Jeffrey Brown is one of the most prolific cartoonists of his generation. Though best known for his numerous autobiographical comics which include “Clumsy,” “Unlikely” and “AEIOU, or Any Easy Intimacy,” Brown has produced a deep and wide body of work both inside and outside of the world of sequential storytelling. He’s created a number of absurdist and parody comics, from “Bighead” to “Sulk” to “I Am Going To Be Small,” directed a music video for the band Death Cab for Cutie and currently teaches at his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
Brown will be featured in a new exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art beginning in January of 2011. He spoke with CBR News about his latest book coming out in March from Top Shelf, “The Incredible Change-Bots Two,” a sequel to his critically acclaimed 2007 graphic novel.
CBR News: Jeffrey, what made you do a sequel to “The Incredible Change-Bots?”
Jeffrey Brown: Well when I did the first book, I did this fan club offer. I was doing drawings for people that had joined and I was doing them as missing panels from the first book. I was just enjoying working with these characters still and developing them more. For a while there was the possibility that there were going to be vinyl toys made. That fell apart, but I had done minicomics that were going to be packaged with the toys. I was basically doing all this extra material, still working with these characters and enjoying that. I had had the idea of having Shootertron lose his memory and be stuck on Earth. I just thought it was a fun thing to do, so I did it.
Did a lot of people sign up for the fan club after the first book?
About a hundred people. I was charging twenty dollars and you got a membership card and a minicomic and a drawing.
We’ll see what happens with the membership offer in the new book.
It’s hard to tell. It’s cheaper, but you’re not getting as much. It’ll be fun.
There are a lot of superhero parodies, but not a lot of transforming fighting robot parodies. Does it help, knowing you’re treading on ground no one’s covering?
[Laughs] It’s hard to say how much that helped. I think especially with the second book, it became less a parody of Transformers and more just being interested in these characters…who just happen to have the same functions as Transformers. It becomes more of its own thing. I think it’s one reason why I’ve enjoyed the Change-Bots stuff more than I enjoyed doing “Bighead.” It doesn’t feel as much like it’s something that’s been done to death already.
The second volume opens with the main villain of first “Change-Bots” waking up without his memory after everyone else has left Earth. How did you go from that as a starting point to a Superman parody?
I don’t even know. I think it just happened naturally. I tend to write the books where I have a basic idea of what’s going to happen at Point A, Point B, Point C. As to how things get from one point to another, I don’t figure out until I’m sitting down and actually working on that part of the book. So I’m really not even sure where that came from. I think it came from [the question of], who’s going to find him first when he doesn’t have his memory? I didn’t want the army [to find him], and then once he’s on a farm, it becomes the obvious jump to do the Superman mythos.
You said that what kept you interested in writing more Change-Bots was the characters. Now, readers may think this is something distinct from your autobiographical work, but for you it’s not that clean a line between the two.
I think even in my autobiographical work, there’s a lot of humor. When people think it’s overly melodramatic, a lot of the times I’m making fun of that side of myself. In that sense, humor has been a big part of my work. Even though I’m using these characters, there are lots of ideas about life and how people act and different things that are in there that reflect my own views. With “Bighead,” I would take things that happened to me and then mix them in with the superhero stories. I do that a little less with Change-Bots, but things like that will be in there.
You do have people show up in the book, but they’re extraneous to the storyline. Cartoons would usually have a human stand in for the audience to relate to, but you avoid that.
I use the humans less as characters than as foils to the Change-Bots. Their purpose is less about developing them as characters and more about showing different ways to get at the Change-Bot characters.
Was there any deliberate scheduling involved in releasing the book this year when there’s a third Transformers movie coming out this summer?
There actually wasn’t. My original plan was to have it coming out last September. It was just one of those cases where I was trying to finish this thing and this thing and this thing. I kept having to push back when I thought I would have it done and be able to have it out by. It really had more to do with me not getting it finished as soon as I would have liked.
Can you see yourself doing a third Change-Bots volume?
