Friday, October 23, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing

Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing
by Box Brown
self-published, 2008

This is the first installation in a series of guest spots to liven things up around here. Garrett and I (Hillary) are also planning on doing some interviews and suchlike.

Hillary Brown: I probably tend to restrict my comics reading to stuff I can buy on Amazon even more so than the average fan. I tend to get easily frustrated with comics shops, and I'm often unwilling to pay for shipping, plus I can rarely stand the awkwardness of the convention, in which I'm expected to (gulp) interact with the artists and writers who make this stuff. All of which means the fact that I went out of my way to find Box Brown's Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing kind of a statement. I mean, I didn't work that hard. I got lucky in that someone had ordered it at our local comics shop and decided he didn't want it after all, and I happened to see it lying on the counter. I still had to wait for an answer, though, and return to the store to purchase it later. And I think we can call that commitment. Also, I meant to order it on the Internet. I just forgot. So I read Brown's webcomic, "Bellen," on his livejournal, and I guess it's just slowly grown on me to where it's one of my very favorite things. The jokes are pretty simple, and there's nothing high-concept here--just a couple of nice, lazy people going through life in a nice, lazy way and dealing with occasional frustrations but, luckily, having one another. That makes it sound absolutely vomitous, but it's not. The book a) sets up the strip in that it's a bit more obviously autobiographical and b) shows a good bit of growth from beginning to end, despite being short enough to read on a bus ride. So I like it too, quite a lot, although not as much as the webcomic. But this is just gushing. Give it to me straight. What's to hate?

Casey Westerman: This book gives me the idea that maybe there's a phylogeny of autobiographical comics that's being recapitulated in Box Brown's ontogeny. The problem is that, reading this, I can't help but compare him unfavorably to a bunch of guys that I'm not too crazy about. He used to be Joe Matt (thanks for the history of your masturbation, dude), now he's in a James Kochalka phase, and maybe if he works this alter-ego thing for a while he might evolve into Seth.

We're mostly talking about the book, right? I've checked in on Bellen once or twice in the last couple of years, but I'm not a regular reader. Maybe Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing is his juvenilia, but it came out this year (thanks to the Xeric Foundation, I see), so the author's clearly willing to stand behind it.

The book is kind of maddening in its lack of ambition and imagination. The narratives of the book fall into a few categories:

1. Cute conversations between Ben and Ellen.
2. Ben remembers his awkward youth with chagrin.
3. Ben addresses the reader directly to express anxieties.
4. Ben's happy fantasy of himself as an old man.

I think #4 is significant there; in this fantasy, apparently nothing has happened in Ben's life since he met Ellen and got happy. He's acting as though he won the game of life and can now retire.

The autobiographical confusion here is probably the most interesting thing about the book--for me, at least. Brown goes out of his way to explain that he created Ben, but also that Ben's just like Box Brown. So what's the point, and the effect, of underlining the difference between author and "I"? Most of what happens is too mundane to invent, even when it's funny. Should we read this as fiction?

Maybe everything here is really written for an audience of one. Ellen here is relentlessly kind, sweet, cute; the whole book reads like Brown's love letter to a girlfriend. I get it, she's lovely, he adores her, but what do we know about her? She feeds him a lot of straight lines and she listens when he talks. I picture Brown finishing a page, handing it to "Ellen," and smiling shyly as she pats him on the head and says "ooh, this one's good, too!"

Brown's got a lot in common with Kochalka, but Kochalka's less mopey and more dangerous as a main character; Jeffrey Brown's got more bite; Chester Brown (lots of Browns!), when he digs into his own past, really draws blood. Box Brown (the author, not his character) is so shy and mild in his narcissism that it's like reading Charlie Brown's journal comics. He'd like to be loved for his sincerity and his earnestness, but if you want to pity him, that's OK too.

So what point am I missing, here? I don't hate this book, but Brown seems like an embryonic form of something that I really wouldn't seek out. Is the online comic a different experience? Do I need to like this guy before reading about his life story, his deepest fears, and his secret wishes?

And we haven't talked about the art yet, either.

