Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown has had a busy few years, from new installments of his Transformers parody The Incredible Change-Bots to co-writing the indy hit Save the Date to his bestselling Star Wars parodies Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess – which have hit the top of the bestseller list on Amazon and other book outlets.
Now, Brown’s returned to his autobiographical comics roots with A Matter of Life from Top Shelf, a look at fatherhood, religion, and other pressing issues – with plenty of laughs to boot. We talked to Brown about his new book, and got some exciting news about his new Star Wars book due in September, Jedi Academy – and how there might be even more Star Wars in his future.
Newsarama: Jeff, tell us about A Matter of Life. That question sounded unintentionally loaded.
Jeffrey Brown: A Matter Of Life is a book I've been thinking about for a long time. It started out with a desire to write about some of my experiences growing up in the church, with a father who's a minister.
I wanted to find the right tone - something questioning, not dogmatic, not judgmental, but also something that expressed how I think about those issues religion tries to deal with. The book is similar in structure to my first autobiographical book, Clumsy, where things aren't arranged chronologically, and the book is composed of shorter segments that could often stand alone as one or two page stories, all of it focused on the smaller moments of life.
Nrama: You deal with some big themes in this book. Tell us a bit about how it came together.
Brown: By the time I felt ready to start writing this book, I was a father myself, and as I started working on the book I realized that a big part of what I was writing about was fatherhood - my relationship with my dad, and my relationship with my son.
As far as the religious theme goes, part of figuring that out was listening to my wife… she pointed out that I shouldn't be writing one of those "militant atheist" books, because my feelings about religion – and Christianity specifically – were much more complicated than that.
So I needed to figure out a more nuanced way to express these ideas, to talk about the themes without explicitly stating anything.
Nrama: While you've worked in color before, Life is the first of your autobiographical works to be done in color. What were some of the challenges related to this?
Brown: I guess the biggest challenge was working in a way where there was less room for error, but more chances for error… I like to draw my autobiographical books in single, blank sketchbooks and part of what I wanted to do with this book was have that kind of risk.
Pages were drawn on both sides of each sheet in the sketchbook, with the sketchbook just long enough that it's essentially the same as the 96 page printed book.
Nrama: What do you feel you learned about yourself, your family and, well, life from doing this work?
Brown: I realized a lot about how my childhood has informed who I am today, but I think I also learned that I'm still in the process of learning. Part of that learning will come from how people respond to the book, that dialogue that happens between myself and the reader.
Nrama: Looking back, you've put out a pretty large number of graphic novels over the past decade. How would you say you've evolved as an artist and storyteller in this time?
Brown: I think I've been able to build up a wide range of styles in storytelling, using comics in different ways from project to project. I think my art has become more accomplished, although I try to keep it from becoming slick or superficial.
Nrama: How much input has your son Oscar had into how he's depicted in your comics, or does he understand what's going on yet?
Brown: He doesn't quite understand yet, although he knows when I'm drawing him. There are times when I'll ask him for an opinion on one thing or another, but I try to be careful about how I'm showing him.
Generally, I try to be careful about anyone I'm depicting, but at the same time giving everyone their own input to a project would likely change and possibly ruin what I mean for the book to express.
Nrama: You're still having huge success with Vader’s Little Princess, and Jedi Academy’s next. How will that be different from your previous Star Wars books?
Brown: It's much more narrative, and based on all new characters, with the exception of Yoda. The book is also made up of a wide variety of page formats - comics, prose journal entries, letters, pages from the school newspaper, and class notes.
It's a much different way of telling a story than anything I've done previously.
Nrama: How many of these Star Wars books do you see yourself doing ultimately?
Brown: I'll have at least a half dozen, I think, but long term it's hard to say.
Right now I'm still really loving working on them - drawing the Vader books is just immensely enjoyable, and the Jedi Academy books are a really interesting challenge and just as fun to draw, in a different way.
I may take a break when the ones I'm currently committed to are done, but I could see myself doing more still.
Nrama: Do you have any plans to do projects in other media to follow up your film Save the Date?
Brown: I would like to do more writing for film, but no specific plans - Star Wars is keeping me too busy! For now, I'm just letting ideas for screenplays sit in the back of my mind to marinate.
Nrama: What are some other comics/creators you're currently enjoying?
Brown: I'm enjoying all the Nobrow books lately - Luke Pearson and John Mcnaught. I just finished Kevin Cannon's new book, Crater XV, and Jess Fink's We Can Fix It. Always good to see a new issue of Noah VanSciver's Blammo.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Brown: More Star Wars, and who knows what else! After Jedi Academy, the next book to come out will be Kids Are Weird, a collection of funny things my son Oscar has said from Chronicle next spring.
A Matter of Life is in stores now from Top Shelf.