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Jeffrey Brown On His Incredible Change-Bots And More

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 5, 2011 7:20PM

Ever since spotting his first book, Clumsy, at Quimby's, we've been under the spell of Jeffrey Brown. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brown moved to Chicago to pursue an MFA at the School of the Art Institute. Clumsy was his thesis project. Since then he's created dozens of mini-comics, "graphic memoirs," and other books. He even directed an animated video of the Death Cab for Cutie song "Your Heart is an Empty Room."

Brown's creations are poignant (Little Things), pithy (Minisulk), even Zen-like (Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations). But the secret to his work is that it succeeds on many levels at once. Take for example his newest book, Incredible Change-Bots 2. Not only is it a very funny, spot-on parody of the Transformers. It's also an oddly moving tale of friendship. Lots of comic book artists can draw really cool robots, but Brown makes sure they've also got a genuinely human side.

We recently caught up with Brown and asked him about moving to Chicago, his work methods, and what he's expecting from the new Transformers movie.

Chicagoist: What was the appeal in moving to Chicago when you did?

Jeffrey Brown: It had been three years since I'd graduated from college and while I was making lots of art, I wasn't doing much with it beyond showing a few friends and doing the occasional poetry reading. I was still working at the Wooden Shoe Factory, where I started working as a freshman in college. So I really felt stalled, and wanted to move out of Grand Rapids, where I'd lived all my life. I'm a creature of habit, so I tend to stick with things beyond the time for change, but I'd reached the point where I knew I needed to go somewhere else if I was going to really be an artist. Chicago made sense for a variety of reasons - I was very familiar with the city, my mom is from Illinois, my college roommate was from Chicago... most importantly, I wanted to go to art school, and SAIC was one of the schools I'd looked at for undergrad, and even back then they seemed receptive to my work and like a place that I could fit in with.

Chicagoist: Was your time at the Art Institute well spent? What did the School teach you?

JB: It was well spent. It certainly didn't go the way I expected, but it couldn't have worked out much better for me. My first year was in a way wasted time, spent metaphorically banging my head on the wall. Once I started drawing comics, a lot of things clicked, and I started working with more of the writing program, which was really helpful. Basically, I learned what I wanted to do with art, what I didn't want to do, new ways of thinking about what art was for me... if not for going to SAIC, I wouldn't have had the same connection with Chris Ware, and I'm guessing I wouldn't be drawing comics, or maybe even art at all, except as a lingering hobby.

Chicagoist: Do you draw in order to express what you want to say or in order to find out what you want to say? In other words, how much of your drawing is about discovery and how much is about wanting to communicate something to your readers?

JB: I'm much more about having ideas I want to get at expressing, and finding the right way to communicate them. I try to leave room for discovery, but usually within that context of whatever ideas a piece is about. There's been a couple times where I've started writing about subjects and then realized what I was really getting at was something else--Funny Misshapen Body, for example, was initially just about being sick and going to school (high school/college/art school), but as I worked on it I came to realize it was really about finding myself and becoming an artist, and so I went back and refocused it. Occasionally there's discovery in the drawing itself also, but since I usually have things planned out pretty well before I start drawing, that's also still within that context of an initial idea I want to express.

Chicagoist: Someone once wrote that the best view for one's work desk is a window looking out onto a brick wall. What's your preferred work environment? Do you like something going on in the background, like music or a TV, or do you prefer peace and quiet?

JB: Personally, I like distraction. If I'm working at home I usually have at least TV or video on, occasionally along with music playing. It's one of the reasons I like to go to coffee shops to draw, where I can put headphones on--again, either with music or video of some sort playing--and then have the kind of outside world background noise that I can absorb without paying any kind of real attention to. I tend to lean toward music if I'm in the writing portion of a project, and with video, I tend to stick to one of three things: sports, fluff, or stuff I've seen before. I can't really watch things I haven't seen before or that I'm really interested in, because they can become too distracting.

Chicagoist: How did Incredible Change-Bots come about? Why a Part 2?

JB: I grew up watching the original Transformers cartoons, playing with the toys, reading the Marvel comic books. In high school I had the cassette soundtrack to the Transformers animated film and some friends were making fun of me, saying, "What's on that tape? Sixty minutes of chee-choo-chee-chook?" And so years later I was doodling in my sketchbook and came up with the Incredible Change-Bots, making fun of that aspect, and later just everything I found amusing and lovable about those old cartoons. The first book had more straightforward parallels to the Transformers, but after that I worked with the characters more and they became something more of their own thing. The first book was well received, and I enjoyed drawing the Change-Bots, and had an idea for what the sequel would be about, so I went ahead and did it. It's more about drawing things I enjoy, and following my own muse, so don't be surprised if I keep drawing them until I get sick of it.

Chicagoist: Speaking of Transformers, are you dreading the newest movie? How do feel about the so-called resurgence of the Transformers, and its invasion of Chicago as a location for filming?

JB: I wouldn't say I'm dreading it, but I don't know that I'm looking forward to it particularly. I'll probably see it, and hope to be entertained. I think the resurgence is fine, even if a lot of it misses what I really love about the original Transformers cartoons. I view the films as their own things that just happen to have the same name, I guess. I would've liked to have visit the set, but it might be fun to see Chicago in the film, as long as the film isn't trying so hard to be funny as the second movie was.

Chicagoist: Tell us about how you got involved with the Penguin edition of Ethan Frome?

JB: I got an email from Paul Buckley, the designer who curates that series, asking if I'd like to do it. I know they hand pick artists for each book but I'm not sure how they arrived upon having me to do that particular book. I'm proud of it, though, and really happy to have been able to be part of the series.

Chicagoist: Is your work process different when you're a "gun for hire"?

JB: In most ways it's the same, there's just more outside input, and needing to be open to adapt my ideas to someone else's parameters. I tend to put a bit more pressure on myself, and freeze up a little bit with deadlines. I still try to make whatever I'm working on my own thing, but I'm more aware of that outside influence, and operate less in my own head. I still try to influence things in little ways, like presenting a few options, one of which I'm really behind, and others that are in some cases drawn in ways I know they'll pass on.

Chicagoist: Do you still write poetry?

JB: I don't ... it's very much a different mindset to write with just words like that. At the same time, I feel the way I make comics and the way my comics work (the autobiographical ones, anyway) is much more aligned with poetry than prose. I subtitled Clumsy as a novel to make a joke and as a way to wonder about what it actually was supposed to be, but in retrospect I think it might have been better labeled as "A Collection Of Poems About Love." At this point, because I'm making a living from comics, I tend to spend any time I have to work on art making comics - it's like I feel guilty if I'm doing something else.

Chicagoist: What are some new things you want to try?

JB: Someday I'd like to write some straightforward fiction, or at least, fiction that isn't parody or humor. I'd like to try writing comics for other artists maybe. And I'd like to make some horror movies.