Chicago-based Jeffrey Brown has a long history of writing about what he knows best: himself—that and a whole bunch of ex-girlsfriends. Brown’s autobiographical vignettes are alternately hopeful, hilarious, melancholy, and bittersweet, in a way that only stories drawn from real-life can be, all in a sketchbook style that betrays their diary-like nature.
Brown’s handful of books released on Top Shelf, have won the stubble-faced cartoonist a place in the hearts of comic fans across the world, as well as an appearance on public radio’s This American Life, and a spot directing the Death Cab For Cutie video, “Your Heart is an Empty Room.” We sat down with Brown to discuss his books, dayjobs, and where an MFA from art school can get you in this life.
Your PO Box is in Deerfield. Is that outside of Chicago?
Yeah. It’s a suburb. Actually, I was working at the Barnes & Noble up there, so that’s where I left my PO Box, because I feel like it’s just too much of a hassle to change it.
Are you still working a day job?
Yeah. I’m still working part-time at Barnes & Noble, actually. I work like 20 hours a week, because that lets me keep my health insurance there.
Do you walk around the store and help people out with the books?
Mostly I work in the music department. Sometimes they have me on the book floor.
Have you ever sold anyone a copy of one of your own books?
Yeah [laughs]. I don’t push it on people, but there have actually been a couple of weird times when someone just happened to come to the register with my book from elsewhere in the store, and also in the music department, we have a stand with a few of my books.
Do people at the store buy a lot of graphic novels?
Manga sells fairly well. I think they sell a reasonable amount of that stuff. Persepolis and stuff that gets mainstream attention sells. I think that there’s a few cutomers who come in and end up getting a few alternative comics—probably not that many less than buy the super hero stuff.
Do you forsee a time in the immediate future when you’ll be supporting yourself full-time with your art?
I actually do that now. The actual pay from Barnes & Noble has, in this past year, reached the point where it’s the minority of my income. The thing I’m worried about with health insurance is that I have pre-existing conditions, which might make it harder for me to get health insurance, so I’ve been weary of applying.
Do you get a lot of fodder for your comics working retail?
I’ve gotten a little bit. Nothing groundshaking. There’s some stuff in there. There will be little random encounters, like this woman that came in one time, and was very upset, because we didn’t have cassette tapes, and I had to explain to her why we didn’t have them. She thought I was insulting her personally for the fact that she was still interested in buying cassette tapes, when we didn’t have them. It was just one of those weird kinds of conversations where she’s like, ‘I can’t believe how rude you are.’ I said, ‘it’s kind of like records, where people just don’t by them anymore.’
I’m a bit surprised that you don’t do a regular webcomic. It seems like your stuff would translate pretty well to that format.
In general, I’m just a little less interested in stuff on the web. I don’t like to read stuff online. I much prefer to hold it and read it. I feel like every time I try to read stuff on the computer, I get caught up on things, and just get stuck at the computer.
It definitely seems as if your work would translate well to the daily diary format. Something along the lines of what James Kochalka does.
What I do is autobiographical, but it’s more picking and choosing, rather than just being able to pull stuff from everyday. The other thing about diary comics is that you’re write so much about the present. Sometimes, if it’s a short, funny thing, I may put it down right away, but for the most part I don’t like to write about something until there’s some distance from it.
You must have had somebody who you’ve written about have a fairly negative reaction to the way that they’ve been portrayed in a particular strip.
Probably, but I also haven’t really been in touch with the people who would’ve had those sorts of reactions [laughs]. I try to be fair, and make myself look just as bad. There’s one person who had an irrational problem that had more to do with their own issues than anything I wrote. Their name was mentioned, or something like that. And I had one friend who misinterpreted a story. He thought I was writing it to say something, but I wasn’t. Other than that, I haven’t had anyone come back and be really upset or angry, but the people who would be the most upset or angry probably wouldn’t get back to me at all. And I’m getting away from writing too much about ex-girlfriends.
Why the change?
Part of it is that I feel like I’ve done enough of it. And part of it is—no, it’s mostly that. There’s some relationship stuff that is going to show up, but as far is it being the focus of entire books, isn’t going to happen anymore for the foreseeable future.
So, if you’re not focusing too much on work or relationship, what kind of plotlines are going to make up the majority of your books?
Well, I’m just trying to capture a lot of things. There are relationships that you have with friends, and those can change over time. And then there’s random events that happen. I’m going to write some about my health problems, and being in the hospital, and I’m going to write about things like coming out and finding your windshield smashed in. Stuff like that.
Do people tend to censor themselves around you, for fear of appearing badly in your comics?
I think for the most part, no. The people that know me know what I would write about, and what I wouldn’t. Even though it seems like I’ve put everything out there, there’s still an awful lot that I haven’t put out. Sometimes people have asked me not to write about things, and there are other things that they don’t even have to ask—I just know. At the same time, I don’t have people doing weird things, just so that I would write about them, either.
Are these off-limits topics something that you’d consider putting into a more fictionalized format?
I’ve considered moving on to more fictional autobiography, but right now I’m moving onto this short story collection, which is pretty straight-forward autobiographical. And then I have a highschool/college/grad school memoir that will be pretty straight-forward. That’s all the autobiography that I have in mind right now, but when all of those projects are done, and I’m looking for where to move on from there, we’ll see. I just have so much planned out, that I’m not ready to tackle that, just yet.
[Continued in Part Two.]