Jeffrey Brown may have had some fans wondering whether he would be returning to autobiographical comics following his success co-writing the 2012 film Save the Date. But June saw Brown refer to the autobiographical realm with A Matter of Life, a Top Shelf-published examination of three Brown generations: his father, himself and his preschool-age son Oscar. To mark the release of his new book, took some time out to speak with ROBOT 6. Top Shelf is offering a nine-page preview to whet readers’ appetites, so please make sure to check it out after reading the interview.
I particularly enjoyed learning how his autobiographical work is less about catharsis and more about gaining some perspective on the events in his life.
Tim O’Shea: Your wife Jennifer was well aware of the autobiographical nature of much of your work, so she knew going into your marriage that her life would be at least a partially open book that you would share with people. But did she express any concern about featuring your son in your work?
Jeffrey Brown: I think she’s learned to trust my judgement, for the most part. When we first started dating she told me it was on the condition that I didn’t write anything about us. Then she said I could write about us as long as it wasn’t anything personal or about her relationship. Eventually she said I could go ahead and write whatever. With our son she talked to me about being more careful, and I have been, but I think in general I’ve become much more careful about what I’m writing in my autobiographical comics anyway.
In the acknowledgments for the book you thank her for making you a better person and for “making this a better book.” How did she help make it a better book?
I grew up in the church as a preacher’s kid, but I’m an atheist now. When I first started thinking about writing a book about my experiences with religion, my wife said she hoped I wasn’t planning on writing a Richard Dawkins kind of book, because that’s not really how I felt; she pointed out that my feelings about the subject were much complicated. Christianity is still a part of what made me who I am, even if I don’t believe in it. So I ended up thinking more about what exactly it was that I wanted to express, and the book has a deeper meaning for me because of that.
While A Matter of Life is a full-color work, I was struck at the almost completely black-and-white open to the story. How early in its development did you realize you wanted such a stark open?
Pretty early on. I just wanted to draw something showing the scale of the Earth to the sun, and wrapped it up in a kind of joke, which leads into the next sequence. I thought of it as a kind of prologue, essentially.
Again, in the black-and-white versus color dynamics, I loved how the Vietnam Vet Chaplain’s flashback was one-page in black and white. It really made the page pop for me. @Why did you opt to only do one flashback in that manner?
I think because it was someone else’s story — and there was also something about that scene, which happens in the jungle with action and violence, which I wanted to pull back from, or dull a little.
When delving into some painful moments in your life, do you ever find yourself revising or adjusting how detailed you want to get in terms of certain events? Or is your approach far more unfiltered/unrestricted when crafting the narrative of your life?
I’m constantly adjusting the amount of detail, but it has less to do with any kind of pain and more to do with the ideas I want to write about. After my first book, Clumsy, I realized that it was important for me to have some distance and perspective on events, so rather than using art as catharsis — at least the projects I intend to publish — I want to make art about how I understand life after going through that process of coming to terms with any painful or embarrassing moments. The events I use to tell the stories are very deliberately chosen, so in a way the comics are by default very much filtered, or edited, even though I never want to compromise what I’m trying to say by having some kind of rule about what I can or can’t write about.
In considering your own spiritual path for A Matter of Life, did the examination cause you to change or strengthen your personal beliefs in any way?
I don’t think so. My beliefs are pretty definite from a certain point of view, but then they’re also very undefined. I wanted this book to not be about believing one thing or another, but rather the process of questioning your beliefs, vetting them, thinking about them. The other thing that I wanted to say with the book was that maybe feelings are more important than beliefs, if that makes sense. It’s more important to feel good about yourself and what you’re doing in life than whatever you believe in a religious sense.
Do you think you may start getting letters from religious people, hoping to “bring you back to God”?
It’s possible, but I doubt I will. So far, the response has been very understanding and open. I even did a reading of about half the book at my alma mater, which is a small Christian college, and the audience appreciated it more than I could’ve hoped.
When the woman crossing the street with you asked if you were Christian, what was it about her that prompted you to claim to still be Christian?
I don’t know … I just didn’t want to break her heart or something. I wanted to protect her. I still don’t know why exactly, but in that moment, I felt like it would be something good for her to hear, even if it wasn’t true.
In the scene where your doctor tried to rationalize your stress and illness as connected to you no longer being a practicing Christian … in recollecting that moment and working it into the story, were you more angry at the moment it happened or when you reexamined/mined it for the story?
More angry in the moment, but now I’d say I’m just disappointed about it. It did end up being an important moment for me, in helping clarify something about how I felt in regards to religion.
Do you ever have moments where you readers share their own personal stories with you, expressing that they feel their story is very similar to what you experienced or resonated with them in some manner?
That’s something that started happening with Clumsy and has continued with virtually every autobiographical comic I’ve written since. Of course, that’s part of what I wanted from writing these comics, to share something with other people that would connect, show we’re not alone, that in those painful moments in life you’re not alone, and other people know what you’re going through. I’m always amazed at how much people connect with their own stories, and it only adds to the personal meaning for me. With A Matter of Life, that’s continued to happen, and as an artist it’s rewarding to get that affirmation, that people are getting something out of the work.
At your grandfather’s funeral, I was curious to know what your approach was in terms of pacing the emotional reaction and dialogue. Is it hard for you have silent multiple panels in a moment like that?
I think the silence of some panels was less problematic than the two panels with thought balloons, which had to be handled carefully – I think it was important that the emotion came from my actions, and the visual elements of the panels, rather than letting the text spell out any particular emotion. Particularly when that emotion isn’t so straightforward — it’s not simply “I’m sad,” and for me it was this particular panel sequence that was needed to express that particular emotion.
You recently contributed to Your Move, Raincloud’s latest CD release. Do you have any interest in doing another video for a band, as you did a few years back for Death Cab for Cutie?
I do, although not specifically. Both of those projects came about pretty organically, just being in the right time and place, with the right conditions for them to be feasible. I enjoyed both, and am happy with the results, but I also have enough going on that I’m not actively pursuing ways to do more. It’s more that I’m always open to taking on the right project if the opportunity arises, and I wouldn’t be surprised to work on another music video some day.