HB: And also, you know, you kind of hate autobiographical comics, so I'm not sure I should have pushed this on you. Okay, but here's why I gave it to you. The reason Box Brown created Ben, as I think he explains (in the foreword?) is because he was miserable, so he made himself a little avatar and gave him a girlfriend and made him happy and then, somehow, his real-life self found a girlfriend and got happy. Now that, to me, is a bit like the theme of Infinite jest (which we had a slow re-read of earlier this year and last). If you follow the rules that are laid out, they work. Is that magical thinking? Yeah, kind of, and I'm sure its track record is nowhere close to 100%, but, again, the themes of Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing as it interacts with its author's life somewhat mirror that philosophy, which I think is interesting.

I'm also a big fan of the quiet worldview. Imagining being a happy old person, despite your current anxieties, is really nice to me. So I might just be appreciating this book because of its movement from misery to coziness, a story arc I kind of like, and one that the art (check) plays into. Brown renders Ben and Ellen in a soft, fluffy style, all big round heads and fat arms, with watercolor washes that, yes, bring to mind Seth, only the story isn't about the continuation of loneliness and depression (unlike Seth or Joe Matt) but about victory over it. The online comic is, if anything, even less big-arc-driven, especially as Brown has taken to doing three-panel strips of late, as opposed to the longer ones he used to, but I suppose there's a different experience in reading three panels once a day, in a moment you grab, than in sitting down with a book of the stuff.

CW: I don't hate autobiography! Just looking over at my shelf, I see stuff by Alison Bechdel, Julie Doucet, Eddie Campbell, Chester Brown, David B. In every case except the last one, I prefer those artists' nonfiction stuff to their fiction (haven't read enough of B.'s fiction to say whether it's better than Epileptic. But can we draw a distinction between memoir comics and journal comics? Memoir gets to draw on the artist's whole life; journal comics are usually "here's what happened to me today." Drew Weing and Kate Beaton both do good journal stuff, but they do better work in fiction. I don't want to reduce this discussion to a matter of taste, but this kind of low-dose, low-stakes comic only works for me when it's lagniappe, a diversion from a creator's more ambitious project.

Box Brown gives us "Ben's" life in ten pages, 114 panels. It's all prologue, and he's rushing through it to get to the good stuff, which for him is the cute thing his girlfriend said after he grabbed her boob. If he spent ten years as a functioning alcoholic and druggie, and in that time also held down a corporate job or two, he's probably got some entertainingly sordid stories to tell, but that's not what interests him.

I don't have too much to say about the art--the stuff on his website now is a little bit slicker than what's here--but the only time it really varies here is in his ten-page autobio, in which all the characters are even more basically drawn, with stick-figure arms. John Campbell, Matt Feazell, and Don Hertzfeldt all do great stuff with stick figures. Why's Brown doing it here? Is he trying to save time, or is he acknowledging that he doesn't care about the past in more than a superficial way?

It's in this book's second story that he sort of explains the "Ben" character: "Ben was in love and sober and slightly happier. A fantasy. And slowly I became him." OK, but we don't see that happen. The first story: Ben's in love and has just moved to Philadelphia. Brown, according to the author's note, is "in love and living in Philadelphia, PA." Either the comics in this book post-date Brown's happy recovery, or else his specific fantasy came very specifically true. But there's nothing outside of those three sentences to suggest that there's any distance between the author and the character. I don't think that qualifies as a "theme" of the book. And I don't get the comparison to Infinite Jest you're making. Don Gately recovered through slavish adherence to a set of rules that he didn't understand or enjoy. Box Brown recovered by imagining himself happier, not that we get to see this process in any detail. What rules did he follow?

This book reminds me of Liz Prince's Will You Still Love Me if I Wet the Bed and Delayed Replays (another two books that I borrowed from you!). In 2005 she put out a book of cute incidents between her and her boyfriend, and in 2007 another one--from which the boyfriend's ominously absent. What happens if Ellen's real-world counterpart breaks up with Brian "Box" Brown--do things continue for Ellen and Ben just like before, or does she vanish without explanation, or does Ben fall off the wagon? Would we have a "Garfield Without Garfield" situation? Would Ben angrily correct the official record and tell us all the things about Ellen that he actually couldn't stand?

It's easier to see this book as wishful thinking than as the result of victory over depression. I think he's come to a truce with his depression--he'd rather be dull and unemployed than drunk and miserable. He fantasizes about survival and sufficiency. If Brown was writing fan-fiction about himself, why didn't he take it farther? Instead of just writing himself sober and coupled, why didn't also he write himself as a glamorous spy or a secret vampire or, I dunno, a forensic icthyologist?

