Online Edition: Spring 2004

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Clumsy

Top Shelf Productions ($10)

Unlikely

Top Shelf Productions ($14.95)

Jeffrey Brown

by Jennifer Przybylski

Autobiography is the longtime province of underground comics, and pioneers such as Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, and Joe Matt alternately bore variations on the discursive, sometimes sour, human condition. Licentious tics, relationship fumbles, and self-loathing are the elements of their style; read it and be glad there is no marked resemblance.

Part of a more recent wave of self-aware diarists, Jeffrey Brown is not like any of the above roster. While his work is equally unexpurgated—girlfriend-boyfriend sex, drug use, and drinking to excess appear throughout—his panels are more about documenting shared intimacies in a soft, searching light. Clumsy, Brown's debut graphic novel, records Jeff and Theresa's long-distance relationship. While one might be initially tempted to criticize the rudimentary drawing-style and crooked panels, the unschooled manner serves the narrative perfectly. Take the pyramid of spirited lines that jets from the rear of jockeying stock cars as the couple go lap for lap—the simplistic measure of velocity from a high school Physical Science text, and a fitting visual metaphor in Brown's nostalgia-driven work.

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Clumsy is like listening to a personal account of a friend's break-up without the padding of consolation. All of the unthinking relationship breaches are catalogued: remote phone conversations; needing the other person more than they need you; trying to control their behaviors. But there are some really warm moments too: Jeff helps Theresa paint a table full of "Kitty Pots" for her pottery sale; Theresa cuts Jeff's hair and he actually likes it; the couple attend a taping of "The Jerry Springer Show," whooping and guffawing at the ridiculousness. Despite their closeness, however, it is easy to divine when the pulling away begins—a tribute to the universal nature of this story. Brown dedicates the book "for everyone who has ever loved and lost."

Unlikely is the aptly named prequel to Clumsy. Brown again recounts a failed pairing, this time with a cute girl named Allisyn. The style and panel structure remain loose, although Unlikely maintains a linear movement while Clumsy's moments seemingly dissolved into each other, moving forwards and backwards.

Unlikely reminds us of when hanging out at a friend's house might end with five people, still clothed, in one bed. Relationships aren't so much pursued but fallen into; the progress from marathon phone calls to uneasy lovers is a natural one. Yet the feeling that Jeff is more invested than the troubled, evasive Allysin is apparent almost from the start. The supportive bubble he extends to her is easy to understand, even when the reach is smacked away. Some of it is almost shaming, especially when Jeff and Allysin attempt to sleep with each other (it's his first time) and it goes badly: the stark panel of Jeff crying in the dark while Allysin sleeps is numbing. Movie tickets, Necco Valentine Hearts and a copy of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" are all lovingly rendered in miniature on the endpapers as "what is left" from their relationship. The knowledge Jeff arrives at might have come sooner if he were older, if this wasn't his first time. The dedication here reads "To everyone who ends up looking at the sky."

Jeffrey Brown's work is not precious, broken-heart type stuff, but instead renders the terrific blanches and indelible happiness one can inflict upon another. Perfect love is a ruse imagined by those who have never fallen. Together Clumsy and Unlikely consider the brilliance, the missteps, and the wrenching terminus.

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Spring 2004 Table of Contents