Sunday, May 17, 2009

Secret Origins: Funny Misshapen Body

Rob reviews the new collection of autobiographical stories by Jeffrey Brown, FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY (Touchstone Books).

For someone who's been sharing intimate and embarrassing details of his life in book after book, it's funny to call Jeffrey Brown's FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY his most personal work. The description fits, however, and it's all due to his style of narration in this book. In his previous autobio comics, Brown evoked universal feelings of love, loss and confusion by way of very specific vignettes. He was always careful to use a lot of time and narrative fracturing so as not to get the reader too invested in "story", per se, but rather the sort of feelings we can all understand about how relationships get jumbled up in our memories. It's an emotional ordering of events, not a chronological one but such a tactic can feel more true and vivid. Using that technique also allowed Brown to maintain a certain distance from his reader. Withholding basic but key contextualizing facts from the reader forced one to instead think about what these people were thinking and why. This emotional narrative always superceded what one would think of as a standard plot-driven narrative; indeed, it subverted such a standard narrative.

The manner in which Brown chooses to reveal personal details varies between self-indulgent, self-depracatory, and self-aware. Brown also varies between narratives with clearly defined punchlines and situations that simply trail off with no resolution. He's adept at depicting awkwardness and his self-caricature often winds up creating it. No matter how much Brown tries to distance himself from the reader through the narrative, one can still sense a certain warmth for everyone involved in the story, including himself. Despite pain, failure and heartache, his comics have always carried a certain degree of optimism, maintaining that spark of hope we might all feel when we're caught in a despondent situation.

FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY wastes no time delving into Brown's past with a directness, focus and attention to detail that he deliberately left out of past volumes. The reason seems pretty clear. While LITTLE THINGS was about the way small details in our lives accumulate, form patterns and ultimately add up to a life lived, FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY is about Brown's personal quest to become an artist and how this got wrapped up in his coming to terms with identity and self-image. It's a warmer book than Brown's other material and more direct, even if he still continues to splinter the chronology of events. As a result, it doesn't feel as much like a "Jeffrey Brown book" as his other comics and reminds me a bit more of conventional autobiographical comics.

This plays out on the page in the way Brown uses narrative captions. In most of his stories, narrative captions provide the sparest of information and never reveal Brown's thoughts or drive the narrative. In FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY, narrative captions almost exclusively propel the story forward and feature lots of "I did this" statements. Brown spells out his intentions and feelings pretty clearly in the captions, leaving the actual images and dialogue as a method of conveying punchlines. This approach allows Brown's unabashed enthusiasm for comics to shine through in a way that's not expressed in his other books. This comic actually reminds me a bit of Alec Longsteth's autobiographical work in its directness, sheer enthusiasm and refusal to be the least bit abashed about either. While Brown is looking back at how he developed as an artist with a wiser eye, one never gets the cloying sense of certitude that one feels after reading a David Heatley comic. Heatley's comics tend to follow a very dialectical path (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) with clear "right" and "wrong" positions emerging in his own mind. On the other hand, with Brown we get a sense of "well, this is working for now". There's less a method to his madness than there is a sense of him following his instincts.

The conflicts of instinct vs ambition vs outside expectations are at the heart of this book. Brown's stories of his fumbling attempts at young romance, becoming cool by way of pot and alcohol and the ways in which his body betrayed him with Crohn's disease relate to his quest for purpose in that they reflect his overall awkwardness. While the book is ostensibly about the way his artistic path developed, he pointedly tells that story out of order and intersperses it with these other, intimate accounts of personal embarrassment and humiliation. It's a key move, because the book otherwise would have been overwhelmingly specific and self-indulgent. Brown also amps up the level of humor in this book in an effort to leaven the more directly personal nature of his stories. Sometimes he goes a bit overboard in telling the reader how he used humor in his poetry readings to undercut his own potential self-seriousness; this is something that was pretty clear in the narrative and didn't need to be spelled out--and especially not several times.

That said, I do understand some mentions of his use of humor, since it accidentally became one of the cornerstones in his future career as a cartoonist. His stories of how he went from a boy who loved comics to a high school cartoonist to "serious" artist are refreshingly honest and mostly free of the blame and frustration I've seen in other accounts of art school from cartoonists. While Brown was frustrated, it was more due to him not knowing what he wanted to do than with his teachers or fellow students. When his teachers called him out on a lack of ambition and direction, he took that message to heart. Meeting Chris Ware pointed him in the right direction, and from there, he started to realize that instead of the detached art he had been making, he instead wanted to make something direct, honest and communicative of human experience. Brown really showed the reader all of his cards here, revealing that his now oft-imitated narrative structure was inspired by a particular writing class in art school. This also became the rationale behind his loose, scratchy art. He wanted something immediate and easy to parse rather than an overworked, slicker style that would deflect reader engagement and involvement.

LITTLE THINGS is still Brown's best book; it's his most challenging and rewarding in terms of its structure and ideas. The clever way he connects memories and anecdotes to create a larger overarching structure was enormously ambitious and successful. FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY is a bit less ambitious, more of a companion piece that fills in gaps than a significant statement of its own. In some ways, it wasn't a surprising move, because even in LITTLE THINGS Brown starts to become unsure of his autobiographical approach and starts to think about trying something a bit different. FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY clears up mysteries, airs secrets and gives context to Brown's other comics, looping back to his first book, CLUMSY. It does so enthusiastically but unpretentiously and invites the reader to poke fun at him along the way. More than any other autobiographical artist that I can think of, Brown is acutely aware of the difference between actual experience and the interpretation and recording of same. While the view in this book is perhaps not as compelling as his best works, it's still worth seeing and a compellingly honest statement about the frustrations and joys of the artistic process.

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