Monday, October 28, 2013

Notes on the Cycle: A Matter of Life

As memoirist Jeffrey Brown has grown older, the focus of his autobio comics has shifted a bit. His earliest books were about relationships, jumping back and forth in time to depict small but important moments. Brown's storytelling technique is nonetheless a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but by going against strict chronology, one gets the sense that it allows him to fully understand and digest certain events better. Indeed, since all memories are of the past, one could argue that this is a more true-to-life way of depicting a personal narrative, as our memories tend to jumble and blur. Brown shifted from writing about his relationships with partners to his relationship with art and his own health in other books, crafting books of greater subtlety and depth than his earlier works. With A Matter of Life, Brown for the first time widens his focus to include stories about his father and first-born son Oscar. While both have popped up from time to time in his stories, this is the first time Brown has tried to create a narrative surrounding the three of them. The result is heartfelt but not as coherent as his recent My Funny, Misshapen Body or Little Things.

The most interesting element of the book is that Brown's father is a minister, making this book about his own faith and the process by which he became an atheist. What is ironic is that what initially started him down that path was his insider's understanding of how church worked, with the politics and pettiness inherent in any organization prevalent in his father's world as well. Those politics extended to young Jeffrey as well, who was expected to dress up, be polite and otherwise be an exemplar of good behavior and piety while his dad was working. Of course, preacher's kids frequently turn out to be quietly rebellious (and sometimes not-so-quietly), especially if they can detect any level of bullshit emanating from their parents. Brown mostly keeps the book pretty light, relating tales of being bored in church and acting out, provoking his parents into threatening to take away his Tolkein books and birthday presents. Brown's become a skilled comic storyteller, and the way he escalates his bad behavior in that story is made funnier by way of how it contrasts with the gentler strips in the book.

Brown builds up slowly to the reveal where he tells his parents that he's no longer a Christian, which ends in an anti-climax as he couldn't remember further details from the conversation. Yet the slightly shell-shocked expressions on everyone's faces said more than any further anecdote could communicate, a look that revealed sadness and sheer bewilderment. Brown quickly follows that heavy scene up with a goof on "Jesus in your heart", with a miniature Jesus literally pounding on Brown's aorta. Brown dips into the past and future as he addresses ideas like anger and homosexuality, admitting that he was homophobic in high school. It's yet another example of Brown willing to make himself look bad in service of the story, but it also fits into the book's overall theme of how beliefs are shaped but can change over time. He links some of that to growing up highly sexually repressed; it's not unusual for ignorance to be linked to prejudice and Brown certainly comes clean on that front.

The back half of the book addresses Brown's own challenges as a father and healthcare scares. He relates one incident where his son has a horrible allergic reaction to an antibiotic and has to go on a battery of medications to combat the still-present infection. Brown gets across that sense of helplessness a parent can feel while they think they are doing the right thing, and then ties it into the helplessness he feels when his father starts to get sick. Again, he finds ways to lighten the mood, ending the story about his son with frustration over the three year old's insistence on watching the same episodes of The Smurfs over and over.

The stories that Brown tells are frequently lovely and touching. They're certainly told beautifully, as Brown has now fully integrated color into his autobio work in a manner that makes a difference, like in a crucial scene depicting the beauty of a sunset that doesn't make him think of it as God's handiwork. The way he draws his son is adorably simple, with two dot eyes and a simple line for a smile; at the same time, Brown is able to draw a lot of nuance out of that simple character design. The first half of the book, which really examines Brown's relationship with his father and faith in great deal while referencing his own son, is as strong as his work has ever been. However, the back half, which focuses more on Oscar, feels underdeveloped. There's a lengthy anecdote about going to a museum in Europe whose connections to the rest of the book seems tenuous. This is a short book to begin with (just 96 pages) and as a reader, I got the sense that Brown didn't have enough material to justify a full-length book. Part of that may be that he simply doesn't have the distance from being a father now to fully grapple with that material the way he does other past events. He does manage to end the book gracefully by engaging the subject of death head-on, but it's almost as though the other anecdotes that would have made sense to include just haven't happened yet, like how his own son will ultimately choose to proceed regarding faith. Still, this book sees Brown moving in some interesting new directions, and I'd love to see him follow up on a number of ideas he explored.

1 comment:

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