Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Feeble Attempts
by Jeffrey Brown

The element of Jeffrey Brown's work that impresses me the most is without a doubt his prolific output. As I think I've mentioned a number of times, there are a number of cartoonists working now who make a fetish out of perfectionism, and for whom this admirable attention to detail exerts a strangulating effect on their work. While it goes without saying that it is the artists' prerogative to release as much or as little work as they see fit, I think that in practice this kind of constipated creativity can't help but exert a deleterious influence on the work itself. Without going into specific details: from my own vantage, the more I work, the happier I am with the work I produce and the easier it is to do more work. It's an issue of momentum. Now, I don't know how much work someone like, say, Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes or Seth does on a daily basis (or how much time is spent on outside projects not directly related to making comics), but the glacial schedule with which they release work seems in my view to be reflected in the work itself, in terms of a frigid remove and borderline prissy grasping at an unattainable formal "purity".

Jeffrey Brown doesn't have that problem. Perhaps purely as a matter of coincidence, Brown also seems to be generally happier and more fulfilled by his work (if only to judge by the numerous flinty, gnomic pronouncements which the latter creators regularly fill their public statements). If anything, Brown produces too much work. Since Feeble Attempts saw print, he's released a book on cats for Chronicle Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations), and solicited a new book through Top Shelf - and his first in color - Amazing Change-Bots. Feeble Attempts itself is something of a stopgap in both form and execution, a thin periodical filled with odds-and-ends strips compiled from anthologies and his own sketchbooks. From this description you can probably guess that the results are understandably mixed, but the overall result is still quite gratifying.

There are few cartoonists working today whose work I enjoy as much as Brown, and I think a great deal of that has to do with the energy and enthusiasm Brown applies to his work. Even his silliest single page throwaway gags carry more in the way of inspirational cartooning than some graphic novels. The volume opens up with "Construction", a strip which could not have taken much more time to produce than to read, six panels on the subject of a construction crew filling a pothole. This is not a recipe for compelling drama, but it's probably one of my favorite pieces in the entire book: it's hard to imagine another cartoonist investing such a goofy scenario with such earnest conviction. If it had been any longer than six panels, it'd be comically weird, but as it is it's just about perfect, a compact exercise in misplaced comedic emphasis.

Not every strip is quite so sketchy, but even the more relatively "normal" pieces still carry something of Brown's seemingly spontaneous energy. For all I know he spent as much time laboring over all of these pieces as Ware spends on any of his, but in any event the results infer a tremendous amount of storytelling enthusiasm which is nowhere lost in the transition from cartoonist's head to page. I'd be lying if I said that every strip herein was similarly strong - a few of them, particularly the ones touching on the relationship issues of his earlier books, seem slightly limpid in context alongside the exuberant experimental pieces. Brown has an excellent feel for pacing, and the more restrained pieces, while certainly fine strips, seem slightly out-of-place. It is unfair to criticize an odd-and-sods book of feeling patchy, I realize, but the more sedate pieces would read much more comfortably sitting next to a selection of his more sustained work.

First person to send me their address by e-mail gets a free copy

A lot of supposedly more "seasoned" cartoonists' work seems positively dead next to Brown. This is why people like Ware and James Jochalka trip over themselves in heaping praise on Brown's work: his instinct for spontaneous, seemingly casual and yet surpassingly well-conceived storytelling is practically unrivaled in the current field. If anyone in contemporary cartooning deserves the seemingly disparate comparison to Jack Kirby - with his preternatural sense of natural composition and crackling focus, not to mention prolific output - it's Jeffrey Brown.

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