Sketch of an artist as a 30-something
Indie comic-book author Jeffrey Brown used to tell stories of love ‘how it really is.’ Now, he draws Ringo Starr as a ninja.
Sacramento, CA 95819
Kenny Hoffman at Midtown’s Big Brother Comics got me into comic-book writer and artist Jeffrey Brown this past year—rather late in the game, admittedly. Even so, I was right away drawn into to the 30-something Brown’s early books—Unlikely (’03), Clumsy (’02), nervous but sincere tales of the young-adult experience and first love (lost). Anyway, Brown’s upped the ante since those first autobiographical comics; he’s married (with child), animated an indie-rock video, did Marvel, did The Simpsons, etc. Recently, Brown illustrated 10 full-pagers for a Beatles’ zombie book. This summer, a sequel to his Transformers homage, Change-Bots, will drop. This weekend, he’ll have a new book when he appears at Sacramento’s Indy Euphoria convention. Called Process, it looks at his own DIY mini-comic technique. “I’m personally curious about other artists and their working methods, and that’s something people ask me about, so I thought that would be something worthwhile for me to write about,” Brown explained during a recent phone interview from his Chicago-area apartment. Here’s a bit more insight.
How were the holidays?
They were good. Crazy busy. Overwhelming. I have a 3-year-old … and this is the first year he kind of “gets” Christmas.
So what does that mean for Dad?
Well, I think the whole week before Christmas he was waking up in the middle of the night, coming into our room asking “Is it Christmastime? Is today Christmas?” … And now that it’s over, our apartment is filled with more toys than I thought was possible.
Do you play with toys? Are you interested?
Uh, I mean, they can be fun. For a while (laughs).
Does your domestic/fatherhood life inspire your work?
Maybe not specifically that I can point to, but in general fatherhood is changing the way I work, the way I think about things. I haven’t written too much specifically about him or being a father so far, but I think at some point it will pop up more.
What do you want to work on?
I’ve done so much autobiographical work that it’s—I wouldn’t say something that I’m less interested in—but I feel like I’ve written about so many different things that I’m not tired of it, but taking a break from it. And I also feel protective about writing too much about [my son], when he doesn’t really have a say in that.
How about doing another Be a Man parody comic?
I think so. I don’t have a specific plan at this point. But I think that might be something I’m moving more toward instead of straightforward autobiographical work. … One of the reasons I do parody work like Change-Bots or the Sulk books is to be able to do something different.
Did you piss off any hard-core Transformers fans with Change-Bots?
No. I didn’t hear from anybody—but that’s theoretically possible. Most of the response I got from the Transformers fans was pretty positive. For me, Change-Bots was more of a tribute to the old 1980s cartoons and comics, which is what I grew up with, so it’s kind of referencing that. And I think for a lot of the hard-core fans, that’s their source material, and in that sense I stayed true to the kind of feel of things and I think most of them appreciated it. It was definitely a loving parody.
What cartoons did you grow up with?
I mean, G.I. Joe and Transformers were probably the big two, but ThunderCats and M.A.S.K.—basically all the action-adventure shows with toy tie-ins.
There’s some stuff that I watch. I like The Venture Bros. and some of the other Adult Swim-type stuff, like Space Ghost. But not as much of the stuff that’s being made for kids. We don’t actually have cable.
Is that by choice?
Part of is saving money. And time. I feel like I waste a lot less time watching TV now than I used to. And for what I’m missing, I think it’s a good trade.
Is using time wisely a hard thing to navigate as an artist?
Oh yeah, especially now, being a father and having that additional concern for time. Actually, about a couple months ago I stopped bringing my laptop with me to the coffee shop when I would draw, because I thought it was distracting me too much. And I became, like, 300-times more productive.
Tell me about working on Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales.
It was kind of a last-minute deal for me being involved with that issue, so I was kind of under a tight deadline. … My childhood dream was to draw for Marvel.
Do you harbor a dream project?
Someday I’d like to do a full-on, full-length X-Men book, or maybe just like a single issue for X-Men.
You did do a Wolverine comic, true?
Yeah, kind of an unofficial Wolverine comic.
Will that ever see the light of day in some form?
Probably not. I just think the tone of it was a little too—I don’t know if adult is the right word. Just the way it handles the Wolverine character is just a little outside of what Marvel would be comfortable with. They were pretty open with Strange Tales, but then again, they’re not going to have Spiderman smoking crack and killing people or something. There are limits. … It was kind of nice to operate with these kind of characters that have inherent histories, but to be free to do my own thing with them.
Kind of like The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror project?
Yeah, definitely. That was another one where, editorially, they were very hands off and with only a few general guidelines. But for the most part, we were free to do whatever we wanted with the stories.
On the flip side, tell me about the Death Cab for Cutie video.
I think I’ve been fortunate insofar as the “work for hire” projects that I’ve done. I had a lot of freedom with Death Cab. They invited me, the basically invited a bunch of different artists, cartoonists, directors and animators to pitch ideas for music videos for each song on the Plans album, and then for each song picked the pitch they liked the best. …
What do you listen to?
I guess indie rock would be the general term. I listen to Death Cab. I listen to Yo La Tengo. I listen to Andrew Bird. I know anyone who’s read some of my work knows that I’m an Andrew Bird fan. Phil Elverum, formerly of Microphones, currently Mount Eerie—he’s one of my favorites. I just got the new Magnolia Electric Co. album; I like them.
What’s your everyday routine?
Weekends are kind of more family time. Generally, I wake up in the morning, try and check e-mail—“do e-mailing”—then I’ll head off to the coffee shop to draw, and usually I’ll work there till around lunchtime. … Then come home for lunch, then I’ll get distracted by the computer again, but I’ll also do scanning and any kind of production side of drawing.
Do you cook?
I’m not much of a cook. I probably should be more of a cook. I do the laundry and the dishes.
Tell me about the zombie book you’re working on; what’s your take on the zombie?
Well, the book itself was a real different take. … They’re undead flesh, but they still think and can accomplish things. Basically, it’s the story of the Beatles, if they had turned into zombies. Except for Ringo; he turns into a ninja. It’s called All of Them Dead.
Is it fun for you to go off on a high-concept project like that?
It’s the right amount that I can handle. Kind of like The Simpsons, doing an eight-page story for that. It’s fun, but it gets to the point where I’m ready to do something I have more ownership of, I guess.
People resonate with your original works. What’s been the most bizarre fan response?
A handmade dowel of me. It was kind of a ceramic head. It’s flattering. It’s also a little weird; what can I do with a dowel of myself, exactly? Put these totems of myself all around my apartment? I don’t know. That part’s kind of weird.
There’s actually a young cartoonist who, overnight at San Diego Comic-Con, drew a six-page comic with me as a character. And that was really kind of cool to see someone else’s take on me as a character.
What are your desert-island comics?
Let’s see. I think Jimmy Corrigan would probably be on the top of that list. After that, it would be tough. I’m so bad at thinking of these things, because I start to think only of what I’ve read recently, which would be The Walking Dead Compendium Volume One and The Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary issue from McSweeney’s. Justin Green, who’s kind of an old-school underground cartoonist—one of the first people to do autobiographical comics—and it’s the story of him trying to deal with his Catholic guilt. … But it’s a shorter book, so I’m not sure I’d want to take that on a desert island.