” Or is this stuff always just difficult, no matter what?
Brown: It’s always difficult. I do have a kind of self-imposed, subconscious rule about what’s happening at any given time and the idea of writing about it. There was a time during writing Clumsy when I had that thought — as something was happening I started thinking about it as a comic and I didn’t like that. I don’t like the idea that I would change what I’m doing to affect how it would be as a story to be told later, because it seems to me that would in some way corrupt not only how I was acting, but would also make the comic less pure. It’d be like making myself into my own fiction. I’m more interested in looking at things I’ve gone through and trying to pull meaning out of those events. It’s one of the reasons I’ve moved to writing about events that are further in the past, and when I’m writing about something recent it’s usually just something funny that happened or was said. It’s important for me to have my art be reflective rather than proactive.
Rumpus: After Clumsy and Unlikely and AEIOU came out, did women getting into relationships with you realize that they might end up in one of your books? Were there ever any concessions from your end about things you wouldn’t work into a comic? Or is your feeling that everything in your life is fair game and if they’re participating in your life, then they’re participating in your art?
Brown: I think they realized that, but from relationship to relationship that understanding has varied. I don’t think of it as everything in life being fair game, necessarily, but I think the people I know understand that I’m an artist whose work has very much centered on his personal life. There are always concessions, whether unspoken or clarified, and ultimately it’s just up to me to figure out how to negotiate those things. For the most part I think people understand that the essence of my work isn’t about specific people, per se — it’s about relationships, events, feelings. I’m just writing about these things, using the material of real life.
Rumpus: It seems like you’re comfortable showing your most vulnerable side. Have you ever thought, “This is way too much personal information,” and axed something? Or is it all about full disclosure, even if that means you’re presenting yourself in an unflattering way?
Brown: I don’t believe in full disclosure, at least not for its own sake. I always try to balance effectively expressing the ideas I want to get at with not being salacious or gratuitous in detail. I do want to be honest, so sometimes it certainly means showing myself in a less than flattering light, but all those decisions are in service of how I want the story to feel. I think that, really, full disclosure is actually impossible. I’ll always have to act as a bit of an editor, trimming things and arranging them in certain ways, and beyond that the books are always limited to my own point of view and experience anyway.
Rumpus: Clumsy was your MFA thesis. What was the response when you turned it in? When did you realize you’d struck a nerve with people?
Brown: The response was varied. Most of the faculty seemed to appreciate it, although they didn’t have the language or understanding of comics to really take it in other than on the surface level. A lot of students seemed to like it, but then again a lot of them seemed to not really care.
The big response came from selling copies at local comic shops. Initially I did just Xerox copies, and the speed at which those sold was what told me the book had the ability to strike a nerve, and gave me the courage to self-publish. I think what really gets to people about the book is just the straightforward honesty, the willingness to show myself — and more generally, the average romantic relationship — warts and all, the good and the bad.
Rumpus: It’s pretty rare that a self-published comic would fly off the shelves like that. Why do you think it stood out?
Brown: I think a big part of it was the cover — [Cartoonist and graphic novelist] Paul Hornschemeier was helping me put the book together, and it was his idea to design the cover without an image. The plain brown cover is something a lot of people mention as the reason people pick the book up. The book itself is composed of a lot of one or two page comics, and there’s something maybe about the way I write that keeps people reading; it’s, for some reason, hard to put down. From there it just grew by word of mouth, basically, something I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of. It was a pivotal moment, certainly, though at the time I didn’t realize just how big it was.
Rumpus: You worked at Barnes & Noble for years. When did you realize you could finally quit your day job?
Brown: It was still another six years after writing Clumsy that I finally quit Barnes & Noble, partly because of getting health insurance, something especially important for someone with a pre-existing condition in this country. Even knowing how much more expensive getting my own health insurance would be, I reached the point where more and more I felt like any time I was at the bookstore, I was losing time that could be spent drawing and writing. I kept cutting my hours until I was working one four-hour shift each week, and that started to seem silly. Around that time, my first cat book came out and was selling well, and I signed a two book deal with Simon & Schuster, so I had enough work to know we could survive without the day job.
