No matter how modern or open-minded, it’s a moment few parents are really prepared for until it happens, and this was perhaps especially true for writer and comic book artist Jeffrey Brown.
The shocking exchange with his 6-year-old still confounds him a bit, and one can imagine him trying to hide the fear and disappointment from his face when his son Oscar uttered a most unexpected confession: He didn’t like Star Wars.
What?! Star Wars is something fathers and sons, parents and children, are supposed to share together, isn’t it? Okay, perhaps this news wouldn’t totally bewilder every parent, (though probably most readers of Geek magazine.) But for Brown, the writer, artist and creator of the wildly popular children’s book Vader and Son (the little book you may very well have bought or received last Father’s Day), well… he didn’t see it coming. In fact, Brown adds, it was even worse. “After first seeing it, Oscar actually said, ‘They never should’ve made Star Wars. It’s a bad movie.’”
(Gasp. We realize this is unsettling, reader. You okay? This could happen to any of us. Parenting doesn’t come with any guarantees. Hang in there. We’ll come back to this.)
At this point in his career, Brown has amassed an impressive body of work, albeit an unlikely and misshapen one (including his graphic memoirs Unlikely and Funny Misshapen Body). From these very intimate and personal works, which became his calling card, to the loving sendup of the Transformers franchise Incredible Change-Bots! to his witty odes to cat lovers, Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations and Cats are Weird, to his perhaps best-known mainstream creations, the bestselling Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess — Brown is hard to peg as an artist. With a visual style often described as “scratchy” and “spare” and a tone that is both confessional and comedic with an unvarnished honesty no matter the genre, Brown manages to make the details and emotions of the everyday epic and to reexamine the epic-scale evil of Star Wars icon Darth Vader in an awkwardly humanizing parenting universe where he struggles to raise his kids as a single dad.
So how did this Grand Rapids-born, minister’s-son-turned-atheist, lifelong-Star-Wars-fan-turned-successful-comic-book-artist and young-father-to-a-Star Wars-hater get to this particular parenting crossroads? The high- and low-lights are, like most of Brown’s creations, awkward and straightforward, taking him from a serious bout with Crohn’s disease that started in high school to studies in college that led him away from his minister father’s church. In 2000, he left his day job in a wooden shoe factory in Holland, Michigan, (seriously, that’s a thing) and, at 25, began studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His MFA thesis would become his first published comic, Clumsy. This is the first of Brown’s comic memoirs, which include early works like AEIOU and the previously mentioned Funny Misshapen Body and Unlikely, in addition to last year’s A Matter of Life, in which he takes a look at his faith and its place in his life as a son and a father. Intimate, vulnerable, funny and awkward in both storytelling and Brown’s characteristic artistic style, Clumsy set the template for his uniquely personal comics.
Here, Brown talks about his inspirations, aspirations and, of course, Star Wars.
GEEK: Clumsy takes an intimate and non-linear approach to exploring a young relationship from start to finish, kind of an Annie Hall for the caffeinated comic-book culture. Are your inspirations as widely varied as your work?
Brown: They are. I actually didn’t see Annie Hall until after I’d written Clumsy, though. Music is something that really inspires me creatively. The idea of what a song can do to express an idea and to make a connection in the audience. So you hear a song at a particular time in your life and it has a resonance of meaning for the rest of your life — it brings you back to that time and place. That’s what I hope my comics do.
Who are your influences as an artist?
Charlotte Salomon, who was an artist who died in the Holocaust, did a series of washes called “Life or Theater” and she was an influence in my autobiographical work. Chris Ware, who is still a cartoonist. I think you wouldn’t see the influence visually, but he’s someone I’m always looking at and I feel like he pushes himself constantly in building stories — and, as an artist, thinking that I better step it up if I’m ever going to come close to something like that. I’ve been rewatching a lot of Charlie Kaufman films lately.
You seem more intrigued by the whole of the experience than the traditional happy ending. So even though, chronologically, the relationship in Clumsy doesn’t work out, structurally, the characters fall in love at the end of the book, which is oddly satisfying.
You first mentioned its similarity to Annie Hall, in terms of form or structure, but that idea is what I wanted to make Clumsy about. The clichéd way of saying it is “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” showing that this relationship is not necessarily horrible and it isn’t necessarily great, but in the end it’s still something worthwhile and good.
Recently, you even branched out into screenwriting with your first film, Save the Date, about an illustrator [played by Masters of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan], her boyfriend and the man she would leave him for. This movie seems to share some of the DNA of your autobiographical work. Did you ever intend that to be a comic book?
No, it was always intended to be for film. I’ve had interest in adapting autobiographical books before and I’ve come to the decision that I’m just not interested in that anymore. I like the comics being what they are.
Your recent book, A Matter of Life, has been called a “confessional comic” and in it you question your faith through your own eyes and as both a son and a father. Your use of color and more detailed pieces of art interpreting beauty in nature seem to highlight where you find the hand of something greater in the world like in a starry endless sky or a mountain vista — though you followed a different path than your father, who is a minister.
I was trying to do a lot of things in that book but one of them was that you can find that kind of spiritual feeling in the world and not necessarily be a spiritual person. That book is very much more about the questions than the answers and how the questions very much form who we are more than the answers we arrive at define us.
