I keep promising this, but I think this is really the last entry by me in our Mary Sue roundtable. No, really.
I wrote a brief review of Jeff Brown’s new book Funny Misshapen Body for the Chicago Reader a week or so ago:
With his relentless grid lay-outs, charmlessly crude drawings, and solipsistic subject matter, Jeff Brown has long embodied the most predictable tropes of sensitive alternative comic cartooning. His latest volume is, in every sense, more of the same: a series of short stories dedicated to rigorously chronicling every possible hipster autobio cliché. So we get one story about how Brown felt awkward around girls as an adolescent; one about how he came to draw comics; one about medical problems (Crone’s Disease, in his case); one about his experiences with alcohol; one about his experiences with drugs; one about how his teachers didn’t understand his art; one about how he finally started to be successful with his art, and on and on and on. As is de rigeur for this sort of thing, nobody else in the book is ever graced with either a personality or any sustained interests; it’s all just about Jeff’s ambivalence, Jeff’s bittersweet life lessons, Jeff’s struggles with his art. Through it all, Brown is careful to add that extra detail— the smug smile when he renounces pot; the fifteenth Chris Ware cameo — which pushes his work past tedious and right on into insufferable.
To expand just a little — one of the things that I like least about Brown’s work is the extent to which it mirrors the flatulent self-congratulation of super-hero decadence. These days, Justice League comics are often little more than long puff pieces about how great is the Justice League; Wonder Woman comics are often little more than long puff pieces about how great is Wonder Woman; and Jeff Brown comics? They’re just puff pieces about how great is Jeff Brown.
Here is Jeff Brown himself, chronicling his encounter with a rapturous Chris Ware. “Follow your bliss! Be honest!” Ignore the haters!” Ware asserts, while Brown stands by, presumably thinking “Shit yeah! I can totally use this in my next comic and then everybody will know how great I am because Chris fucking Ware! said so! And in clichéd terms too! Awesome!”
At least I can understand the appeal of the Justice League and Wonder Woman versions of self-puffery. Some small subset of people feel nostalgic for these characters; they have a relationship with them; they want to be told that Superman is wonderful, or Wonder Woman is wonderful, or whatever, because they like thinking about Superman and Wonder Woman. As I said in posts here and here, it ties into the Mary Sue trope; a kind of love/identification with a character. There’s a romance there which, especially in its corporate super-hero manifestations, tends to make for bad art…but at least the impulse is comprehensible.
But…why on earth would anyone want to read about how great Jeff Brown is? People don’t have childhood associations with the character; he’s not somebody who’s ever had good, or even marginally better, stories written about him. What is the percentage in having him preen in public? Are people really identifying with him as a Mary Sue; a character to love and to dream about? Are they actually seeing themselves in this anodyne hipster; or imagining themselves meeting him and engaging in orgies of self-regard? It all seems too repulsive to even consider. I’d much rather believe that people buy his books just because Chris Ware inexplicably told them to, period. In any case, give me an idealized Mary Sue any day over this image of smugly complacent mediocrity.