I’m conflicted as to what to say about comics artist Jeffrey Brown’s major publisher debut. Aesthetically, I can’t really say much for his drawings – and that’s more than half of what any good comic should be. At the same time, at least as a character in his stories, “Jeff” seems a very sweet, a gentle soul, so I dread ripping too much on his style.
There’s also a feeling of some kind of trick being played. It’s obvious from some of the panels that Brown has a real talent for drawing, yet so often his little square boxes are filled with these superficially crude sketches that make me think – Hell, I can be a cartoonist too! This isn’t entirely fair though.
Despite a penchant for what comes off as perspectively challenged layout, Brown’s characters manage to convey a wide range of emotions from wistful regret to pained despair to exuberance to emotions without names like that feeling you get when you one up someone who deserves it. I’m completely entranced by a page documenting a trip to the Northwest by bus in which the person seated in front of Jeff reclines with oblivious aggression. The startled look of pain on Jeff’s face seems so spastically reactive that recognition and identification with that feeling washed over me. His mournful consideration of his knee after the initial shock is over is likewise a thing of beauty.
The problem, though, with Little Things is that it just feels rather less than it should be. One’s major publishing debut should be epic and powerful and disturbing and thought provoking. Instead, this "Memoir in Slices" has the feeling of a collection of lesser pieces that don’t fully hang together. There are, of course, some usual Brown themes and elements running through the whole work, but that could equally be said of any collection of his shorter pieces. Brown is a music lover, a cat lover, a girl lover, and more and all three of these are in evidence throughout.
Fans (like The Littlest Critic) of Brown’s Cat Getting Out of a Bag will find the bits involving Jeff’s new cat Buddy amusing and sweet (the scene of him cutting dingleberries off Buddy’s butt will be especially familiar to those of us who’ve owned long-hair varieties). Fans of Brown’s Girlfriend Trilogy will enjoy “These Things These Things,” a meditation on a breakup and aftermath set to Jeff’s discovery of the music of Andrew Bird. Those who especially like the smaller moments Brown seems to capture effortlessly will find those salted throughout. A personal favorite from this last category involves an old paper-route customer of Jeff’s dying while Jeff continues to pile up newspapers on the front porch.
If there’s a grounding piece where Brown’s attention would have been better served it is in the last “chapter” entitled “A Little Piece of Myself” recounting his current life with girlfriend and their son. In this, we see Jeff holding his son and bouncing on an exercise ball and other endearing moments of quiet fatherhood. Whereas the other bits could have been culled from a variety of Brown’s previous material, this feels fresh and different, less about Jeff and his emotions and reactions and more about the world around him.
What’s most interesting in this volume, though, is the evolution of style. Early work has the kind of shaky line quality of my own drawings (and I stopped developing in that direction somewhere around fourth grade), while this latest demonstrates a growing eye for detail. The improvements over the last few years have been enormous and dramatic.
In one interview, Brown wrote that his work was drawn straight from pen to paper and from there to the books, no penciling, no going back to ink in and improve lines. The illustrations are one-takes (though whether or not he redraws a panel from scratch he never says – judging by some, I’d say not). Perhaps he may work his way up to this new style, perhaps not. In a way, it’s an odd growth pattern, just as his lines are starting to really show promise, Brown presents us with what almost amounts to a greatest hits CD with one bonus new track.
Here’s to hoping that new song is just an opening verse.