Since I’ve been talking about Dave Sim, I thought I’d reprint an essay that the man himself hated. This is a review of Jeff Brown’s “Every Girl Is The End of the World for Me.” It first ran in TCJ #279. (A link to Sim’s — and Brown’s — response is at the end of the post.)
The Art of Depicting Nature As It Is Seen By Toads
Autobiography doesn’t have to suck. The genre has been used to talk about everything from the nature of evil (Saint Augustine) to the nature of the postal delivery system (Anthony Trollope, god bless him). It has been used for the promulgation of the most sublime nonsense (as in Mark Twain’s *The Innocents Abroad*) and for the elucidation of the most earnest moral and social analysis (as in James Baldwin’s *The Fire Next Time*.) In a couple of works, like Phillip K. Dick’s bizarre *Valis*, or Charles Mingus’ *Below the Underdog*, autobiography has even managed to absorb some of the formal innovations of modernist fiction and poetry.
And yet, despite these glorious examples from the past, autobiographical comics, in disproportionate numbers, suck, and suck exceedingly. The worst ones — such as Jeffrey Brown’s latest effort, “Every Girl Is The End of the World For Me” — are so bad that they seem to invalidate not merely autobiography, but all of comicdom. If this is the sort of thing that’s wowing the critics and showing up in all the hip anthologies, maybe the medium is just a wash, and we should all abandon it for a less disgraceful pastime — rhythmic gymnastics, say, or grave-robbing.
It’s not that Brown’s book is repulsive, exactly. It doesn’t have the visceral, soul-crushing monotony of David Heatley’s endless “My Sexual History,” nor is it an inglorious, overweening pratfall, like Art Spiegelman’s *In the Shadow of No Towers.* Sure, Brown’s sensitive-new-age-guy persona is distasteful. And, yes, I was annoyed by the repetitive scenes of him being hugged, kissed, and flirted with by a series of virtually indistinguishable hipsterettes. And I was just about ready to scream if Brown told me one more fucking time how much his acquaintances admire him as a cartoonist. All right, already; everyone you know loves your books. That’s why God created back covers — so you’d have a place to put your testimonial blurbs without bothering your readers.
These are basically petty irritants, though; ten years from now, I’ll still hate the Heatley and Spiegelman projects, but I doubt I’ll even remember this particular Brown comic. It’s simply too small (physically and otherwise) to fail in a grandiose way. Indeed, the book’s lack of ambition is its whole reason for existence — Brown seems to be constantly nudging you to let you know he’s not really trying. The very first sentence of the first chapter is a study in run-on incompetence: “In early December I got an email from an old friend from my hometown about a book I wrote about my first girlfriend Allisyn.”
Refusing to correct such a clunker is simple laziness — a laziness which is reflected everywhere in what, for lack of a better word, we must refer to as the narrative. Brown’s comic is about nothing — and not an interesting existential Beckett nothing. Nor is it a witty, detour-laden Tristram Shandy nothing. It’s more like the smarmy sit-com nothing of Seinfeld, but even that comparison is too kind. Brown drifts from day to day, showing us his humdrum existence without any attempt at humor, interest, drama, or intellectual engagement. He hasn’t even bothered to give himself a personality. Instead, in the book, the character Jeffrey Brown is a barely-drawn art-school-grad-stereotype; we know he feels deeply because, well, we know guys like him are supposed to feel deeply, I guess. His main identifying characteristic through most of the book is that he has a cold.
If the male narrator is a bland nonentity, you can imagine the fate of the females. As I mentioned above, the girls who supposedly constitute the comics’ raison d’etre are interchangeable. It’s not just that they’re visually hard to distinguish (though they are.) It’s that they have no personalities, no idiosyncrasies. Brown’s relationships with them are almost entirely unexplored. Allisyn, his first girlfriend, is a little more fleshed out — she has a tattoo, and Brown seems to have more of an attachment to her. But ask me to explain how, as a personality, she’s actually different from Lisa or Nicolle or whoever, and I have to admit that I (a) don’t know and (b) don’t give a shit. (Brown does provide a score-card of sorts listing all the female protagonists, presumably because he realized that you can’t tell the characters apart without one).