Despite your lifelong love of Star Wars, the “Vader” books seem like a real departure. How did they come to be?
Google approached me to do something for their Father’s Day doodle with Luke and Vader in an everyday father-and-son moment. One of the reasons they asked me was because I’m a father and so much of my autobiographical work has been about that, about everyday life moments. So I immediately did a dozen or so sketches and emailed them off that night and was super excited about it. But they ended up using a different idea so I never even created any finished artwork at that point. And then after sitting around with it, with that feeling of “Aaawwgh, that would have been so awesome!” I realized that I could make a mini-comic, just to draw for my own amusement and give to friends or whatever. But then I thought it would be really great if I actually did this for real. So I’d done my cat books for Chronicle and they’d done all these other Star Wars books and this seemed obvious that I should take this to Chronicle and see if they could get Lucasfilm on board.
Even though that’s logical, it’s also super ballsy.
I mean, I didn’t have to approach Lucasfilm [laughs], so for me it didn’t seem too ballsy! So yeah, Chronicle took it to them. They bring everything to internal meetings to review and one of the guys at the meeting was familiar with my work so he rooted for it to go into Lucasfilm and at Chronicle they all liked the idea well enough, so it worked out.
It’s a fantastic idea. And though now that it’s a bestseller, it probably seems obvious, playing with these icons is pretty bold. Were you or anyone at Chronicle worried at all about straying too far from the Darth Vader we know?
I grew up a huge Star Wars fan, so there was a certain amount of love and respect that was going into the work, and the idea was simple enough that we weren’t doing anything that would really risk that. I think there are ways that it could have been done that would take it too far in one direction or another, but the idea was just really pure and straightforward.
People have really responded to your taking the epic story of Star Wars and then grounding it in the granular moments of day-to-day parenting. Did you have any favorite ideas that you knew you just had to do?
Well, one of the first ideas was the back cover idea with Vader saying, “Luke, pick up your toys. I am your father.” And that was just one of those things that kind of immediately hit. It all came so fast. And I also thought, “If I’m going to draw Star Wars, I’m at least going to draw all the bounty hunters all at once,” so I was trying to think of an idea to fit them in. I draw at this local coffee shop and sometimes people have meetings there and, every once in a while, someone will bring their 4-year-old to a meeting. So it starts as kind of a business meeting and it kind of ends up not being one because the kid is dumping his food on the floor and climbing in and out of his chair the whole time. So putting it into Vader’s job, what’s it like when the boss brings his 4-year-old along to work? It’s a very organic process for the ideas and, sometimes, it’s having something from the films I want to draw and trying to think of the idea, and, sometimes, it’s what parenting situations I can fit in there.
After the successes of Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess, you have another book series with Lucasfilm for Scholastic called Jedi Academy. How is it different?
It’s much more narrative. The book essentially covers the school year of this character who always wanted to be a pilot and ends up at Jedi Academy instead, and he doesn’t know anything about the Force and the other kids already know what they are doing and he’s just trying to figure out his place. So it just follows his journey throughout the school year. Also, in terms of format, it’s drawn about 60 of 100 pages as comics, and there are other pages that are the main character’s journal entries, which have little doodles and comics and there are school newspaper pages, notes, his report card, letters to and from other people, so it’s constructing a narrative through these different elements, and you get the whole story from that.
Do you see similarities in your work at all?
For me, I think of all these books as a body of work and they’re all showing different aspects of life in different ways. And they’re all coming from me. So in Jedi Academy, it’s middle school set in the Star Wars universe, but I’m drawing a lot on my own middle school experiences and how I felt at different times in those years so I think there’s always a very personal connection in the work I’m making.
Your early works are very vulnerable and autobiographical — are you still as willing today to expose yourself that much?
In a way, I feel like A Matter of Life is even more personal. I also feel that by making myself so vulnerable, I’m adding a layer of protection or something? Because it takes a certain amount of…
Well, I’m not going to say “courage” as in, “Yes, if you could learn to be courageous like me…” [laughs] But it takes something to put yourself out there like that. And just doing that gives you a certain amount of confidence. And with autobiographical books especially, I’ve always approached them in the way I would tell stories to my friends. I just talk to them. And I think, in general, when people read those books they respect that. Even if they wouldn’t like me in real life or the story or the art, they return the respect you’re giving them. You’re trusting them with your life on paper and, in general, they appreciate that.
This may be the key to the impact of Brown’s work. No matter the type of book he’s writing or illustrating. It takes an act of courage and trust to put yourself out there as an artist and a person. We may not have had precisely his experience, but we’ve seen or felt something similar in our own life and reliving it through Brown’s “confessional,” “scratchy” works reminds us that even these most painfully awkward moments are, in their own way, worthwhile. And that’s reassuring.
So, back to the shocking revelation from little Oscar after seeing Star Wars with his father and rejecting it. How did Brown handle this awkward moment with his son? With straightforward reassurance. “I mean, I knew he didn’t really not like Star Wars,” Brown says. It turns out that Oscar really didn’t like that they killed off Obi-Wan, “which I totally understood. I just kept telling him how Ben was still there, guiding Luke. I think he eventually bought that.”
Check out this interview and more in our recent issue of Geek Magazine!
Images: Jill Liebhaber, Chronicle