Although Jeffrey Brown’s comics are quiet and deceptively simple, Brown is a complicated artist. As a graphic novelist, he’s done everything from lovingly parodying the Transformers (in 2007’s Incredible Change-Bots) to meditating on the Zen-like quality of cats (in 2007’s Cat Getting Out Of A Bag). Lately he’s been thrust into a higher bracket of notoriety with his adorable and oddly poignant Star Wars books, 2012’s Darth Vader And Son and this year’s Vader’s Little Princess. In each, he imagines the Sith Lord as a hapless, bewildered dad just trying to raise his twins Luke and Leia while maintaining the Galactic Empire. In addition, he’s appeared on This American Life, animated a Death Cab For Cutie video, and co-written the 2012 indie film Save The Date.
As wide-ranging and well-received as those projects are, though, what Brown is best known for are his autobiographical comics. His latest graphic novel, A Matter Of Life, couldn’t be further from his acclaimed 2002 debut, Clumsy. Where Clumsy deals with the awkward relationship woes and sex life of a twentysomething in sketchy, black-and-white terms, A Matter Of Life finds Brown settled down, exploring nuance and color, and trying to balance the moral guidance that comes with being a parent against his own retreat from the religion in which he was raised. Brown recently spoke with The A.V. Club about fatherhood, faith, and what it’s like to play around in George Lucas’ universe.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to sit down and tackle something as vast and potentially controversial as religion in a 100-page graphic novel?
Jeffrey Brown: I guess the driving motivation for writing A Matter Of Life was coming to terms with my childhood and how formative religion was, and at the same time where I feel I am now in terms of my religious beliefs and how I understand the world. Initially my thinking was, “I’m writing a book about religion.” What I ended up writing about was probably way more about fatherhood, because my dad’s a minister. Even though I thought what I wanted to do was to tackle this potentially controversial subject, what was really going on was me ruminating about my relationship with my father. Partly that was because I’d recently become a father myself.
AVC: In your work, you’ve always been open about your Christian upbringing. Is A Matter Of Life an attempt to clarify where you stand on that issue today—for your readers and for yourself?
JB: As much as I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore, that’s still my moral compass. It still comes from that. At the same time, I don’t think the book is me coming to terms with my beliefs so much as explaining them. One of the things I like to do or would want to do with my art is just to get people thinking and start a dialogue about things. Not necessarily a direct conversation, but just putting thoughts out into the world and hopefully getting other people to put their thoughts out into the world, bounce ideas off each other.
AVC: Did you discover anything about your own beliefs through writing this book?
JB: It’s not so much that I discovered anything as I clarified questions that I want to continue asking myself. The book isn’t so much, “Here are my answers to how I understand life or where I find meaning.” It’s, “Here’s what I think about when I try to understand life, and what it means to me.” It’s more about clarifying the questions than finding any answers.
AVC: What was the most challenging thing about making A Matter Of Life?
JB: The most challenging thing was just how I handled writing about the religious aspects of my life in terms of my parents. They’re still very much religious, and I’m very much not religious. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, certainly. But more than that, I wanted to handle things with some kind of nuance. My dad’s a minister, so how do I write about the fact that I don’t share his beliefs while still showing how important he is to me? And how important our relationship is?
AVC: That’s come up a lot in reaction to your autobiographical work—how the people in your life feel about being portrayed in your comics. At this point in your career, is that as much of a concern?
JB: I’ve always gone with my instinct first. But what’s happened now is that the editing I do, in terms of what I’m going to include or what I’m going to leave out or how I’m going to handle things, is a lot more careful. From gauging how people have responded to my previous work, I guess I’m just more aware and can have a better sense of how they’re going to react to what I’m writing now. It’s never a guaranteed thing. As an artist, you want to have your work understood a certain way, ideally. That’s never going to happen 100 percent. As you get better at what you’re doing, you’ll hopefully be able to have better control over what that response will be, how well people will be able to understand your intent. With this book, my biggest worry was how my dad was going to interpret things. Will he understand what I’m saying?
AVC: Has he?
JB: After having read the book, my dad wrote me a nice note. He definitely got it. But he did mention in his response that there are some things he didn’t remember and some things he remembered differently. [Laughs.] In the end, he understood what I was saying. It’s those feelings and ideas that I’m trying to get across more than the factual information.
AVC: This is also you first autobiographical comic rendered in color rather than black-and-white. What prompted that decision?
