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An interview with: Jeffrey Brown

By Jeff Zwirek
Jeffrey Brown showed up in the alternative comics scene with his graphic novel, Clumsy, a story depicting the emotional arc of a relationship. More surprising than the length and detail that Brown put into the book, was the minimal, frail line-work that composed the story, looking, like the characters, to be holding only by a thread.

What really sold me, however, was the praise on the back of the book from two of the biggest names in alternative comics:

"An extremely impressive debut This was one of my favorite books to come out in the past year." Chris Ware

"This is my favorite graphic novel ever." James Kochalka

I conducted an e-mail interview with Jeff, discussing Clumsy, his process, day jobs, and befriending Chris Ware.

JZ: What I am most curious to hear about, is your ability to market yourself. I don't mean that in a Hollywood, in-your-face kind of way, obviously, but you did manage to get your name out there rather prominently after you published Clumsy. How did you do this?
JB: I think I was just really lucky. Word of mouth has been a huge factor. Another big factor was befriending Chris Ware and being fortunate enough that he really likes my work, and so talked it up to various people. I also lucked out that Jonathan Goldstein, who was a producer for This American Life (a show on National Public Radio) saw one of the original Xerox printings of Clumsy, and got me onto the show. Mostly it's just been word of mouth buzz. And maybe the work is good, too...

JZ: Who is your audience?
JB: A lot of white middle class people, I'm sure. It's probably pretty well split between girls and geeky adolescent males... I mean, not just geeky guys. Lots of really cool guys, too.

JZ: How long were you working on comics before you published Clumsy? And why did you choose to self publish? Did you try to get it done through a publisher first?
JB: Clumsy was really the first 'comics' I've done, other than little three- or four-panel things, and a few one-pager type things. When I wrote it I had no intentions to publish it originally, but everyone I showed it to seemed to like it, and Chris Ware encouraged me to try publishing it. I sent out excerpts to Fantagraphics, TopShelf, Drawn & Quarterly, Highwater, Alternative, Dark Horse... no one thought they could make any money off it, I guess. So Chris gave me a pep talk and put me in touch with Paul Hornschemeier, who pretty much facilitated the whole project, made it happen. Then after it started selling well and getting attention and James Kochalka continuously bugging them, TopShelf took over as publisher. Drawn & Quarterly also, right after seeing the self-published version, invited me to be part of their showcase series.

JZ: Also, you were a student at the Art Institute, where I assume there was little to no emphasis on comics as an art form. (Please correct me if this isn't true.)
JB: No, it's true. There's a considerable lack of comics-ness in the graduate program.

JZ: Why and how did you decide to use comics as your artistic medium?
JB: I grew up reading comics. Then I stopped for years. Then just before I started my MFA, I got back into comics, inspired mostly by Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. Then I had a particularly awful critique at the Art Institute, and drawing comics that were as honest and human and anti-fine art as I could possibly make was my response. I had also met Chris Ware at this point, and he was getting me thinking more about comics as an art form.

JZ: Was Chris Ware's guidance just that, encouraging words? Or did he have specific advice for your work? (Chris Ware may be considered the biggest name in alternative comics, having won multiple national and international awards for his series Acme Novelty Library.)
JB: He did have a lot of encouraging words, but also it was important to have someone to talk to about comics as art in general. Before I started drawing the comics, he would talk about what he liked and different things he saw in the work I was doing, which really helped me find a new direction with the comics. We're pretty good friends now, though we don't see each other too often because of our schedules.

JZ: What were you studying at the Art Institute? How involved are you in still maintaining that discipline?
JB: I was in the Painting and Drawing program. Once I started drawing comics, I pretty much stopped painting. It's something I'd like to do again some day, but I don't have the time right now. And I can say a lot more with comics than I was ever able to with the paintings.

JZ: Why did you document your relationship in Clumsy? Was it a type of catharsis? An exercise? Some sort of therapy?
JB: Actually, it was to celebrate the relationship. We were still together when I started it. And I was amusing myself. To me, it was a mostly funny book.

JZ: Why did you want to put it into the public domain?
JB: Well, I'd let my friends read it as I drew it, and they all really liked it and thought it was funny, and then people encouraged me to publish it, and I thought maybe it'd be good, so people could see relationships aren't all super idealized like in the movies.

JZ: As far as Clumsy and Unlikely go, they seem to work on a universal level, where it's identifiable as common ground for a lot of people, and still it's clearly the story of your personal relationship. Was this intentional?
JB: I intended it to be my personal story mostly, but also that people would relate to it because it showed a more realistic relationship, as opposed to these perfect love stories the media is always feeding us. I didn't realize how universal and average my own personal story was until people started responding and telling me how I wrote out exact conversations they've had with their significant others.

