Monday, April 21, 2008

Little Things: A Memoir in Slices

Little Things: A Memoir in Slices
by Jeffrey Brown
Touchstone, 2008.

Garrett Martin: Little Things is subtitled A Memoir in Slices, and that's exactly what it is, a series of short stories about Jeffrey Brown's life that aim to highlight the importance of the tiny, quotidian details that make up human existence, including frequent trips to the bathroom. I'll readily admit that I'm not much of a memoir or mini-comic kind of guy. Not because I dislike them, per se, I just hardly ever feel the urge to spend money on either. So yes, I've never read Jeffrey Brown before, other than flipping through The Incredible Change-Bots at the store a few times. And I've got to say, despite appreciating Little Thing's premise and Brown's art, I do have a few reservations about this book.

But first: what are your initial thoughts?

Hillary Brown: I haven't read Jeffrey Brown's Bighead, but I do have it, and it's my impression that it's his most famed work. I was equally disappointed in parts with Little Things, although not, in some ways, entirely. I don't mind the premise, and, while I wouldn't say I read a ton of mini-comics in paper form, I'm definitely a fan of some that address more quotidian elements of life (including those by Mary Jessica Hammes, the aforementioned David Yoder, and Ryan Pequin. The thing is, you either need to keep it shorter or create something that's more of a narrative and less just one thing after another. I don't mind repetition. We all find ourselves doing the same things over and over again, like procrastinating or screwing around on the computer or going to the record store, and sometimes the routine that repetition creates can be comforting to experience, even through someone else's eyes, when it makes us feel that our worthless lives are at least shared with others in their utter mundanity. That said, there is a fine line between simply expressing the basic outlines of daily life and, um, being boring. Some of these "stories" feel a bit like listening to someone ramble on about a dream with no end and no point in sight.

GM: Right. Little Things is like talking to a friend at a bar, if your friend was a complete stranger, didn't listen to a word you said, and charged you $15 for the honor.

But so, I don't want to say that most of these stories are pointless, but, like you said, there's hardly ever much to them. Far too often Brown fails to mold his recitation of daily livin' into a compelling narrative. The stories often seem to be missing the pages where things like conclusions tend to go. And the nigh-total focus on girls, music, and drawing in coffee-shops wouldn't become boring and claustrophobic if Brown used those topics to say anything interesting or profound.

Would you agree that this book is claustrophobic, between the small cramped panels and repetitive themes and images? I pretty quickly got conditioned to expect certain things in these stories, and even when Brown breaks from his typical structure, opens up his tight panels, and moves the setting from the hipstery regions of Chicago to a national park in Washington, I kept on expecting the story to eventually involve a girl, the Decemberists, and a car crash, somehow. The story in question is a nice change of pace, but those expectations undermine it a bit.

HB: Actually, that story, about visiting his park ranger friend, might be my least favorite. It comes off like some kind of aimless hippie wandering/communing with nature that's supposed to be profound, but I would almost always rather look at cartoony drawings of people than cartoony drawings of a mountain.

Claustrophobic is a fair characterization, although he improves some toward the end of the book in creating things that are more like stories than just one incident after another. Some of the problems, admittedly, are with layout, which doesn't create clear distinctions between one story and the next. Some have title pages. Others don't. And when you have a lot of the same elements in ostensibly distinct stories, it makes it even more difficult to draw lines between them. I've heard there are 13 stories in the book, but I don't know if my count equals that or not.

All of these problems could apply almost as well to something like the Scott Pilgrim series: immature hipstery dude obsessed with comics and indie music sleeps with a series of girls, behaves stupidly, has interactions with friends and animals, not a whole lot happens. But the major differences are that 1. Bryan Lee O'Malley understands and uses story structure, and 2. He puts in jokes. Jokes make a lot forgivable. There are some parts that are funny in Little Things, mostly because of moments of self-recognition, but much of it is not. Is this an attempt at profundity? I tend to think of Jeffrey Brown as kind of a funny guy from what little I know of his stuff.