Rumpus: Clumsy was dramatized on This American Life. For many radio fans and contributors, this is the gold standard. What was it like to work alongside Ira Glass?
Brown: It was great working with Ira, although mostly I worked with producer Jonathan Goldstein. Jonathan had found one of the first Xerox printings of Clumsy at the Chicago comic shop Quimby’s, and thought the stories would translate nicely to radio. Jonathan and I spent a few months refining a number of stories into prose versions, some of which were like new versions of pages from Clumsy and others, which were like descriptions of the panels. Recording the show took over an hour, even though the segment was about ten minutes. Rerecording bits with the slightest of changes was interesting. Overall, the response was great, and the piece ended up being a big part of my work gaining a foothold for a career.
Rumpus: Were you happy with how the piece turned out?
Brown: Yeah, mostly — I sound kind of nasally, though. I try to remind myself to talk more “manly” when I’m doing radio these days.
Rumpus: I bring up your book Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me all the time. It’s a true-life graphic novel about your encounters with five women over a period of three weeks and the title is particularly resonant to me. It’s basically how I tend to approach all new relationships: “She’s the one, I know it, I’ve finally found what I’m looking for, I should start picking out wedding invitations.” Do you still head into relationships in this end-of-the-world manner, or is this a naïve, young man’s approach?
Brown: That book was really about ending that mentality — coming to the realization that I couldn’t depend on a girl to be happy, it had to start with myself, and I finally, mostly, let go of that need. I don’t think it’s a necessarily naive approach, but it definitely makes it harder on the relationship most of the time. The most successful relationship I’ve had is the one I’m in now, and it started not terribly long after I finally got rid of that end-of-the-world mentality. I like to think I’m better [at relationships], but I know I still make a lot of mistakes. I think it always depends not just on who you’re with, but when you’re with them. A big reason the relationship I’m in now works is because of my wife. I’ve learned a lot from her, and still am. She doesn’t let me off easy, but also works with me.
Rumpus: Would you consider writing a book about a relationship that worked out? Or is it only particularly interesting to you, in an artistic way when it doesn’t?
Brown: I might consider writing about a successful relationship, but I tend to not start writing a book before I know how it ends. I’m married now, and bits of this relationship are popping up in stories. I think, in general, I just don’t have anything else that I’m really itching to write about when it comes to romantic relationships. I try not to over-think or over-analyze what I’m doing, and writing about the relationships previously had less to do with the fact that they ended than some aspect of being in a relationship that interested me. For Clumsy, it was to celebrate how imperfect most relationships are, and declare that to be an OK thing. Unlikely was about the unrealistic expectations we can build up for our romantic relationships. AEIOU was about intimacy and the barriers to it that can exist between two people.
Rumpus: How did you figure out how to draw yourself? Is that something that was obvious to you, or did you tinker over how you should look?
Brown: It’s something that’s evolved over time. I didn’t tinker consciously. I’ve tried to let it happen organically. There were times I was drawing myself from photos, but that never made sense for how I draw my comics. Of course, now I’m getting older and I’m going to need to figure out a new way to draw myself.
Rumpus: What’s your standard workday like? Do you have a routine, or is it all over the place?
Brown: It’s a little all over the place, since I’m sort of a half stay-at-home parent. Generally, though, I try to wake up and get everyone out the door, off to preschool and work, so I can get to the coffee shop around 9 a.m. I’ll draw there for a few hours, then come home for lunch, and draw more until it’s time to pick up my son from preschool. I may or may not chip away at some work while I’m watching him, and then after dinner and everyone goes to bed, I’ll stay up and draw until midnight or so, three or four days a week. That can all change depending on travel, what deadlines I have, what project I’m working on, whether or not I’m teaching my class at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I try to draw whenever I can.
Rumpus: You’ve said that cartoonists Chris Ware and Dan Clowes were big influences on you and were inspiring when you felt like your art was becoming stagnant. What was the problem and how did they help you out?