JZ: How much do you encounter self-censorship in your auto-bio work?
JB: Well, obviously there are some things you've got to keep secret. I can't reveal all my tricks. More often though, what you're dealing with is editing. What's left out is left out because of how it does or doesn't affect the story I'm trying to tell, or feelings I'm trying to express, rather than making judgment on whether or not I should tell something. If it serves the work, then I'll put it in, pretty much. There's probably only two or three things I'd like to have included because they would've helped the work, but left them out for personal reasons.

JZ: Have you ever found that drawing about your personal life in such an honest way, has affected your reality as a result?
JB: Just once, when a friend misinterpreted my portrayal of him. Well, I guess there's other times that it affects me, even if I don't know it. I'm sure there're girls who think they can never date me now after reading the books. But I've never done anything with the purpose of creating a situation to write about, and I'm trying to move away from autobiography; a lot of the autobiographical stuff I have left to write goes back farther in time, and the stuff that deals with more recent events, I'm trying to exaggerate and alter to make it into a more fictionalized thing.

JZ: Why go in that direction?
JB: For one thing, it gives room for more invention, so I can keep things more interesting and have more fun. Also, if I let myself change things, then I don't have to worry if I do something that maybe protects the innocent.

JZ: You also put your work in a lot of anthologies, why?
JB: Well, it started as a way to get more exposure. But I also make a lot of work, and anthologies give me another place to put it. I'm learning finally that I don't need to take every opportunity that comes along, though.

JZ: What are your biggest influences outside of comics that still relate to your comics work?
JB: Charlotte Salomon is first among artists not doing comics to influence me. She was killed in the Holocaust, but she had created this massive and beautiful work called Life? Or Theatre? I also listen to a lot of music and that finds its way into my art in various ways. And just reading in general.

JZ: What qualities of her work impact you?
JB: For one thing, her imagery is so incredibly expressive. It's beautiful, and although it's in color, her lines really stand out, and I've always been more interested in lines myself. Aside from that, it's emotionally powerful, and in terms of storytelling it's a pretty unique work.

JZ: On a practical note, you still have a day job. How often do you work on comics during the average every week, and can an artist make a living as an alternative cartoonist without relying on other income?
JB: As far as I know, even the big name alternative cartoonists Ware, Clowes, Tomine, Burns, et al rely on things like illustration work and original art sales to supplement their comics income, so I'm not sure it's possible. Crumb must be able to do it. But then you get into fuzzy semantics of when is an artist doing comics and when are they doing art... I guess the point is that it's possible to do without having a normal day job. My friend Paul Hornschemeier is trying to do it now, and though he just made the switch, it's working so far. I work pretty much all my free time. I try to draw every night. I also do a lot of my writing in my head while I'm traveling or at work. This summer I've been traveling a lot and have been worn out from the combination of that and the day job, so I haven't been getting as much done. But I may only be imagining that I'm not as productive. I try to average three to four hours of drawing a day, mostly at night.

JZ: What are you currently working on? And what's the process of putting it together?
JB: I'm working on a lot of things in a lot of ways. There's a couple book-length autobiographical works I'm starting, which requires pretty extensive scripting. For books like that I usually script out the entire thing panel by panel. I'm also doing a lot of shorter pieces for various places, some of which I script out pretty completely, but others I kind of write page-by-page as I'm drawing it.

JZ: What direction do you see your career going in the future?
JB: I've got so many ideas, but if I look past a couple years, it gives me a headache. For now I'll be happy to get started on this big autobiographical project, and there's fiction I'd like to start writing, maybe graphic novels for kids, too. I love doing comics more than anything I've ever done art-wise, so although I may even start painting again someday, or get into film work, I imagine I'll always be making comics, too.

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Jeff's next book, Big Head, is due out in October from Top Shelf, and his published books include: Clumsy and Unlikely, two books depicting relationships, (available through Top Shelf), Be A Man, a shorter work consisting of gags debunking the Jeffrey Brown we came to know in Clumsy, (again through Top Shelf). I am Going to be Small, self-published gag strips. Also available are several mini-comics, some of which are at his website www.theholyconsumption.com, a site he maintains in part with other Chicago comic artists Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, and John Hankiewicz which is a very nice site with lots of new material. Also look for Jeff in a bunch of anthologies including, but not restricted to: Ad Houses' Project Telstar, The Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and Rosetta 2.

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