[Laughs] Actually, I do have a third volume planned out. When I was doing my “Sulk” series, I had an idea of doing a “G.I. Joe” parody and I think I’m going to take some of those ideas and wrap them into the third volume and have the climactic end battle to finish off the series. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see if it’s really finished. I’m still really enjoying working with the characters and having fun with them, so I could do at least a third volume. We’ll see after that.
It must be a nice break from autobiography. A little more fun.
Oh, definitely. That’s one of the things that I’ve done from the start [of my career]. After I did “Clumsy” and “Unlikely” was when I first started doing “Bighead” and the “I’m Going To Be Small” collection of gags and doing the “Sulk” series. I’ve always tried to have these other venues for different kinds of stories. It’s a different way of working. With the Change-Bots and the parody work in general, the way I write the stories is a little more loose and less rigid. There’s a lot more room for unexpected things for me as a writer to let happen. Definitely in terms of less worrying about the meaning and the seriousness [of it] or getting too wrapped up in having the book say something. It’s a break from those kind of concerns.
When you say the writing is looser, do you mean that the autobiographical stories are plotted out in more detail?
Definitely. To varying degrees. With “Unlikely,” I had the entire book planned out panel by panel before I started drawing it. Now I tend to have more of a page by page script with a pretty good idea of how each page would go, but yeah, they’re definitely much more mapped out. With the Change-Bots, there are things that come up on individual pages, like jokes that get added when I’m drawing the comic. Whereas with the autobiographical work, I tend to know all the elements that are going to be included, if not exactly how they’re going to be arranged on the page.
At this point in your career, fans have this idea of a Jeffrey Brown comic, but as you say, you have spent half of your career doing other things.
Yeah — I mean, now I’m going to go from being known for writing about myself to writing about robots and cats, I guess. [Laughs]
In this sense, has Top Shelf been an ideal publisher for you because of their willingness to say yes to new projects and new formats?
They’ve been really supportive and they’ve been willing to try things that we were less sure about. The “Sulk” books were an experiment. It was, for me, in terms of getting away from how I was working. It was an important thing, even if the sales of those books weren’t as strong as either the autobiographical books or Change-Bots. They’ve been really good in terms of letting me do what I need to do to get to where I’m doing the books that we both really believe in. Just in terms of balancing out having an identity so that people kind of know what to expect from a Jeffrey Brown comic, but at the same time not making me stick to one kind of mode or get stuck in one kind of genre.
“Cats Are Weird” came out a few months back and “Change-Bots'” second volume is coming out soon. What else are you working on?
“Marvel Strange Tales.” I did a four page story for the second series of those. Right now I’m working on a couple things. I’ve been working on a lot of artwork for Change-Bots that’s going to be in an art show later in the spring. There’s going to be a show of all the artwork from the second book, and then I’m going to do some large drawings, like a big 15″ x 20″ battle drawing and some kind of bigger, more detailed character drawings. Those have been a lot of fun to do, just in terms of drawing in a different way from the way I normally do.
Going back to autobiographical work, I’ve been planning out a book of stories about growing up in the church with my dad who’s a minister. It’s about religion and fatherhood, but maybe not as explicitly as it sounds when I say that. And I’ve also started teaching comics here at the Art Institute in Chicago. This year I was teaching someone else’s class, and next school year I’ll be coming up with my own class, so I’ve been working on planning that out.
Have you been enjoying teaching?
It was really good. I’m stunned at how good my students are. [Laughs] When I think about what I was doing in college, it makes me feel embarrassed. It’s mostly been a good experience. When you’re teaching, I think part of it is needing to verbalize things that you kind of know or assume when you’ve been doing comics a while. But having to explain to someone else what they’re doing in their comic makes you more aware of those things. So hopefully at some point it will make me a better cartoonist as well.
You got your MFA at the Art Institute. Was that a good experience?
It was. It was hard and it was a hard transition. I was doing painting and fine art and not doing comics at all and it just really wasn’t working. Then I basically started drawing comics just to have a change of pace and take a break, and everything seemed to click. From then on, it was easier. But yeah, I don’t know if I’d be doing comics now if I hadn’t gone through that.