Writer/Artist: Jeffrey Brown
CLUMSY: $10.00, 0971359768
UNLIKELY: $14.95, 1891830414
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
I met Jeffrey Brown at the San Diego Comic Con on the last day, as things were winding down. I was over at Farel Dalrymple's booth and he came over, we were talking, and when he found out I wrote for web sites, he gave me copies of all his books for review. He had somewhere to be, and I didn't think about him after that. He was just another guy at the con, another face in the crowd.
After reading his books, I sorely want to see him again. I want to buy him a beer and sit down somewhere, trade war stories about ex-girlfriends and personal failures. More than anything else, I want to tell him, "It'll be all right".
If you read any of his works, you'll feel the same way.
Brown's personal travails, chronicled in the graphic novels CLUMSY and UNLIKELY, are what the term "painfully funny" was coined for. The relationships chronicled in these volumes are the antithesis of what we've come to expect from love affairs in fiction; they're quiet, uneventful affairs, defined by the two people becoming part of one another's lives and then slowly breaking apart.
And yet, in many ways these stories are more effective than the usual tales of flirting, fighting and falling into one another's arms. In real life, "falling in love" usually doesn't mean falling hard the moment you see someone, so much as it means falling into a routine where someone else just happens to be there. Of course, that means that when the other person's gone, that routine just seems emptier...
CLUMSY, the first graphic novel, is a non-chronological recounting of Brown's relationship with a girl named Theresa. The two were apparently going out while Brown was drawing this, and their break-up adds another dimension to the story; we are treated to scenes of the end early on, meaning that every moment between the two is tempered by the knowledge that this relationship is doomed. While it may not have been intended, this element gives the story a sense of structure it might otherwise have lacked.
The incidents depicted in CLUMSY are, for the most part, uneventful; the characters of Jeff and Theresa watch a movie, talk on the phone, go on vacation together, experiment sexually with varying degrees of success. It's like the film STRANGER THAN PARADISE, where each scene consists of a fade-in, a long, continuous take, then a fade-out.
A number of sequences are the equivalent of a "static shot" of two characters talking, or just one character sitting around, contemplating what's going on. An entire strip can be about trying on new outfit, or going out to eat at a new restaurant, or two characters talking on the phone while one watches FARSCAPE.
Often, there's no conflict and no real resolution; it's just about the little, tiny moments in day-to-day life that amuse you when they happen. By the end, we see how all these little moments made up this relationship, a small but significant part of Brown's life. In the end, for better or ill, they're what he's left with.
UNLIKELY, OR HOW I LOST MY VIRGINITY, shows Brown's first sexual relationship, and reading it makes you realize how lucky he was to find Theresa later on. Here he chronicles the circumstances of his meeting, winning and breaking up with Allysin, a friend of a friend who quickly becomes his object of infatuation. After slowly developing a relationship, the two virtually move in together, then slowly drift apart. The story is told in a linear fashion this time, though the book's subtitle gives us an idea of where this is all going.
In CLUMSY, the drama comes from the contrast of the happier moments with the darker moments leading to the relationship's end; in UNLIKELY, the drama comes from watching the cracks in the relationship appear and gradually widen. The sex is bad, Allysin smokes a lot of pot, and they're gradually running out of things to talk about. In one scene late in the book, they're in bed together when Jeff tells Allysin he loves her. Her response is simple and honest, but devastatingly cruel.
Brown's art style in these books is simplistic but effective. At first glance, it seems like little more than a series of crudely-drawn figures, but the subdued look works for the pacing; the characters are, essentially, mundane, half-remembered versions of themselves. There is nothing flashy about the storytelling - unlike most comics, this isn't about some bigger-than-life event. It's simply what happened, as well as Brown can remember it.
Reading CLUMSY and UNLIKELY will likely make you feel uncomfortable in more than a few places. It won't just be because of the frankness of the language and the situations, but because it'll remind you of some dumb thing you said, some awful evening at a friend's house, some experience that seemed insignificant at the time but still lingers in your memory for reasons you can't put your finger on.
You'll want to visit old haunts, dig out an old album, call an ex to try to remind yourself why it didn't work out. And you'll want to talk to Jeffrey Brown, buy him a beer, and talk till the wee hours about how damn weird life is, and why it's so damn hard to let some things go.
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