Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Catching Up With Box Brown

Though most of the press Box Brown is receiving of late is regarding his new Andre The Giant book with First Second, he's been remarkably prolific on the minicomics front as well. Let's take a look.

Softcore 1-3. Brown is at his best when examining the fine details of the lives of the scummy and scuzzy. These comics are about a couple of guys who hire models to jack them off on camera, for placement on a website. Each issue is from the point of view of a different character; in #1, we follow a young man doing this for the first time with a model from Russia. After they conclude what he describes as a hand job detached enough that it felt "like we were fixing a toilet together", her handler makes a series of bizarre hand signals. The anxiety-ridden young man concludes that he was cursed by "Russian voodoo" in a hilarious but harrowing series of physically debilitating experiences. For him, the neurosis of this experience was channeled into a supernatural feeling, replacing his guilt and self-loathing.

The next two issues are from the point of view of Candy, the model, who mostly sees the men she works with as an opportunity to separate them from their money, and her fellow Russian Karlina. From Candy's point of view, her friend who put a "curse" on the protagonist in the first issue is a video game nerd who was just throwing up signs from a game, and she used him to essentially drain him of a lot of money in order to bring her friend over. Karlina in turn went over to Frank's apartment, another guy who does videos, essentially in order to case him and see what he was all about after drugging him. Every figure in these comics is designed to look like a cross between a Chris Ware character and a Michael DeForge character in that they are highly simplified while appearing at weird angles. Every character is crooked,slanted and exaggerated in terms of both posture and motive, as Brown examines a number of desperate and lonely people either looking to make a connection or else get ahead in life. I'll be curious to see how the series continue to develop.

Beach Girls is a loving tribute to spring break movies and the culture that surrounds both vacation spots and vacations themselves. Once again, Brown populates this comic with a cast of low-lifes, morons and opportunists, all of whom are either after thrills or money. Those after thrills are easily separated from their money by the locals who survive on tourist money; in a sense, it's a less creepy version of the sort of relationships found in Softcore. Brown also treats these characters with considerably more affection, especially true believers like Hank and Phoebe. Hank is the lunkheaded surfing true believer who resents the presence of tourists and is indifferent to bilking them out of their money at the skate/surfing shop at which he works. Phoebe is the "plain" friend who accompanies two other, more conventionally attractive friends to the beach and is in search of authentic experience. The relationship that develops between her and Hank is sweet and defies many expectations. Brown seems to have a lot of fun drawing cartoony, minimalist faces on top of beach bodies, giving all of them a certain cheap tackiness that defies the real-world ideal that we think of when we consider the glamour of the beach. The back-up by James Kochalka is pretty much what one would expect of Kochalka: silly and disposable.

The best of his recent work is certainly Number 1. The lead story, "Kayfabe Quarterly", wraps up Brown's fascination with professional wrestling into the story of a kid who grows up obsessed with the notion of "kayfabe". This is a professional wrestling term referring to the wrestlers staying in character and pretending what they're doing is real, no matter what. It leads him to wonder how many adults in his life are practicing kayfabe, saying one thing but meaning and doing another. "What's real? What's a work?" (A work is a match whose outcome and events are entirely predetermined and scripted.) This leads to a chronology of the history of his magazine, leaving him to wonder at times "What if there's not enough bullshit out there to write about?" Ingeniously, Brown eventually turns the story in on itself, as the protagonist slowly evolves and comes to terms with his brother's religious tendencies, his father, and friends he's fallen out with. All wind up as fodder for his magazine, frequently befuddling and enraging his readers. Even as the magazine retreats to the internet, there's a fundamental sweetness at work here that's typical of Brown's work. Even the crudest character is capable of personal insights and the ability to evolve. The DIY nature of the publication also reflects Brown's own status as a DIY publisher, something that's distilled a bit more harshly in the second story, "The Documentarian". It's a series of one-panel strips about a film documentarian and what he's doing at that moment. That figure is always in silhouette, but it may as well be Brown or any number of creators barely hanging on, receiving some crumbs of recognition and then getting back to work without ever truly being able to cope. Brown gives a sympathetic portrait in both stories of people who work mostly on their own in an attempt to further their own dreams and what it costs them in order to do so. Brown's work is best when he works big, and the character design looks great on page after page. With his sketchy style, he relies a lot on zip-a-tone effects to give his pages some weight and depth and relies heavily on spotting blacks on other pages. He varies his visual approach depending on how old the character is, which helps move the story along in time as well as varying imagery for the reader. It's a simple, unobtrusive tactic that is quite effective. Brown is building up an impressive library of characters who are in society's margins but nonetheless have complex inner lives and stories to tell.

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