Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Little Things

 This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
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I've reviewed a number of works by Jeffrey Brown for sequart.com, but Little Things is the sort of collection of anecdotes, reflections and observations that Brown does best. I enjoy his off-kilter takes on genre comics like Bighead and Incredible Change-Bots, but his real skill lies in arranging seemingly unconnected and random quotidian moments into something that coheres into an engaging emotional narrative. In Little Things, Brown's eleven different stories not only pile up emotional resonance on their own, there's also an accumulated emotional power the collection gains as we reach the final story, about Brown and his infant son.

The subtitle of this book is "A Memoir in Slices", and it aptly describes the strategy that Brown uses. In each story, Brown deliberately subverts the reader's expectations in terms of narrative, background and exposition. At the same time, each story is not a haphazard moment from Brown's diary, but rather seems carefully selected, constructed and manipulated. In stories like "These Things These Things" (originally published as a mini), Brown shifts the emotional focus of the story, keeping the reader off-balance, until we realize that the story is really about the connection between music and memory. In the course of relating some seemingly unconnected set of anecdotes about an old girlfriend, touring with other artists and his time at work, Brown is actually elaborately detailing his musical connection with a particular artist. It's a strong choice to lead off the collection, because it's the clearest example of the use of this technique.

"Missing the Mountains", for example, is about Brown's feelings about nature and confinement, and not really about the people he spends time with. In the story, Brown is constantly running ahead of his friends to spend time alone, but he really gets across his message with his visuals. Brown employs a rough, sketchy style designed to quickly get across information and as such rarely pays much attention to detail in his backgrounds. The relatively lush depictions of nature and the way Brown gazes out an airplane window at the mountains below is the key to understanding what's going on here.

The specific expectation that Brown upends is that each story will be about specific friendships or romantic relationships. For example, in "The Calm Before The Storm", Brown starts off with a story that seems like it's going to be about him dealing with his girlfriend's jealous ex threatening him, but that's just a feint for a humorous and embarrassing anecdote. "Everything Gets Fucked Up But Occasionally Gets Repaired" starts as a pleasantly ambling story about being uncomfortable around people foisted on him and then reacting to his windshield getting shattered that suddenly turns into a medical drama. As the title suggests, a number of things do get repaired--with the exception of a particular relationship. "Everyday Job" starts as a typical day in the life but shifts suddenly into Brown dealing with a car accident that happens right before his eyes.

Brown has a dry, sometimes distant but consistently self-deprecating sense of humor. The title piece is simultaneously the most straightforward story in the book in terms of narrative and also the most detached, as Brown narrates his life's story as an instruction manual whose goal is "How To Meet A Girl". With steps like "Meet Chris Ware (no substitutions, please) at a book signing and show him some work to receive encouragement" leading up to him meeting a girl who read one of his comics and contacted him as a result.

Above all else, Brown is a master of tone. His comics have spawned a wave of imitators, but none of them match his mastery at taking what seems to be an ordinary experience and infusing it with wit, drama or absurdity. I think some artists mistake what Brown does for a James Kochalka-type diary comic, conflating the immediacy of scribbling down their experiences with the spontaneity that Brown is able to evoke on the page. Little Things is especially interesting because it feels like a specifically-designed complement to the many books he's done about his relationships (like Clumsy, Unlikely, Any Easy Intimacy,  Every Girl Is The End Of The World To Me), telling stories about all of the spaces between his relationships. Brown understands that by fracturing the chronology of his autobiographical story, it helps him remove the potential tedium in telling stories about himself and allows him to shape his anecdotes for whatever theme he's developing.

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