Monday, December 2, 2013

A Matter of Life

Written and Illustrated by Jeffrey Brown
Published by Top Shelf Comics

Now a father, an older, more refined Jeffrey Brown reflects on the nature of his faith (or lack thereof), mixed with stories from his past and being a parent in this latest autobiographical collection that finds the New York Times bestselling author is still one of the giants of the genre.

It's really amazing to think of the progression of Jeffrey Brown as a comics creator, moving as he has from doing short bits in obscure anthologies to a well-received series of Star Wars and cat books that have moved him to the end caps of bookstores everywhere. I couldn't be happier for Brown, even if he is a Detroit Red Wings fan, because indie comics folks rarely get to explode like this into the public mind.

Coming back to his roots with A Matter of Life, it's easy to see why Brown has been able to evolve into a best-seller. Unlike some autobiographical creators, Brown has never stopped trying to be a better artist. While his basic style hasn't changed over the years--this book is just as dominated by head shots as Clumsy--the quality within each panel from those early books to now is almost staggering. It's even more dramatic here than in comparing Incredible Change Bots 1 and 2 back to back. Thanks to working on improving his linework to make it more three-dimensional and adding color to the mix, Brown's art in A Matter of Life now drives his narrative in a way that it could not at the start of his career.

In the case of this book, there's not so much a narrative as a theme, namely Brown's feelings about religion. Most of the short stories in this book, working back and forth in time, focusing on what happens when the son of a minister stops being a Christian. As always, Brown's look is deep and honest and doesn't always put him in a good light, the key to making a good autobiographical comic. As my own faith history is varied, troubled, and currently on hiatus, I naturally registered with his angst at doing things like telling someone not to pray for him, because he was not a Christian.

The most powerful instance of this is when Brown lies to an older lady he's helping across the street, because he knows what would happen if he told her "no." As she talks about how she "knew" he was Christian, I can only imagine how Brown felt in that moment, which is captured perfectly in a panel of hesitation, with no words, before he breaks a Commandment while claiming to follow them.

While I am not a parent, Brown's linking his thoughts about his own childhood to Oscar's experiences make me wonder what kind of a father I might have been. Oscar, still young and impressionable, prays before food (because his grandparents do) but says he doesn't want to go to church, because you have to be quiet. Brown and his wife let him know that it's his choice, even as they try to explain death to Oscar, all without the benefit of falling back on the idea of Heaven.

As with the street-crossing scene, Brown does a lot with the art to increase the emotion of the moment. The placement of the pupils in his eyes and those of his wife show their discomfort in trying to discuss death, even as Brown knows in the back of his mind that his father is most likely terminal. Simple lines show subtle frowns, even as Oscar, initially confused, decides with a Hulk-like pose that he'll fight death.

It's not all serious, however. There are wistful moments, such as when Brown photographs beautiful clouds or thinks about his exploration of his father's office and the ancient Bibles there. Other situations are played for comedy. A young Brown finishes up the story of Abraham and says, "WTF God?" but that's nothing compared to his very brief flirtation with Scientology. Perhaps the most amusing set of panels is when Brown depicts a literal Jesus living in his heart, complaining and beating at the valves against a mostly bright red background. Watching Brown subtly change the panels to enhance the joke is a perfect example of his improved craft.

In the past, a lot of Brown's work focused on his social problems. In A Matter of Life, that's shifted to the things that any family might encounter. A simple rash for Oscar turns into a major league problem, leading to a cry for "real Smurfs" as we ride the roller coaster of emotions. Returning to the theme of religion, in another short moment, Brown wonders about a parent who is already telling their child things about God that they're far too young to understand for themselves. In both of these scenes, Brown gives plenty of energy to the panels, knowing just when to pause and when to move the action forward. The end panel of the God discussion finds Brown using a rare symbol instead of speech to show just how concerned he is, all while Oscar plays or looks on, oblivious.

Erica and I are huge fans of Jeffrey Brown, with her familiarity extending even beyond my own. To some degree, we've aged with him (Brown has a few years on me, but not much) and watched his life change over time, even as our own has. A Matter of Life is a very mature book by a creator who has matured, but not grown up. Long-time fans absolutely must pick up this book to keep up with Brown's life, but anyone new to Brown (or coming to him from Star Wars) will quickly find an engaging, personal look inside the life of a person willing to share with strangers. We as readers can only hope that Brown continues his journey with us in the years to come.

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