Jeffrey Brown first gained notice in the industry for a series of autobiographical comics including “Clumsy,” “Unlikely” and “Any Easy Intimacy,” which were published when he was in his twenties. The cartoonist has continued to tell autobiographical stories, but he’s also crafted many different kinds of comics ranging from “The Incredible Change-Bots” to “Sulk” to “Cats Are Weird.” He’s contributed to Marvel Comics’ “Strange Tales,” “Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror,” “Kramers Ergot” and many other anthologies. Brown also co-wrote the film “Save the Date,” which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and directed the music video for Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Heart is an Empty Room.”
In recent years Brown has written and drawn a series of “Star Wars” books for younger readers including “Darth Vader and Son,” “Vader’s Little Princess” and “Star Wars: Jedi Academy.” This year, Brown has four books coming out from three different publishers including one designed like a children’s book, “Goodnight, Darth Vader,” which like the best children’s books, is a great book that can be enjoyed by children of all ages.
CBR News: Jeffrey, I’ve read your work for many years since “Clumsy” and “Unlikely” came out, and reading these “Star Wars” books you’ve been making in recent years, they really look like your work.
Jeffrey Brown: I think in a way I think one of the reasons the “Star Wars” books have been successful is they’ve really managed to combine these areas of interest for me. They’re about “Star Wars,” which I grew up loving and I still go and see the movies and read the books, but being a parent, I’ve only touched on that a little bit so far in my autobiographical books. I think a lot of that comes through in the “Star Wars” books.
“Goodnight, Darth Vader” is the third book of these that you’ve made. How did they end up happening?
It all started with Google, actually. Ryan Germick, who runs the Google doodle team, is a comics fan and every once in a while they bring in an outside artist. Recently there was the Eleanor Davis Google doodle for spring. They had the idea for Fathers Day a few years ago of wanting to use Luke and Vader and how awkward an everyday father and son moment would be. Knowing that I was a dad and that I had done both the autobiographical work but also humorous work like “Change-Bots,” he thought I’d be someone who could do something really fun with that idea. My son was four at the time and I immediately thought, make Luke four and put Vader in all the parenting situations I’m in. I made up a bunch of sketches and the powers at be that Google decided to go with a different idea for various reasons. I was really bummed at first but then I realized that I really liked this idea and maybe I could do a whole book of it. Chronicle Books, who had done my cat books, has also done a lot of Star Wars books so I took it to them to take to Lucasfilm and see if we could make it happen. Lucasfilm liked the idea enough to work out a deal.
As far as that goes, has Lucasfilm been very hands on and told you, that you can’t include this or can’t do that or have they mostly left you alone?
Technically they’ve been super involved at every stage. I do all the sketches and I have an editor who goes through and approves all of those. Then I do full pencils and then they approve those and then I do the final art. But at the same time, whether it’s just the editor being on the same page or just my love of “Star Wars,” there’s never really been anything that they’ve objected to or that they’ve made me change — except for something minor or something they pointed out that made the books better. It’s been a really smooth process. Even though they have that micro-managerial control, at the same time, it’s never felt like that for me.
I would imagine that just coming from making mini-comics and a lot of the work you did at Top Shelf just having an editor is a different process.
Yes — and a good experience. With the autobiographical books, they’re hard to have an editor because they’re such a personal thing. It’s almost more like poetry or painting where you can only do so much editing without having it turned into something else, something less personal. Even when I’ve had editors it’s been very indirect editing; more feedback and I take what I will from it. The “Star Wars” books have been a lot more involved and I think it’s been a good process for me to go through. I definitely think that the editors I’ve worked with on all the “Star Wars” books have really been helpful.
Putting together “Goodnight, Darth Vader,” were you ever struggling to think of who do I include, what do I do with this character, how do I make it funny?
There’s a couple pieces where maybe my initial sketch didn’t quite have the idea and either my editor at Chronicle or J.W. Rinzler, my editor at Lucasfilm, one of them might say something. Not, why don’t you have the character do this, they’ll just say, this feels like it’s missing something. Just the way they phrase that, something clicks in my mind. There was a little more editing with this book like with the rhyme scheme, which is maybe more traditional kids book-y rhyming than I would have initially done, but overall this book was an idea I had before I ever suggested it as a possible book.
Besides these “Star Wars” books for Chronicle, you’re also making the “Jedi Academy” series at Scholastic and the second one is coming out in July. How did this series happen?
That one came about because of “Darth Vader and Son.” Scholastic had gone to Lucasfilm with the idea to do a heavily illustrated middle grade series set in the Star Wars universe. At that time, “Darth Vader and Son” hadn’t come out yet but it was finished and my editor suggested me to Scholastic and so Scholastic called me up and gave me the pitch. They wanted to do something not exactly like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” but something mixing comics and text. I had a couple conversations and I immediately had this idea of a collage journal to tell the story.
People who haven’t read them may think this an odd question, but how autobiographical are the “Jedi Academy” books?
There’s a decent amount. There’s a few incidents. I tried to tap into my middle school feelings of awkwardly wondering what to do at the school dance and different things like that. In the same way that the “Darth Vader and Son” book is semi-autobiographical about my life as a parent, the “Jedi Academy” books are about my tapping into my middle school and high school years.
Besides those two, you already had one book come out earlier this year, “Kids Are Weird.” Is everything in the book actual things your son said?
They are all actual things. I guess they’re a little out of context just to up the humor, but yeah, all direct quotes from him.
Maybe this is something you can’t answer, but you’ve been making a lot of books about kids and parenting — do you think having kids has changed your work?
