Jeffrey’s Brown’s latest memoir, Funny Misshapen Body, is a departure from his past autobiographical work. It’s a lot more straightforward, for one thing, even though it’s divided into a series of short vignettes and goes back and forth in time. A large part of that is due to the fact that he employs a first-person narration throughout the book that he’s avoided up till now. Perhaps that’s why this is one of his most assured and confident works to date. As much as I enjoyed Little Things, his last book for Touchstone, I think Body is a stronger work, perhaps because it’s more direct.
Body avoids the relationship/romance angle that’s been the focus of books like Clumsy and Unlikely thus far, and instead attempts to chronicle his artistic career from callow youth to accomplished cartoonist, with lots of digressions. In various chapters he talks about his insecurity about his weight and looks, his battle with Crohn’s Disease, his drinking and pot binges and some bad jobs.
Mostly though the book concerns his attempts to make a career for himself as an artist. If there’s any reoccurring theme at all, it’s Brown struggling to find his voice. Early in the book, he relates in detail his relationship with comics, culminating in meeting Chris Ware and Dan Clowes at a signing. Later we seem him struggling in college and art school with his paintings and receiving a number of harsh critiques from teachers along the way. It isn’t until he starts working on what eventually becomes Clumsy (and receives validation from Ware) that he discovers what has been eluding him.
This isn’t some self-satisfied tale of discovery however. Brown manages to make his experiences both relatable and engaging, mainly because he fills his stories with recognizable details and avoids any “pat on the back” moments that might grate on a reader’s nerves. His scratchy, rough style conveys a warmth that also helps ingratiate.
More importantly, and like any good memoirist, Brown refuses to turn away from embarrassing or ugly moments. The sequences in the hospital, suffering from Crohn’s, have an everyday horror to them that will be familiar to anyone who’s had to don the body gown and eat the flavored jell-o.
As good as Body is, however, I feel like Brown’s new pocket-sized series for Top Shelf, Sulk, is the real revelation. It’s here we find Brown reaching out, moving beyond the autobiography he’s known for and trying on a variety of different modes and genres.
The first issue continues the adventures of his superhero parody figure, Bighead. In general, superhero parodies are a dime a dozen, but Bighead manages to be pretty funny, juxtaposing traditional superhero tropes with more mundane concerns (in one chapter, for example, Bighead finds himself up against “the Beefy Hipster.”) Brown also gets good mileage poking fun at some of the more egregious dialogue and plot devices these types of books are known for (“You’re Dead!” “It’s called ‘coming back to life.’ Maybe you’ve heard of it!”) At one point Bighead even fights a clone of himself though thee narrator impishly refuses to tell which Bighead is the eventual winner.
The second issue, Deadly Awesome, however, is the real treat. Here Brown chronicles the blow by blow battle between two mixed martial arts fighters, referencing, as Dick Hyacinth acknowledged, several real-life MMA personalities. Although he’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, Brown plays it mostly straight, delving into the background of each fighter and attempting to import the battle with a real sense of drama. He’s deliberately trying to evoke a traditional action comic here and really succeeds admirably.
Brown often gets unfairly typecast as a one-trick pony, endlessly hitting the same beats and themes. Comics like Funny Misshapen Body and Sulk show that is simply not true, that instead he is constantly pushing himself and exploring different idioms. You’d never label him avant-garde, but he’s one of the most consistently entertaining artists to come out of the new indie generation of cartoonists (in which group I lump folks like Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, and Dash Shaw) thus far. Body and Sulk just cement that status even further.