Brown’s art is every bit as gratuitously slipshod as his writing. His drafting skills are lousy, of course, but that’s not quite the point — if you’re creative and willing to expend a certain amount of effort, you can produce a fine comic without being able to draw especially well (thank you, Gary Larson.) But Brown doesn’t work around or within his limitations, or struggle to minimize them. Instead, he just lets them sit there proudly, like a three-year old who’s taken a dump and wants to show you the turds. Like a good little autobio-comic drone, Brown’s layouts are a basic, brainless, four-equal-panels-per-page grid. The images themselves repeat with the grim regularity of a Doonesbury strip — here’s Jeff Brown sitting at his keyboard — oh, there he is sitting at his keyboard again — and, yep, there he is sitting at his keyboard again. When portraying himself using e-mail, Brown, as an artist, is too damn lazy to even rotate the perspective so you can see the words on the monitor; instead, he just has a kind of lame speech block coming off of the computer.
Scenes where Brown is talking in person to his friends are equally ham-fisted; in a typical Brown image, two heads face each other at the bottom of the panel, while the rest of the space is taken up by a crappily rendered, completely uninteresting room. Often, the backgrounds just seem to be there so he’ll have some place to put the speech-bubbles. Indeed, hardly any of the visual decisions seem designed to create an effect of any sort. There are pictures solely because it’s a comic. And why is it a comic? Because there are pictures. The rare exception — as in a sequence where Brown fixates on his friend’s breasts, which occupy a larger and larger portion of each frame — is such a relief that you can almost forgive its other failings. Sure, to devote two whole pages to the relationship between guys and boobs is dumb and sophomoric, and it’s not done with any particular panache. But at least Brown is making some sort of effort to put form and content together to say *something*.
“Every Girl is the End of the World to Me” lacks just about everything that you might conceivably look for in a work of art — craft, joy, insight, wisdom, the works. Which raises the question — who wants to read this crap? Or, to put basically the same question another way: what on earth does Jeffrey Brown think he’s doing? When I first saw his cartoons several years ago, I presumed that he was just a talentless hack who wrote and drew this way because it was all he had in him. But over the years I’ve discovered that such is not the case. His superhero parody, *Bighead*, is no *Flaming Carrot*, but it is both funny and charming. And though I’ve only seen a couple of panels from his fan-fic Wolverine vs. the Zombies story, those few images were thoroughly entertaining, and even somewhat stylishly drawn.
In other words, Brown can create decent comics if he’s doing less personal work. With super-heroes he’s willing to cut loose, play around, even look like he’s trying But as soon as he turns to autobiography, he clenches up as tightly as if every guitar ever strummed by every sincere emo frontman in the nation has been simultaneously shoved up his ass.
In general, if you find an artist with this level of aesthetic constipation, you’ve found an artist whose bowels are in the grip of an unforgiving authenticity claim. For alternative comics creators, this claim seems to be that sincerity and truth are best expressed by abandoning all the hallmarks of artifice. Thus, for example, Jeff Brown’s fan Chris Ware has tossed aside his more complex layouts and quirkier subject matter for a basic grid and boring narratives.
The drawing style of Brown and his autobiographic ilk isn’t realistic, of course, but by denigrating beauty and craft in favor of natural, untutored expression, these comics are essentially a branch of realism — the artistic movement which Ambrose Bierce acidly defined as, “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” Brown’s work is supposed to be so dull, so insipid, so incompetent, that it dazzles us with its humble insights. Its very lack of effort is a sign of its genius. It’s so bad it’s good. In theory.
And, of course, Jeff Brown also agrees that I’m a dick.
I mentioned Brown in another review a while back (Brown talks about it in his response.) You can read it here.