Soup To Nuts: Undeleted Scenes

Posted by on June 17th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Jeffrey Brown; Top Shelf; 352 pp., $15.00; B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 978-1603090582

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I once wrote of Jeffrey Brown: “More than any other autobiographical artist that I can think of, Brown is acutely aware of the difference between actual experience and the interpretation and recording of same.”  Undeleted Scenes is a fantastic collection of Brown’s short work, from nearly the beginning of his career to the present, that highlights this understanding of the gulf between experience and interpretation.  While it lacks the same kind of direction of his “girlfriend trilogy” (Clumsy, Unlikely, Any Easy Intimacy) or his more recent books Little Things and Funny Misshapen Body, there are points where we see some of the best work of Brown’s career.

The overall effect is actually the opposite of Brown’s other books.  In his autobiographical, longer works, Brown fractures a single narrative temporally and emotionally.  The effect here is to lessen the significance of the actual specific events that occurred and instead focus in on particular feelings from moments in time.  In Undeleted Scenes, Brown stitches together a series of unrelated stories into a single emotional narrative.  Here, Brown provides a bit of context for the reader, connecting them to certain key events and people in his life in stories that originally either stood alone or went unpublished.

By doing this, Brown creates a new emotional narrative that stretches across his career.  We see him try several different drawing styles and levels of polish.  We see short, personal bursts played for laughs, as well as longer and more sincere stories.  The earlier stories are a bit rougher in terms of both timing and execution, especially compared to a later entry like “Pregnant Pause,” which may be the single best Brown story.  Brown split the book into two sections: autobiography and fiction, with the former taking up 300 of the book’s 350 pages.  Each section is headed by a comics introduction explaining his thrust.  For autobiography, Brown notes that he’s not trying to write about himself as much as he is depicting meaningful moments in time—some obvious in their significance, others less so.  For fiction, Brown parodies The Jeffrey Brown Comic in a number of instances, creating a layer of absurdity using his familiar likeness.

The effect of the autobiographical section was akin to Brown trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle from a dozen or more different sets.  Somehow, though, the process worked.  In fact, the roughly chronological fashion in which he assembled the autobiographical section made it greater than the sum of its original parts, which felt a bit more fractured and inconsequential when first published.  An example of this are the comics surrounding “My Brother Knows Kung Fu,” which are all about childhood experiences.  Brown’s line seems deliberately more wobbly and primitive in these strips, and his character design is a lot more doughy and indistinct.  That gave these comics the feel of a youngster actually drawing them in real time, a technique that slowly ebbed as his likeness grew older.  Brown even started to use a thicker line and a more naturalistic approach in some of the strips featuring himself as a teenager.

In that first section, Brown focuses in on the sort of moments a child finds significant: fights, fantasies, family interaction and the sort of puzzles the world can pose to a youngster.  He neatly segued into the longer story “Cute Girls Are Cute,” beginning the transition into observations about the objects of his affections for which Brown is so well known.  The contrast between the naivete of his earliest encounters with the opposite sex (saying “I like cheese” when a girl announced “I like Jeff”) with his better-known stories is especially amusing as a result of this juxtaposition.

While Brown arranged these stories in roughly chronological order as they fit into the events of his life, he managed to alternate between emotionally intense memories and light spoof.  “Sorry, Grammy” sees Brown use a lighter line as he’s embarrassed to show his grandmother sexually explicit work, and “Girlfriend No. 3″ sees him use a thicker line and more hatching as his current girlfriend tells him to stop drawing an older girlfriend for a story.  Brown followed those light one-pagers with the longer “Don’t Let Them Look You In The Eye,” a story about Brown’s encounters with the homeless and the ways in which one can become hardened to the misfortunes of others as a kind of survival tactic.

The longest stories in the book are the best, in part because of the way Brown mixed humor with more poignant observations.  “Every Girl Is The End Of The World To Me” was a sort of recapitulation of his girlfriend-focused comics, using his travels between a number of different women as a metaphor for the way his feelings were all across the map.  Brown gently mocked his own tendency to overdramatize the intensity of individual moments of attraction in this story, and did so in a way so as to once again make specific details universal.  Brown has an uncanny knack for capturing the kind of minutia that provokes obsession,  like the way flirting with a waitress at a favorite coffee shop can evolve into a sort of uncertain but mutual longing.

Most of Brown’s stories revolve around his experience as a single, rootless 20-something.  It’s an exploration of what is possible when one doesn’t have any real responsibilities, a situation that tends to create an exaggeration of significance of individual moments.  At such a time, time tends to be experienced moment-by-moment, without much regard for the future.  Brown captures the joy and ache that can be found by living in that moment, trying to evoke the feeling more than relate a particular set of anecdotes about a particular group of people.  Even when some of the stories inform others by virtue of the reappearance of certain characters or situations, the continuity of events is still sketchy.  Brown carefully avoids putting too much of himself in these stories beyond surface thoughts and actions.

Brown continued that approach as he depicted himself getting older, more entrenched, and facing more responsibility.  “Pregnant Pause” is as far away from a slacker story as you can imagine, depicting anecdotes from his girlfriend’s pregnancy.  It’s Brown’s funniest,  most harrowing story.  At the end of some anecdotes, Brown inserts moments of slapstick (like knocking over a bunch of baby dolls at a CPR class) and ill-timed bon mots (like asking his girlfriend, “Who did you cry in front of today?”) between moments of genuine emotion and even terror.  He followed the birth story up with some vignettes relating to the realities of balancing a sick child with a career and navigating the perils of the medical system.  Once again, the way that Brown gets at the heart of small details to convey a larger emotional truth is what makes his comics so compulsively readable.

Brown has been accused of being too emo in his confessional autobio comics.  I don’t see that as an accurate charge because Brown isn’t necessarily discharging quotidian details to engender sympathy.  His character is more of a stand-in for the reader, experiencing things in a way Brown hopes a reader can relate to.  The problem with that technique is that the Brown stand-in is frequently passive—reacting instead of acting.  (“Pregnant Pause” is a notable exception.)  Brown parodied that technique while also tweaking those critics with the fictional “Be A Man,” a parody of Clumsy that saw Brown treating his girlfriend like a stereotypical macho man to hilarious effect.  Of course, Brown notes that fiction reveals certain truths about its author, and even “Be A Man” has certain emotional notes of fact in its otherwise fictional structure.

Brown has been perhaps the most influential autobiographical cartoonist of his generation.  The combination of his warm but ragged line, and cartoony character design inspired a number of cartoonists trying to get their own emotional truths down on paper.  His chronological fracturing provided a framework for cartoonists to string together vignettes that were otherwise rootless.  Most of his imitators lack Brown’s storytelling fundamentals and sly wit (though that’s another story), but they certainly have a powerful example to follow from the beginning of his career to now.  In particular, Undeleted Scenes is a kind of autobio comics Ph.D program, detailing one artist’s journey through trying to express himself in a number of different ways.  While some of those experiments worked better than others, Brown’s work is remarkable in that he never lost sight of his overall emotional project, no matter if he was trying to get laughs or depict a poignant moment.

all images ©2010 Jeffrey Brown

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