The Girlfriend Trilogy

Brown, Jeffrey. Clumsy (2002); Unlikely (2003); AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy (2004) (Top Shelf).

Also: Be a Man (Top Shelf, 2004); Miniature Sulk (Top Shelf, 2005); These Things These Things (self-published, 2005).

Oddly, after starting this piece, I read a review of AEIOU (the most recent book here) that mentioned how reviewing an artist’s work en masse “…can definitely lead to some insightful criticisms but sometimes it can be unfair to the artist, especially since most of them would want each book to stand on their own.” I’d like to think that I can achieve the former without the latter (or at least only in a very small case).

When I received Jeffrey Brown’s latest book AEIOU in the mail, I read it cover to cover in one sitting. I think I’ve read all his books that way. While they are highly episodic, I’ve found them hard to put down before finishing. The most recent book felt different than how I remembered his other similar books, so I decided I’d read them all again (along with some smaller pamphlets) and see what comes to light.

Clumsy, Unlikely, and AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy form a loose autobiographical trilogy about the first three women Jeffrey had sex with. They share many qualities both thematic, formal, and visual, thus the trilogy, but each can also easily stand as its own book. There is no need to read these books in order, but doing so does add to the interest.

Clumsy is a fragmented novel about Jeffrey’s long distance relationship with a women he calls Theresa (I’m not sure if he is using any pseudonyms, certainly to anyone who knows him the identity of the woman would be obvious and to anyone else not). The story is told through short (mostly one page) scenes, each with its own title (as if they were serialized and are here collected). There is very little indication of direct chronological connection between the scenes. One quickly realizes that the organization is not completely chronological. We see Jeffrey and Theresa together from the first page but on page twenty-three is the scene entitled “The Very First Time I Saw Theresa” (he thought she looked like a dirty hippy). The space between the scenes crosses time (forwards and backwards, long and short) and place (Michigan, Chicago, Florida, New York). The back of the book contains a crude map annotated with a number of dated events. Reaching this at the end of the book retrospectively adds some structure to the fragments, but there is no easy correspondence between the scenes and the map. We read the fragments as a product of memory, things are in order, but sometimes ones skips forwards or backwards as one remembers or forgets. The map only puts it all together in the most factual and objective way.

What we see in the scenes are the small events that make up a relationship: conversations, daily life activities, going out, parties, hanging out with friends, sex, arguments, waiting, and all the little ups and downs. A great number of scenes occur in bed or on the phone. Jeffrey shows us just about anything; one is inclined to think that he held nothing back (though the fragmented nature of the work makes it obvious that much is missing). Sex is portrayed in a non-erotic real way and takes up a large part of the story. He shows himself depressed, romantic, irrational, happy, angry, childish, kind. Through these everyday events and moods the work is made most interesting and relevant to all kinds of readers. This is a kind of extreme opposite to the mainstream superhero genre in many ways.

The story obviously (you know there are sequels about other women) leads to their break up, which seems a long time coming by the time you reach the end of the book. While this is clearly Jeffrey’s side of the story, I don’t think he places blame on himself or Theresa for the failing of their relationship. We do see the end only from his side, a sad man sitting in bed crying. Interestingly, this is not the last scene. Perhaps to rub the pain in that much more, the last two scenes show their first time having sex and then a phone conversation where they talk about marriage–by that point bitter sweet memories.

Jeffrey’s artwork has been described many different ways, and I’ll have to throw in my adjectives: unrefined but clear. While one is never confused as to what the images are, the art is rough, just this side of John Porcellino’s but less fluid (Porcellino uses a lot more curves). There is almost no line variation; its highly likely the whole thing is drawn with a single technical or rapidograph pen. Even the few black areas are sketchy and obviously filled in with the same pen.

