Top Secret Post

*It looks like Blogger doesn’t want society to know of our communal revolutionary plans, since it’s not letting me access anyone’s sites. As a result, I can’t display the reviews from last week, since I can’t access any of the links with any measure of ease. I’ll just get around to doing that tomorrow, though hopefully you’ll all be able to read this before then. I have tinkered with my RSS feed (thanks again Derik!) so that my whole post will go out through those means instead of only the first 300 words of it, so maybe some of you will get to read the entire thing before Blogger springs back to life.

[three minutes later]

Ha ha, oh forget it. The damn thing's back now!

*So anyway.

AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy

It occurs to me right now, typing this, that my command of critical terminology is perhaps inadequate to evaluate a work of this sort; alternatively, I might simply be prone to twisting around and crawling inside myself via any available entrance in an effort to bejewel my analysis with an untoward amount of formalist consideration. Still - I’m not sure if I can call this a ‘major’ work by writer/artist Jeffrey Brown, as it’s actually a repackaging of a Xeroxed, tape-bound minicomic (albeit an exceedingly fat one, limited to 390 copies) from a while back; and yet, it occurs to me that Brown’s approach works to distract the reader from the very use of terms like ‘major,’ as his fresh-from-the-sketchbook visual style and halting, excerpted conversational array of scenes always exude an air of the low-key, a dashed-off aesthetic primed toward presenting the ephemeral nature of young relationships in a fittingly fragile form. At least, that’s how it goes in his ‘girlfriend’ books.

And successful books those have been - I’m reminded of Chris Ware’s laudatory quote on the back cover of Clumsy, and Austin English writing in The Comics Journal (#262) that Unlikely is “the book we should be holding up as a comic that can compete with the greatest works of literature, film and music.” Now that’s major praise, and certainly most of the solicitation and/or promotional data I can uncover is positioning this book as the third and final entry in a ‘girlfriend trilogy.’ Comparisons to Brown’s prior works of the type are thus unavoidable, though AEIOU is a more scaled-back piece, less ambitious, nebulous, minimalized. And it only suffers for it, such scaling-back perhaps pressing the book beyond the level where the make-up of its execution can carry it.

Let me explain. Brown, as I’m sure many of you are aware, eschews traditionally ‘polished’ visual appeal to provide a simplified, delicate style. This works with his subject matter, and also the structure of his books (at least, books of this sort) - each volume covers Brown’s relationship with a particular woman, our viewpoint darting from short scene to short scene, occasionally departing from moment-to-moment chronology but generally moving from the start of said relationship to some fixed ending point in the future. Conversations make up the bulk of these books, but their appeal is actually derived from two areas: the often sweet, wobbly interactions of the conversations themselves, and the overarching make-up of the tomes as single units; I’ll confess that the latter is what really appeals to me - the emotional beats hit by these scenes provide a cumulative effect somewhat akin to listening to a piece of music, feelings flowing past you in movements, with patterns forming as you take in the whole piece.

But AEIOU is comparatively atonal, in its stripped-down format. There are now no more than two panels per page, scenes bouncing from one to another with greater frequency than before - sometimes the scenes presented to us are grouped around a theme (which is sometimes stated at the top of a given page), and sometimes it’s just a flurry of soft sentences, emotions expressed directly from one person to the next, though that’s not to say Brown’s dialogue is wooden; character interactions are loose and informal, though there’s always a definite mood to be taken from any given scene. This is perhaps Brown’s greatest strength in this particular work: he certainly knows how to convey emotion with minimal lines, minimal words.

However, the cumulative effect is very much lacking in this book. And I think a lot of that is because the work is so scaled-back, so reductive (Chris Tamarri used the term ‘pointillist’ in his fine review, and I think it’s an apt term), that it ultimately becomes amorphous - scenes are so clipped that while individual moods are duly evoked, there’s little room for them to develop into anything greater than the sum of their number. And when removed from a cumulative effect, the book strikes me as little more than an array of tiny selections from a relationship, though I readily admit that such a thing might be of great interest to some readers. To me, there just isn’t much of interest being said - Jeff and his new girlfriend Sophia meet, they begin dating, they encounter problems, they sort of break things off though they still have sex, then they sort of drift apart, but then they’re apparently still friends, and then Brown infers in an afterward that they’re not yet reconciled. Brown also warns us in that same afterward against taking the work as autobiography: “…this book leaves so much left unsaid that you may as well consider it to be fiction.”

The problem is it’s not particularly engaging fiction; while adept at creating moods, Brown is not as skilled at developing characters - indeed, while Brown admits that Sophia’s side of the story is “necessarily lacking,” it doesn’t quite excuse the fact that I could hardly remember a thing about her after closing the book. She acts largely as a springboard for the creation of one or another emotional beat (as, admittedly, does Brown himself, though he has the benefit of having appeared in two books prior); this isn’t necessarily a problem, if the assorted expressed feelings cohere to create a kaleidoscopic view of a relationship’s emotions, as has happened in Brown’s earlier books. But when the work is as haphazard as this as a single unit, it only draws attention to the lack of individuality afforded the characters, and conversations suddenly have a tinny edge to them. I find myself thinking back to the lovely finale of Clumsy, which suddenly darted backward in time from Brown weeping at his phone, presenting a happier wish for dreams of the future, underscoring the short-lived lifespan of certain relationships. This is universal, and affecting. All of this is absent from the current volume - it’s a collection of things I’ve heard before, and heard better.

Perhaps the career position Brown currently finds himself in plays a role too. Clumsy told the story of a long-distance relationship; the threads that hold such a union together seemed to be visualized by Brown’s lines. Unlikely delved into even more sensitive territory: the loss of Brown’s virginity. Again, the visual style brought to the table seemed to highlight the raw, anxious emotions oft attendant to such an event. But toward what goal does the approach advance in AEIOU? Only, to my eye, that relationships are tenuous; yet still we have those lines, that structure, that material that served the prior two installments so well - but all that is here was contained in what has gone before. Looking at this problem, I can understand why Brown would work to make his approach even more abridged and jumpy, maybe shooting for a more poetic mélange than before to coax a greater resonance from his style. I don’t think it was a success though; it feels like pieces left unassembled.

It will pay, however, to pay attention to where Brown goes from here. It’s also been emphasized that this is the last of the ‘girlfriend’ books. I’ve read some of his side-projects, from the fitfully amusing superhero parody Bighead to the miscellany of Mini Sulk to his interesting but (again) incomplete-feeling story in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Vol. 2. All I can take from these is that I’m still unsure as to what form his work will take in the future. It is gratifying, at least, to know that it will be certainly be something different from the diminishing impact of what is evidenced here.