Thursday, August 10, 2006

by Jeffrey Brown

Even compared to his most prolific peers, Jeffrey Brown is stunningly productive. Whereas many other cartoonists of similar stature have tended to recede from the public view, retreating behind a veil of perfectionism while their outputs steadily decreased, Brown has responded to an increasingly high profile by releasing a frankly astounding amount of material in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn't be especially unusual* if the material wasn't also really good. Some of it has been culled from previously published / distributed minicomic material, but the fact remains that very little of the material in question predates the turn of the century -- an amazing achievement for just five or six years of concentrated work.

It would seem that one of the singular attributes of the generation of cartoonists immediately preceding Jeffrey Brown was a markedly pained attitude toward creating comics. I don't think I need to name any names: we all know who I'm talking about, people for whom creating comics seems like a physically painful ordeal fraught with all kinds of emotional torment and spiritual degradation. I may be exaggerating a bit -- in addition to applying a gross generalization -- but the attitude is prevalent enough to have become an easily-recognized and oft-lampooned stereotype in recent years. Brown's career represents as emphatic a rejection of this "Schopenhauer school" of cartooning as can be imagined: regardless of the occasionally heavy subject matter, he seems to genuinely enjoy the act of drawing and telling stories.

Bighead is about as fun an exercise in pure cartooning as can be imagined. Yeah, it's a superhero parody, with all the hoary familiarity such a genre implies. Yeah, we're treading on similar ground to The Tick or Brickman or Superfuckers and dozens of other books. But, really, I can't fault Brown for his flights of whimsy just because the territory is already well-settled. In terms of their influence on non-mainstream creators, superhero books are too often an unmentionable pink elephant propped in the corner. Again, there seems to be a generational dislocation at work: so many creators who came of age in the early days of the modern alternative scene (basically, anyone who came of age after the spandex set had become the dominant mode) were defined by their distance from and antipathy to superheroes and the "mainstream". The influence of the material on their artistic development became an almost Freudian mess of tangled psychosis -- as explicitly seen in books like Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring (I mean, come on, superhero characters standing in for absent / irresponsible father figures?). Jeffrey Brown seems to have absorbed as many superhero comics as anyone else but he doesn't seem to hate himself for having done so. Bighead takes itself about as seriously as it needs to -- that is, not at all -- and the results are gratifyingly light and frothy.

Hand in hand with Brown's refreshing lack of perfectionist ardor is the way in which he can tailor his art to fit the subject matter of whatever he's doing. Many artists seem trapped by their styles, in such a way as they can only produce material (or, perhaps more to the point, are only happy releasing material) in a single vein. Seth's Wimbledon Green is a great example of a book that, while tremendously enjoyable, seemed to be simply too good for what it was: that is, a stylistic lark. This is obviously a subjective judgment, but to my mind the exacting precision of the drawing style seemed to detract ever so slightly from the atmosphere of delicate whimsy. Aficionados could detect that the material was perhaps slightly looser in execution, but really, who was he fooling? Seth's sketchbook doodles are probably as painstakingly drafted as most people's chapel ceilings. Perhaps its an overt rejection of the assembly-line school of comics creation -- a conscious denial of anything but the most exacting personal standards. Whatever it means, the unwillingness of so many of our very best creators to just loosen up once in a while is really, really annoying**. The results, at least to me, can't help but seem occasionally cramped and more than a bit spiritually constipated.

Something like Bighead could really only have been done in a totally off the cuff manner, or it would have risked becoming nothing more than an elaborately gilded lily. The fact that Brown is able to draw as little or as much as the story requires is a great asset. He is perfectly capable of drawing elaborate illustrations of incredibly intricate layouts, but he knows enough to scale back. In any event, most of his work depends less on individual drawing than the continuity and pacing of extended sequences. There is nothing in Bighead that even comes close to the multi-tiered narrative frameworks deployed in his "Girlfriend Trilogy" of Clumsy, Unlikely and A.E.I.O.U., but there are still clever sequences scattered throughout the stories. Part of the fun is seeing Brown adapt a few small concessions to conventional adventure strips, albeit in his own fashion. A fight with a mummy in an Egyptian tomb switches perspective from panel to panel and plays with panel size in exactly the same way you'd expect a grizzled mainstream veteran to do so. Much of Brown's regular output is defined by a formalist attention to consistent perspectives seen through unvarying panel designs, so the adoption of more "cinematic" techniques seems novel and unique as filtered through Brown's style. Seeing Brown utilize all the traditional tropes -- establishing shots, dramatic close-ups, extreme foreshortening and Kirby-esque action panels -- is not just fun, but actually a fascinating crash-course in modern mainstream storytelling as it has evolved after 60-some years of continuous usage. Seeing the mode simplified through Brown's eyes, the reader can't help but marveling* at just how stylistically simplified and straitened conventional comics storytelling has become. It reminds me, as I think it's probably supposed to, of the kinds of comics you made back when you were a kid, drawing booklets out of folded typing paper and aping the same techniques that were championed by How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. There's a reason we recognize the style so instinctively: it's an effective way to tell an adventure story. But it's depressing to realize how little the mainstream vanguard has advanced since, oh, 1967.

I find myself picking the book up over and over, flipping through and finding something new on each perusal. This is just a fun book, no two ways about it: Bighead is about as generic a superhero as you could ever imagine, just slightly "off" in a shabby, K-Tel fashion that makes his low-budget adventures all the more enjoyable. The back of the book features a pile of oddball bonus material -- from a spot-on two-page parody of The Dark Knight Returns that makes as good an argument for that volume's overwhelming silliness as anything else I've seen, to a public service announcement on the evils of violence . . . except when fighting criminals, of course. As the book neared its end I found myself hoping that the end would never come. For anyone who isn't ashamed of the fact that they grew up reading horrible comics, Bighead is quite simply a treat from the beginning to end. I for one will be extremely unhappy if Brown never sees fit to continue the adventures of our cranial-enhanced avenger of justice.

*There have been more than a few alt comics creators who have made a lot of noise in a short amount of time by flooding the market with sub-par material. As a matter of fact, the output of a few of those cartoonists is one of the reasons I tended to steer clear of Top Shelf for longer than I probably should have. Most of those guys' careers imploded, anyway.

**Not that they obviously can't do what they want with their talent, but seriously... there is something to be said for being able to hang-loose on occasion. The volume of sketchbook excerpts Chris Ware released a few years back was simply gorgeous, but it was also quite heartbreaking to realize that the man can draw just about anything he wants in any possible style, and yet almost everything he publishes is drawn in the same oppressively, almost ritually simplified and rigidly schematic form. It suits the stories he wants to tell, but jeez, if ever anyone was in need of a Jim Woodring-style acid freak-out . . .

***I guess that's a pun?

No comments :