A skim through the book’s 224 pages shows only one page that deviates from a standard six panel layout. This layout creates a regular rhythm to the pages. Panels are equally weighted; like his examination of everyday details, each little moment (panel) is an equivalent part of the whole picture. As I’ve lately been thinking about panel transitions using the McCloud classification, I note that there is a predominant use of the moment-to-moment and action-to-action transitions. Scenes are frequently a series of 5 moment-to-moment transitions with a single perspective on Jeffrey or Jeffrey and Theresa. Even the action-to-action transitions most often maintain the same perspective on the characters. Most scene transitions occur over the page breaks. There are very few subject-to-subject transitions and as far as I can see no aspect-to-aspect. The predominant transitions and use of a single perspective gives the scenes a slow pace and scale, not unsimilar to the unmoving camera work of Ozu or Jarmusch.

Having established my description of Clumsy as a baseline for the trilogy, I’ll move onto the other volumes. Unlikely, subtitled “How I Lost My Virginity” on the back of the volume, tells the story of Jeffrey’s relationship with Allisyn, the first women he had sex with.

Late into Unlikely (204-5) we see a scene that also appears at the beginning of Clumsy (3) (though the woman’s name is changed to Kristyn it is clearly the same scene). In Clumsy it is called “My Last Night with Kristyn” and in Unlikely “The Last Night”. This places Unlikely chronologically previous to Clumsy. In a way, if one were to look at Jeffrey, the character, psychologically, Unlikely provides some clues to certain behaviors in Clumsy (particularly his reactions to his girlfriend’s drug use).

Unlikely is told in a similar way to Clumsy, except it has on average longer scenes and is chronologically organized. At the beginning we see Jeffrey meeting Allisyn and at the end we see what seems to be their last meeting. The events in between follow a lot of the same threads as in Clumsy, though I think Allisyn ends up looking much worse than Theresa. Again he draws out the tiny ups and down and, having read the previous volume, we can see the repetitious patterns that we all find in our relationships with others.

His drawing style improved between the two books. While the drawings are still rather unrefined it is more clearly becoming a style that looks less unskilled and more purposeful. A second thinner pen is added to the drawings, allowing the use of more line work for shading and a tendency to shade a whole panel with lines to represent night or darkness. The panels are much fuller than in Clumsy and this inclusion of more things and textures adds to the recorded life aspect of the book. Unlike many pared down comics drawing, we see the lamp in the background and the boxes or cds or whatever is there. The less realistic drawing style still allows us to relate to Jeffrey and Allisyn visually. Drawn too realistically they would be too singularly individual.

The six panel page remains the exclusive layout of the book, but a greater use of changing perspective is evident. A large number of unchanging perspectives are used, but they are put to better use as a stylistic, mood creating device rather than just being the norm.

One really nice (albeit in a sad way) element of Unlikely are the illustrations inside the covers: one is labeled “Things of mine she still has” and the other “What is left”. The latter, like the map in Clumsy, provides a different kind of organization to the book (through things) by annotating the things left with page numbers corresponding to their appearance in the book. While I’m mentioning things outside the story and art, I should note that each of these books is a wonderfully small size (AEIOU could easily fit in a pocket).

AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy tells the story of Jeffrey and Sophia. This clearly takes place post Clumsy. It’s organization is somewhere between the previous two. While the scenes (still individually titled) move chronologically through the relationship, they are more fragmentary both within and among themselves. The scenes are also considerably longer in page count and in chronological time covered. Contrasted to the other two books we don’t actually see Jeffrey and Sophia break up in this book. They kind of break up but keep seeing each other and sleeping with each other. In the end, there is no resolution. One could assume they were still dating were it not for a note at the end of the book indicating the contrary.

AEIOU breaks the 6 panel page of the other books. The pages most often hold 2 panels, one above the other, or even occasionally just one panel in the center. This slows down the pacing of the book considerably. Looking at the pages it is evident that they are laid out as two page spreads. There is a layout and shading consistency across almost every page spread that unifies the pages visually. This gives the book an overall attractiveness when one turns to any page.

The panel transitions are also considerably different from the other books. He uses a lot more action, scene, and subject transitions (still no aspect ones to speak of) within the individually titled scenes, giving them a greater length of time and a different pacing (which works well with the changed pacing of the fewer panels on the page). The longer moment-to-moment sequences are still present, though less often, and are used to greater effect (particularly in contrast to the faster sequences) to slow down the story. There is also a greater variety in perspectives even within those slower sequences.

