August 24, 2010

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Unlikely

Written by Jeffrey Brown
Illustrated by Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf

While Jeffrey Brown may not write daily diary comics like fellow Top Shelf artist James Kochalka, he is nevertheless just as unflinching in his portrayal of the details of his life. In this autobiographical work, which focuses on when he "became a man", Brown shows that he is a very human individual.

That humanity plays out early and often in Unlikely, which chronicles Brown's doomed relationship with Allisyn, a girl with just as many hangups as Brown--though they're completely different from his.

As with other twenty-something dating stories, Brown and Allisyn drift together via mutual friends, though the attraction appears to be very much one-sided. Allisyn is the girl a guy like Brown wants but never can have--dangerous, attractive, and mobile. (In some ways, she's not unlike Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim in that regard, though they end up as quite different people.) He's with her anyway, however, and things go fine--for awhile, anyway.

It's hard to watch Brown and Allisyn drift apart, panel by panel. To his credit, Brown holds nothing back from the reader, showing all the problems as they build up to the inevitable climax and heartbreak. If you ever had friends whose relationships were headed for the rocks, the signs will be familiar, though I doubt even your closest friends will be willing to give some of the information Brown shares. (Some might argue he's sharing too much in Unlikely, but I think it's the only way for the book to work without seeming whiny.)

Those signs are everywhere, from bedroom incompatibility to comments about Brown being "better at everything" to issues relating to smoking to the inevitable sniping at each other. When the end comes--and I'm sure Brown saw it coming--it's no less hurtful for him, especially if her method and reasons are accurate. (One always has to be careful with autobiographical narratives, because the writer always has a bias.)

If you don't end this book feeling sorry for Brown that they didn't break up sooner, when the heartache would be less, I would be surprised. It's pretty obvious that Allisyn and Brown aren't compatible, but neither wanted to admit it. Once she's back to her old ways, it's essentially over for the two of them, and if you've ever been the dumped partner in a relationship that probably needed to end sooner, you'll definitely have some pulls at old, probably painful memories. Be warned.

Brown gives titles here and there to sections of the comics to aid in the narrative flow, most of which are pretty apparent as you read. The dialog within each 6-panel page is representative of snippets of conversation and flows naturally or awkwardly, depending. It's the kind of conversation that real people have, which is part of why this comic works so well. Brown does everything possible to make the story feel as real as possible.

The only barrier to this natural flow is Brown's art. He is not by any means very skilled at this point in his career. Bodies are out of proportion, and his use of shading for every night scene obscures more than it helps. These are line drawings at their most basic, though Brown does make sure that characters remain consistent in looks, if not in size, throughout the book.

You're not reading Jeffrey Brown's autobiographical stuff for the art, however. It's the content that matters, and if you ever had trouble in your love life, there's going to be a lot to relate to in Unlikely, even if you don't share some of his more personal quirks. Brown is by no means a perfect person, and some readers may find his side of things too emo for their taste, but I feel that any attempt to make himself look better than he did at the time would cheapen the impact.

I read a book like Unlikely because authors like Jeffrey Brown aren't afraid to show who they were at the time, good or bad. If you are a fan of autobiographic comics and haven't picked this one up yet, do so right away. Just make sure you keep some tissue on hand, just in case.