Brown: A big part of it was just seeing their work, and how they were expressing ideas in comics in a way I’d never been able to in my paintings, and so were instrumental in getting me to start drawing my own comics. They were also all very responsive in giving feedback and encouragement, especially Chris Ware who went as far to visit my studio and wrote me an extremely important letter that gave some basic advice as an artist as well as explained what he saw in my work that he felt resonated. Chris also encouraged me to self-publish when Clumsy was rejected by publishers, spread the word about the book and put me in touch with Paul Hornschemeier, who became a great friend and inspiration after helping me self-publish. If I hadn’t met Chris, and received such a generous response, I don’t know that I’d be drawing comics at this point.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you’re moving into a stage of your career where you want to focus more on stuff outside of yourself? Or have you always been all over the place in your interests? Is it refreshing to branch off into unexpected areas every once in a while?
Brown: I’ve always been interested in doing other stuff — from Bighead to I Am Going To Be Small to the Change-Bots books. I’ve always tried to balance out doing the super-personal work with doing something fun and fictional, but I am probably doing less autobiographical work now, overall. It’s still an interest, but I’ve covered most of what I wanted to say about life in the context of my own life, for now, at least. I do feel like I’ve continued to build and widen the range of subjects I engage, and the ways in which I handle them, and that’s certainly important to my continued development as an artist. The book I just finished is autobiographical, and although it clearly follows the previous work I’ve done in that vein, I think it’s much different in how it’s written and drawn, in addition to handling a more mature subject matter in a more nuanced way.
Rumpus: I know your dad is a minister and you’re an atheist. Is that what we’re talking about here?
Brown: That’s actually pretty much the book I just finished — it’s called A Matter Of Life and will be published by Top Shelf in March 2013. I put off writing about religion — and the dynamic of my dad being a minister while I’m atheist — for a long time, mostly because I needed to find the right way to handle it. Becoming a father myself helped give me the right perspective and I finally found the right tone and aesthetic to make the book I wanted to, something that tries to capture all the nuance and complications of the feelings I have about these things, and how I find meaning in my life as a parent. In the end, the book is fairly vague, hopefully not preachy and definitely not trying to give “The Answer” or even explain what I may believe. But hopefully it’s something that will provoke some thought and connect with people on an emotional level. Despite the personal details I’ve drawn in previous books, this is likely the most intimate book I’ve written yet, and I’m very proud of it.
Rumpus: Speaking of things to be proud of, Darth Vader and Son is blowing up. Congratulations on everything. I know you’ve experienced plenty of success before this, but is this new territory at all? What response have you gotten?
Brown: The response has been amazing, especially in terms of more mainstream acceptance. For me, just doing the book was enough of a reason to do it — I’ve always loved Star Wars, and it was so much fun to draw. The fact that I got paid was almost like a bonus, and the fact that it’s sold well and there’s been such a positive response is more icing on the cake. It’s a little overwhelming at times, but very rewarding. Hopefully it doesn’t all spoil me. I’ve been very fortunate in that, so far in my career. I’ve always been able to work on the projects I want to, and in the way I want to. So I try to remember that when I’m not drawing Star Wars, I shouldn’t expect this kind of attention.
Rumpus: How did you react when you made the New York Times Best-Seller List? What does it feel like to be No. 1?
Brown: It’s all a little abstract still, and I don’t know what to do with it, really. I think I’m also aware that it can all be pretty fleeting, so I’m definitely enjoying and appreciating it, even if it doesn’t feel entirely real. I’m still amazed that I actually got to make this book, and I’d still go back and do it again, even if I didn’t know it would sell.
Rumpus: Based on its phenomenal success, do you have plans to continue with the Star Wars books? Are you already thinking about your follow-up?
Brown: We were already thinking about the sequel before I’d even finished the first book. Obviously, Princess Leia needs to get a book, too. I’m also working on another Star Wars project which I can’t quite talk about yet, but it’ll be much different from anything I’ve done previously and I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Rumpus: Were you in touch with George Lucas or his staff at all? Do you know what he thinks of the book?