GM: You can draw some parallels with Scott Pilgrim, but I don't think they're too similar. Scott Pilgrim is fictional and takes place in a ridiculous fantasy world that just happens to look a lot like Toronto. We're supposed to think Pilgrim is immature and shallow and kind of dumb, but he's an upbeat guy and fundamentally decent so we're still interested in his growth into a normal adult, albeit one who will still happen to live in a weird manga video game. Little Things is almost smotheringly realistic, and although Brown definitely seems like a nice guy, and somebody you'd like to be friends with, he doesn't make for the most interesting of protagonists.

Have you started reading Little Nothings by Lewis Trondheim yet? I think that's a better comparison for Little Things, and not just because of the similar titles. Trondheim's book also presents small glimpses of everyday life, but his cartoons, which are almost all just a page long, are genuinely funny and incisive. Trondheim accomplishes what Brown sets out to do, but quicker, simpler, and with greater humor. Not that there isn't humor in Little Things, as you mention above, but it often gets bogged down by the details.

Getting back to the Pilgrim comparison: I do think that Brown recognizes his own relative immaturity, and his growth is a muted theme in Little Things. The final story, in which he gives up his cat in order to move in with his girlfriend and child, is a pretty clear "I have matured now" statement, and placing it at the end seems like putting a capstone on the girls 'n' Death Cab type of story. I sound pretty down on Brown, but I didn't dislike Little Things. He's obviously a really talented cartoonist, and this is a fine book, overall. I'd love to read something from him that isn't so closely focused on his real life, though, or that's edited better, or that's less about the concerns of twenty-something white urban hipsters. That last story points to a promising future, right?

HB: It might point to a promising future, but if you're going to do this kind of thing, you can't hold back so much on the personal details, can you? Maybe I'm just nosy as hell, but the abrupt jump to maturity, while clearly aiming to protect his privacy, struck me as wasted potential. Or maybe I just feel sorry for the cat, which was one of my favorite things about the book. I haven't gotten to the Trondheim yet, but it's up next.

What do you think about the messiness of the art in Little Things? For me, it can either be pleasingly unconcerned with neatness and reflective of the improvisational nature of these comics or, um, messy. I'm not the neatest person in the world, but I am compulsive, and sometimes his lettering placement or inability to fit everything into a panel or sloppiness with regard to explanation and timeline kind of bug me.

GM: I like the art. It's the best thing about this book. It perfectly fits what Brown is angling for, I think, all messy and modest while remaining technically proficient, kinda scruffy and rough around the edges but with its shit still together. I mean it's not great, or anything, and I'm not necessarily clamoring to see more, but, y'know, it's charming without being twee or disingenuous. And he draws cute cats. His lettering ain't so hot, but its scratchiness adds to the intimacy, I suppose. The hand-madedness.

And yeah, pulling the door to now that he's got a family is kind of antithetical, I guess, but I can't muster up any degree of disappointment over it. If anything, his comics would be better if they'd always been more guarded.


Jared said...

I just read both Little Things and Little Nothings, and I mostly agree with everything you guys said. I prefer the Trondheim, but I'm not sure I prefer it because it had a heavier editorial hand and was more structured and punchline-based (though those aspects certainly helped). I guess I just mean that I don't think that short and to the point is inherently better. I do really like a lot of autobiographical comics, and I think a lot of times the unguarded moments are what make them really great. I think the Brown book suffers by comparison mainly because he's relatively new at this while Trondheim's been doing this a while. I noticed that the retail price for Brown's book is like $14 though, which seems like too much for what you get.

garrett said...

I'm not saying that Brown's comics should all be a single page with a punchline, or that his editor should've intervened more. I'm saying they would be stronger if some of the fat was trimmed, and if he edited himself a bit more. Most of the stories in Little Things would be better if they were shorter and more to the point, but they'd probably be far worse (and, y'know, fundamentally different) if they were all reduced to three panels, or whatever.

hillary said...

I forgot to mention Tall Dwarfs when we were doing this post. So I'm doing that now. Kind of the most exciting page in the book.

Jared said...

Yeah, I agree with you there, Dark. Were the stories originally published elsewhere as minis or something? It definitely felt like an anthology more than like it was written as having one narrative in mind. There was definitely a lot of fat that could have been trimmed. Overall, the book just needed a stronger narrative focus. I'll be curious to see if his next book is tighter (I guess I like him enough to read more...but I do hope he reins it in a good bit).

garrett said...

and we didn't even mention the Olivia Tremor Control. what the hell is wrong with us?