The art is again more in its own, skillful in its rough style. More areas of black are used (perhaps because the girl has dark hair) and also many more night scenes done with parallel line shading across the panel. It gives the art a stronger appearance all around, but the occasional pages that eschew the smaller lines, the areas of dark, or the details and thus look more like work from Clumsy create a jarring unpleasant contrast.

Visually and artistically AEIOU is (as it should be, being the most recent) the most skillfully done of the books. As for the story/writing the books are all mostly equal. While telling a very similar story in each, Jeffrey manages to make each both different and the same. He shows the way things repeat and the way they are different. He shows all the embarrassment and confusion and ups and downs. One can’t help but think of one’s own experiences even if they are not directly parallel. We see the way people struggle to hold on to relationships and love even in the face of failure and ongoing troubles. He also has an eye for the tiny things that make us happy or sad, that love and relationships bring to the surface of memory even though they are usually forgotten.

After three of these books the concept is rather played out though. Where else can he go with this theme? A few short interviews I’ve found indicate he is planning on moving on from the relationship book, and a few of his other recent publications point in that direction.

Be a Man is a parodic companion to Clumsy. In it Jeffrey takes some of the scenes from the book and rewrites them to make himself appear tougher and more manly (i.e. an asshole guy). Apparently people were reading the book and saying he wasn’t manly, so he wrote this as a response. It’s an interesting and dangerous idea to parody oneself. Jeffrey does it successfully (and hilariously). If you’ve read Clumsy, Be a Man makes a great companion follow-up. The art style fits better with Unlikely or AEIOU though.

Miniature Sulk is a collection of shorter stories, one pagers, and gags that are wildly inconsistent. It begins with a sequence of seemingly autobiographical strips from his childhood. Following that are all kinds of various things (including at least one featuring Sophia from AEIOU), autobiography, fantasy, parody, gags. I’d hazard a guess that they are from a wide range of times. I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting or worthwhile, especially in light of what I have come to expect from the artist.

The recent (drawn earlier this year) mini-comic “These Things These Things” seems to best point the way to newer work by Jeffrey and as a bonus provides a kind of endcap to AEIOU. The book begins with what seems to be the end of his relationship with Sophia in the form of a visit to her in Minnesota during which he buys an Andrew Bird cd (a musician I am not familiar with but if you have iTunes, his stuff is available in the music store to preview). The story skips ahead a year to a subsequent trip to Minnesota for some kind of comics tour/signing with a bunch of recognizable artist (Anders Nilsen, Sammy Harkham (who sports a nice large beard), Josh Simmons, Southern Salazar). In the car they listen to the “new” Andrew Bird cd. The story skips again a year, and Jeffrey hears a song in the coffee shop where he draws. He spends time trying to identify it and discovers again Andrew Bird. We see Jeffrey with another girlfriend, then a break-up (this time he does it). In another epilogue scene we learn that all three of the women from the previous books got married to the guy they dated after Jeffrey. He finds solace in the music. Sorry for all the plot summary, but I wanted to show the way the story has moved from a relationship focus, which can be very insular to a focus on music, which, by tracing the occurrences, allows Jeffrey to expand the range of events and time periods. It is clearly a progression on the story level.

The art remains in a six panel page layout. This time the scenes are not differentiated by titles or broken up by page. Jeffrey adds narrative captions to the work, which is something unseen in the three other books. This allows a clearer demarcation of time and place (“Minnesota again, one year later”) and comments on events (“In her eyes, we’re just friends at this point, although I don’t realize it.”) The use of captions makes the story both more specific and more distant. The time and place moves the story from the more ambiguous world of the trilogy (where we are not always sure where or when something is happening), but the other captions give the story a more distant, looking back, element. It’s not so directly here and now.

The drawing style, panel layouts, and panel transitions are very similar to AEIOU. It looks really good, reads smoothly. After the disappointment of Miniature Sulk and the superhero parody Bighead (which I am not discussing here), this mini-comic renewed my interest in finding out what Jeffrey will do next and how his work will evolve.

Follow the link to Top Shelf above or the self-published link for ways to order any of the books.