I think just your perspective of what’s important in life changes — not just having kids, which obviously changes it a lot — just by growing older. The things that you worry about a lot when you were younger start to seem kind of silly in a way, although I still think that those are still perfectly legitimate things to be feeling when you’re young. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to put a finger on exactly how it’s changing. I guess the most clear example is the autobiographical book I had out from Top Shelf last year, “A Matter of Life,” which deals with not just being a parent but also just about family and generational differences and mortality. These big picture issues. At the same time, I think my work’s always been grounded in being observational of the small moments in everyday life and so in that sense I think that’s been consistent. The difference is now that what I’m observing I’m a lot more aware of kids.
In recent years you’ve been working in color and moved away from the black-and-white work you were initially known for. Do you think that has significantly changed your work?
I think it’s added a different amount of depth and texture. I specifically wanted the autobiographical work in black-and-white, especially to start, because I didn’t want it to color to take on any kind of heavy symbolic significance. Keeping it black-and-white and simple was partially that decision and partially just that I hadn’t figured out how I would color comics. I guess “Change-Bots” was the first book that I started playing more with color. I wanted to keep the color in that rough, child-like style in contrast to the very slick, detailed “Transformers” kind of look. Now with the “Star Wars” books, there’s a richness or warmth that I can get with the materials I’m using now that adds to the feeling of the images. When you have this warm, fuzzy moment the way I can color now I can reinforce that.
Do you still do work without color, or do you want to?
Well the “Jedi Academy” are technically black-and-white but there are gray tones and shading and I’m using the same kinds of pens that I’m using for color. I don’t know. I think if the right idea was there then I could see myself going back to a simpler black-and-white line, but at the same time I tend to be trying new things. I’ve been enjoying working with color so I’ll stick with it as long as it’s still interesting.
You’ve been married for a few years, and I’ve heard this from other cartoonists, but is one reason we’re seeing less autobiographical work because your wife just doesn’t want to be in comics?
It’s funny because when we first started seeing each other, my wife said, “You’re not allowed to write about us.” Later she said, “You can write about us, but nothing personal or intimate.” And as time went on she said, “Write whatever you want, I don’t care.” [Laughs] I think for me part of it is wanting to write about things with more perspective or distance and so a lot of the last autobiographical book was about my childhood and it’s almost like the moments from the present day were more about giving perspective to those viewpoints or explaining where those viewpoints came from as much as anything. Then going back to the “Star Wars” books, those are a way for me to write autobiography without really writing autobiography.
You also have a fourth book coming out in the fall, “Incredible Change-Bots Two Point Something Something.” What is this book?
This is a huge collection of work that I had it all completed for over a year now and it was just figuring out the right time to put it out. It collects all the random artwork I’ve done over the years. I did one-page stories for “Wizard” magazine a couple times. When each of the first two books came out I did a fan club where you could join and I did original drawings that a lot of times were single-panel gag comics. All of those are reproduced in the book. When the second “Change-Bots” book came out I did an art show at the Scott Eder Gallery in New York and all of those larger works are reproduced. I did a fan club newsletter that had comics and interviews with characters that are in there. It’s this huge mishmash of work that’s accumulated over the years. It’s arranged so that if you read the first two books you can see where the different pieces fit in.
I have to ask, how quickly do you draw?
I draw pretty quickly but I also think I slowed down a bit. If I’m not working on anything else I can complete maybe a page a day of the “Vader” books but I’m usually working on multiple projects. What usually happens is that the process is drawn out over a period of time where it’s hard for me to tell exactly how long a page took from the idea stage to doing the pencils to inking and coloring it. The same goes with the “Jedi Academy” books. I do two complete rough drafts of the book and then the final artwork. I don’t know. It’s pretty quick but it’s hard to put a number on any of it because I’m usually working on so many things at once. This year it seems weird because the “Change-Bots” book is work that I’ve been drawing since the first “Change-Bots” book came out, so six years here and there that just added up. The “Kids Are Weird” book I’d actually started on I think while I was working on “Vader’s Little Princess.” The writing of that one was a little bit easier because it was just keeping an eye on my son and writing down funny things he said.
What are you working on now? Do you have more “Jedi Academy” books planned?
It’s a three-book series. I’m working on Book 3 right now. I’m working on one more “Vader” book. The “Vader” book is in the idea stage. The “Jedi Academy” book is in the first rough draft stage. I’m also starting a new middle grade series called “Lucy and Andy Neanderthal.” That one I’m just finishing up the first draft of.
Is it going to be a mixture of text and comics like “Jedi Academy?”
It’s a little different. I came up with the idea a few years ago and it was really about wanting to do something with Neanderthals or cavemen that was more factually accurate than “The Flintstones.” Actually after I first pitched the idea somewhere, “The Croods” came out and I was worried that someone had gone and done my idea but that one was even further from factual accuracy. It’s a mix of comics and text.
Do you have plans for more “Change-Bots?”
I have the plot for “Change-Bots 3.” I’ve had the plot written out for a few years — basically ever since I finished the second book, but then I started doing these “Star Wars” books and I just haven’t had time. Someday I want to complete the actual storyline so maybe when I stop doing these “Star Wars” books and middle grade series I’ll get to it.
Is there anything else you really want to do?
There’s lots of things. I’d like to do more with film and TV. I co-wrote the screenplay to “Save the Date,” which debuted at Sundance a couple years ago. That was the right level of involvement for me. I’d like to do something with film and TV but I don’t want to run a TV show or have it take over my entire creative life but I’d like to dabble in it. I’d still like to do maybe one standalone mainstream superhero thing and I have a story in mind for that. There’s lots of things. I’ve been really fortunate in the range I’ve been able to have with my career so far so I just go follow what sounds good at the time and hopefully I’ll get to everything.
“Kids Are Weird” is available now; “Goodnight, Darth Vader” goes on sale July 22.