Brown: I worked a lot with J.W. Rinzler, who’s an editor and author for Lucasfilm Books, and gave some great input without ever interfering with what I was doing in the book. George Lucas requested additional copies of the book from Chronicle, so apparently he liked it, which feels pretty great.
Rumpus: How did you figure out what young Luke was going to look like? I have a theory that he looks a bit like you did when you were that age.
Brown: Luke is actually based on how I draw my son Oscar, with a slightly different haircut. Of course, Oscar looks pretty much the way I did when I was his age. He’s like a smaller version of me.
Rumpus: How has your art has evolved as you’ve changed projects over the years? How would you describe the differences in your work between Darth Vader and Son or Cat Getting Out of a Bag and some of your more personal, autobiographical works?
Brown: I try to not over-think things, and let the project itself determine how I approach it. So, considering how unsuccessful my first few romantic relationships were, it made sense in books like Clumsy and Unlikely to have an aesthetic that was messy, awkward and full of mistakes. For Darth Vader and Son, I wanted to have things retain a cartoony quality while being pretty accurate to the look from the films, and I also wanted it to feel pretty warm.
Rumpus: It’s been a big year for you. In addition to all the book success, a film you co-wrote, Save the Date went to Sundance. Why did you want to get into screenwriting? And what was your Sundance experience like?
Brown: Screenwriting — or at least some involvement with film or TV — was a big part of my creative development, from being inspired by the storyboards from The Empire Strikes Back to having a public access TV show and thoughts of becoming part of a sketch comedy troupe. I got an email in 2006 from producer Jordan Horowitz, who liked my books and wondered if I’d ever thought about writing for film. I figured I’d give it a try, though I ended up relying a great deal on my first co-writer, Egan Reich, who really helped format things and structure the story in a way that was fit for film, in addition to making the story funnier and more real. Sundance was amazing and surreal. I enjoyed it immensely, but came home with bronchitis and an ear infection. The whole experience taught me a lot about filmmaking, and I’d love to go back there. Save The Date was just picked up for distribution by IFC Films, so it will hopefully see a theatrical release soon, maybe around Valentine’s Day. In the meantime, it’s been playing other film festivals around the country.
Rumpus: How much of the film was based on your life? Do you have another movie in you?
Brown: The initial idea is based on my own life, but by the time my two co-writers and the actors were done with things, the details are much, much different. That said, the movie still feels like it’s made entirely of the emotional beats and feelings of how my relationship with my wife began. I think I’ve got more movies in me, but I’m in no rush, and happy to keep drawing comics and let the next movie project happen organically when it feels like the right time.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for aspiring graphic novelists?
Brown: The first thing is to read as much as you can. Read it, study it, absorb it — things you like, and things you don’t. Meet other cartoonists whenever you can, talk to them, pick their brains. Go to comic conventions and signings, and if you can’t do that read as many interviews as possible. Get feedback: don’t just show your work to friends, but send it to people with self-addressed stamped envelopes and ask specific questions for them to respond to. Send your work to artists, writers, editors, publishers. And finally, the most important thing, the first and last thing, is to make work. The rest of the advice is pointless if you don’t actually make the comics. Don’t stop with a few sample pages for your “pitch,” but work all the time whenever you can. Develop a good work ethic, practice so you get better, and make enough work to know that it’s really what you want to do.
Rumpus: Have you become a surrogate therapist to any of your friends or fans who are aware of what you’ve gone through in your relationships, wanting an honest take on their problems?
Brown: I think I’m usually the one going to my friends for the therapy! I have gotten a lot of questions or requests for advice from people who have read my books. I think it has less to do with the idea that I know any more about relationships, but more to do with the fact that my books are written for friends, and I feel like I have a friendship with the people reading the books. So that’s the kind of approach people come to me with — not the wisdom of an expert, but the honest thoughts of someone who cares. In a way I started writing autobiography as a way to open up to people, and I think that helps readers open up to me. I guess it might be a strange thing, but I feel like it’s a pretty rewarding aspect to doing the work I do.