Sunday, February 27, 2005



Telling tales from
the heart

This column was going to be about this affectionate superhero spoof, "Bighead," by Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf Productions). On the cover, the hero battles the villainous Power Broker while a reporter looks on in horror! But the story's as much about Brown and his reputation on the indie comic scene.

Brown's national attention came after the release of earlier autobiographical graphic novels: "Clumsy," now in its third printing, documents a yearlong, long-distance relationship; and "Unlikely" -- or "How I Lost My Virginity."

Brown's notoriety has grown with the help and support of such noted and like-minded creators as Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and James Kochalka. A cover blurb on "Unlikely," from "This American Life" radio host Ira Glass succinctly says, in part: "The scratchy simplicity of the drawings make the people in them all seem guileless and sweet. You feel like you're reading about some very well-meaning children who also happen to have sex, smoke pot and drink."

In a radio interview with Glass during the time when "Clumsy" debuted, Brown admitted that he started working on the book as a celebration of his love for Theresa. Unfortunately, she broke up with him during this process, and Brown decided to finish the book to its bittersweet conclusion.

Both "Clumsy" and "Unlikely," while relatively quick reads, are powerful in the cumulative effect of small stories depicting the minutiae of Brown's two first, failed relationships. His self-described "simpler, more naive drawing style" is matched by the plain, everyday "small talk" between him and his girlfriends, revealing volumes about the neediness and missed emotional connections that foreshadow the inevitable.

In an e-mail interview with Brown, he agrees that his drawing style gave the books an engrossing sense of immediacy. "I actually had planned on drawing some autobiography in a more realistic style, but it never feels right. I don't really plan things out too much in the sense of style. I tend to go with my gut instinct, which is why 'Bighead' is more detailed, particularly in the later stories," as in more care with crosshatching, perspectives and the like.


STORYWISE, however, Brown (who admits he "was a huge X-Men fan growing up"), more often than not spoofs the vagrancies of love as much as the superhero genre. Bighead develops a friendship with Bullman, who later accuses, "You're suffocating me!"

In the pitched battle with Heartbroke and his Doomsday Machine, Bighead tries to console a defeated Heartbroke by saying, "Getting dumped isn't the end of the world," only to have the downcast villain tearfully admit, "Yes it is!"

Bighead also puts down the hippie Girlhair for her un-productivity and resists the allure of the Temptationress.

With this and an upcoming book, Brown hopes to distance himself from his "broken-hearted guy" persona.

"I think the broken-hearted aspect is certainly given too much emphasis by many readers," he wrote. "In 'Clumsy' especially, I was entertaining myself, and drawing that book was mostly fun and laughs for me. I guess I'm trying to get away from writing about girls so much, but at the same time, most artists tend to be obsessive and make art about what they're obsessed with, and I guess I'm a little obsessed with girls. Or at least the idea of having a girlfriend. Or maybe it's just my libido."

Brown says he still runs into "people confusing the me of real life with the me of books, and don't realize that it's possible I've learned from mistakes I've shown myself making, or that I could've changed, or that the books can only show a small part of who I am or what happened in a relationship."

Still, in order to appreciate the development of Brown's comic book art, I recommend reading his work in chronological order.

Set to be released sometime next month by Top Shelf is "Miniature Sulk," which Brown describes as "a short-story collection, some autobiographical, some made up, some gag things, all of it pretty funny.

"At least, I think it's funny. My favorite is a series of stories called 'My Brother Knows Kung Fu.' I have two older brothers. We fought a lot, and it's one of those things -- you do look back and laugh a lot."

For more on Brown, go online at www.topshelfcomix.com, or the Web site he shares with artists John Hankiewicz, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen, the Holy Consumption of Chicago, at www.theholyconsumption.com.

E-mail to Features Desk


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