HB: Fair enough. Memoir is more shaped than journal. I like both. Much as I appreciate a well-constructed story (and I do), I'm kind of into the meandering mundanity of everyday existence. All your points are good ones. This book has flaws, but I forgive them. And here's the IJ connection: fake it till you make it. Behavior becomes (or can become) reality. The use of something is what it is used for. The surface will eventually osmose into the core. Is that a bit too The Secret? Ugh. I suppose it is. But it also kind of works, as long as your goal isn't being a glamorous spy or whatnot; that is, as long as it's realistic. I mean, what's so bad about coming to a truce with your depression? It's better than being depressed.

CW: OK, but again... the surface-osmosis thing takes place on one page of the book, in a few lines, and I really don't think that's the subject of the comic. Most of what happens here is that Ben acts cute for Ellen, and she validates him.

Making a truce with your depression is obviously a better life-plan than succumbing to it, but who'd expect that plan to lead to interesting art?

We've both read Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings. Do you like this in the same way you like that? Trondheim's got a wicked sense of humor, interesting friends, a busy professional life, and a family with better things to do than prop him up. If Bellen is Brown's wish-fulfillment comic, why hasn't he even written a version of himself with a job or some non-girlfriend friends?

Should we wrap this conversation up? I'm an academic kind of critic, you know; I can write to any length. And I really don't hate this book, but I could go on for days about not loving it. Thanks for letting me borrow it!

HB: Heh. Yes, it seems like we're getting to the point of wrapping up, and I do appreciate your thoughtful points, even if, as these kinds of things frequently do, it's ended in a draw. You're completely right that Trondheim's better, but Trondheim's better than most people. If I only stuck to the most awesomest art, I'd be missing out on a lot of stuff.

Casey Westerman read Marvel comics from 1987 to 1991, Vertigo comics from 1994 until the end of Sandman, and Love & Rockets since 2007. He lives in Athens, Georgia.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1

Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1
by Michael Kupperman
Fantagraphics 2009

Hillary Brown: It's going to be difficult to talk about this book because whenever you start analyzing humor, someone always pops up to say, "Why can't you just leave it alone and let be funny? Explaining it ruins the joke!" At least it would count as a comment, though, so I'm going to proceed to try to unpack Michael Kupperman's awesomeness. This larger version of Tales Designed to Thrizzle doesn't have a huge variety of jokes, despite its size. In other words, if you don't think he's funny, I'm not sure this book is going to convince you, unless your convictions are worn down by repetition. I know that I happen to find minor variations on the same joke almost endlessly hilarious if I like the joke at all to begin with, but that premise is important. So what do we have here? 1. Unexpected vulgarity, which I love. It's hard to do well, but Kupperman's "nut bra" strip in particular milks the device extremely well. 2. Surrealism. Some strips don't really go anywhere. Some (many) result from throwing together two or more unexpected things, almost at random. 3. Obsessions. We all think some things are inherently funny. Kupperman likes the word "grandpa," historical characters, shout-outs to the silliness of the past in general (there's going to be another whole category about this in just a second), and so on. 4. Both nostalgia and the mocking of nostalgia. There is a great affection for the past in these pages, as well as a grasp of its weirdness and also, to some extent, a grasp of how weird it is to be nostalgic about this stuff. 5. Verbal humor. These strips are beautifully drawn, all full of patterns and a commercial art look, but Kupperman's humor would come across almost as well without visuals at all (as witnessed by his Twitter feed, which you convinced me to subscribe to and which features at least three or four good jokes a day). I'm sure there are more categories. Let me turn this over to you and let you ramble on for a bit.

Garrett Martin: You just ruined every single joke Kupperman's ever told. Or written down and illustrated. Or whatever. Maybe not. You're actually right, as usual, and probably too damn right. Kinda like Monty Python, Kupperman's comics are smart and absurd and fascinated with the past, but have yet to be destroyed by decades of recitation by unsavory high schoolers. It is hard to do nonsense well, to make it genuinely funny and not just some desperate ploy to seem weird or quirky, but Kupperman is nonsensical in the best possible way. You can often suss out some form of logic if you need to, but even at their most abstract Kupperman's ideas and language somehow tend to be inherently hilarious. Not every gag succeeds, but the failure rate's surprisingly low. He's maybe a little too obsessed with a few things; I feel bad saying anything even remotely negative about the mostly brilliant Twain and Einstein strips, but Kupperman maybe relies on them a bit too much. And even though it's his most famous bit, Snake 'n' Bacon's far from the best thing here. Speaking of which, did you see the Adult Swim pilot?

