Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing
by Box Brown
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.