HB: I did, and I kind of understand why it didn't get picked up. I mean, it was late, and I was drunk, but it wasn't really clicking in the same way as the strip, and I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's that the specific absurdity of Snake 'n' Bacon works much better when they don't have real voices. There's something about the static nature of their conversations, which consist of repeating the same thing over and over again, no matter what they've been asked, a la the popular definition of insanity (but also, of course, a realistic interpretation of crazy detective pairs; logically, a snake and a piece of bacon can't be detectives or travel through time or have thoughts, so you can see this recurring strip as a bit of the real world interacting with Kupperman's silly concepts), that translates much better in the flat medium of the comic strip than to TV. On TV, it all seems very Robert Smigel, whereas in comics it seems very much his own thing.

GM: Not that being like Robert Smigel is a bad thing. And obviously there's a kinship there; Kupperman did shorts for TV Funhouse back in the day. Which I really regret not watching when it was on.

Now that I think about it the word "obsession" doesn't quite fit. Okay, yeah, it's easy to assume that's the case, but I'm thinking it's maybe more procedural, like he's running through all the different variations he can think of on a legitimately funny concept. Whereas other creators edit more and keep some ideas on the drawing board or sketch book while searching for the best possible expression, Kupperman's unafraid of overdoing it, or appearing obsessive. Of course most people struggle to make up one good joke, much less dozens about the same subject, like Kupperman.

I'm struggling to think of anything to say other than "hey, it's funny!". Okay, it's smart, too. What else?

HB: What I want to know is if there's anyone out there who doesn't think this stuff is funny. I've done a quick Google, and I can't find anyone who's expressed articulate objections, so maybe it's only the cranky and stupid who don't like it. Everyone else seems to react with glee whenever he has something new. Um, we could talk about black and white versus color too, maybe?

GM: People who wouldn't find it funny would never pick it up in the first place. I'd like to think the audiences for Kupperman and, say, Batman & the Outsiders are mutually exclusive.

I wouldn't say the black & white is absolutely vital, but it does strengthen the nostalgia factor. It wouldn't feel as much like old commercial art if it was in color.

Oh wait, he colorized the stuff for the book? I've got the single issues. Well, shit, tell me, was the color a good choice?

HB: Ha! Yes. It's in color. I don't think it adds a ton (except that it maybe makes some of the background patterns more noticeable), but it certainly doesn't detract. The thing is, there's very little to talk about there either. Michael Kupperman: squelching debate.

GM: Oh wait, we can talk about his structural gimmicks, like the issue where you're supposed to read one page every hour. Uh, I didn't do that. Did you?

HB: Pssh. No. I like them, but I also completely ignore their instructions. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? i.e., be amused at the device and proceed in your own fashion?

GM: No, I think it's absolutely pivotal that everybody follow his directions with complete fidelity. Maybe we should go back and reread that issue one page an hour just to see what difference it makes.

HB: It would make the book last longer. Which wouldn't be bad. The only real problem with Kupperman is that I read this book in no time at all.

GM: Thankfully it's all highly rereadable.

Is there a funny comic renaissance going on right now? Kupperman, Onstad, and Gurewitch are all funnier than anything I remember reading in the '90's.

HB: It's like it's okay to chill out again. I just got R. Sikoryak's Masterpiece Comics in the mail yesterday (due to the awesome Drawn + Quarterly sale that's been going on), and I assume that's another example--it looks like it's going to be awesome. I do feel like more and more different kinds of comics are getting published, as sales continue to do pretty well, and that leads to funny books as well as to whatever else.

GM: Okay, Bagge was pretty funny, and some of Dorkin's stuff, but on a totally different level than the three dudes I mentioned. Maybe it's not that there's more comedy happening, but smarter and artier comedy? And yeah, maybe the medium's hit a point where sales and respect are big enough to let some humor through.

HB: Or that more comedy includes smarter and artier comedy. Maybe you can now make enough money off being a comics dude or dudette (although still, you know, basically nothing) not to have to be angry all the time?

GM: You still get angry when you're rich, just about different stuff. Some day Kupperman will make some totally hilarious strips bitching about taxes, welfare, and illegal aliens.

HB: I have no doubt that someday, when I'm a cranky old person listening to talk radio and hating on some Mexicans, I'd love those strips as much as I love these.