JB: Part of it was just the fact that I’d been doing more color work lately. I started doing short, autobiographical pieces for different anthologies or websites that were in color, in addition to doing the Star Wars books, which are in color. It was something that I was becoming more comfortable with. I also thought that there was something about this book that needed me to put some extra level of care into. Despite the fact that I’ve written these other autobiographical books that are all about these super-personal, intimate moments, this is really the most personal book I’ve written. Doing it in color added an extra level of representation that was important to me. Also I just wanted to challenge myself. My autobiographical books are pretty much always drawn in a single, blank sketchbook. I thought it would be an interesting challenge for myself to have to draw in full color. One of the reasons I’d avoided using color before is that I always felt that, if I was going to use color in my autobiographical work, it had to add something to the work. There needed to be a reasoning behind it. The subject matter asked for it.
AVC: In a way, it feels as though your use of color is a way of telling the reader, “Faith isn’t a black-and-white issue. There are many shades of perspective to consider.”
JB: That did cross my mind while I was making the book. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to become too calculated, where I was using color symbolically. Although in this book there are several times where I repeat certain symbols. I don’t know if those ended up being too subtle or too obvious.
AVC: The symbols definitely come through. The book is partly about religion vs. science, and right on the cover is a drawing of you and your son in a museum with a dinosaur looming in the background.
JB: I wanted to have symbols in there without them being the dominant force. Ultimately the most important thing in the book, for me, is trying to capture the feeling of individual moments, letting those add up to say something bigger, something more than they are just on the surface.
AVC: At the same time, religion is all about heavy symbolism.
JB: I didn’t want to he too heavy-handed with the symbols. I wanted them to be something that could be acknowledged there, that could be used to draw parallels to religion.
AVC: A Matter Of Life is mostly about religion, but it also touches on many other topics: fatherhood, homophobia, death—“and death,” of course, is the unwritten ending of the book’s title. Do you see your autobio work going in a deeper direction from here on out?
JB: I don’t know where I go from here. I don’t know that I have more deep thoughts that I can get across. [Laughs.] Part of the title of this book is about how religion tries to battle death. You have the afterlife, and there’s this other way that life continues, and that’s how death is defeated. For me, you just don’t acknowledge death. You focus on life. That’s what’s important. In the same way that I’ve kind of written most of my autobiographical comics about personal relationships, this book wasn’t a conscious decision in that regard. What I had to say at the time was about those subjects, and now I have this to say. I have two kids now, and I think fatherhood is something that will play a role in what I do from here. In what way, I’m not sure. I don’t know that I see my work in the future being as, I don’t know, philosophical as this book.
AVC: Regardless of the heaviness, there’s a lot of lightness to A Matter Of Life, and many of those moments involve music—for instance the Misfits, whom your rebellious high-school friend gets you into, and Cat Power, whom you bond with your dad over. Besides working with bands like Death Cab For Cutie, how has music inspired your work?
JB: I’ve always seen music as an inspiration in terms of making creative work. The way that one song can just really capture a moment for you: when you hear that song, who’s with you, and what the context is. That song takes on meaning. When, in addition, it’s a song that has powerful lyrics, and it’s a really catchy tune or whatever, it can be this really powerful work of art. I guess that’s what I aspire to with my art. A song can create such resonance beyond itself. If someone out there can give a copy of a book of mine to someone else, and he reads it at just the right time in his life, and that book means something more than just whatever ideas I tried to put into it, it’s the same as what a good song does. I really want to make comics that do that.
AVC: Over the years you’ve threatened do a book titled Music Saves My Life Every Day. Will that ever get made?
JB: [Laughs.] You know, I don’t know that it will. It’s funny, I was just looking through a sketchbook of mine the other day with some notes for Music Saves My Life Every Day. I think it was an idea that, if anything, might be a short story that I do at some point. I don’t know if the grandiose vision I had for it originally is something that I’m interested enough in carrying through all the way. But music is still definitely something that I’d love to deal with more in my work along the way.
AVC: You mention fatherhood as a theme of A Matter Of Life, and it’s interesting that your other recent books, Darth Vader And Son and Vader’s Little Princess, are also about fatherhood in their own, less-serious way. Did that affect you while working on the Star Wars books?
JB: The way I think of it is, those books are all connected, in a way. I was working on Darth Vader And Son while I was drawing A Matter Of Life, so those two books kind of inform each other. Darth Vader And Son represents this lighter side, that less-philosophical side that’s still meaningful and can be touching or emotional, just in a different way. I think that any time I’ve done more humorous work, I’ve always put a lot of myself into it, Darth Vader And Son especially. I basically draw Luke Skywalker the same way I draw my son Oscar in A Matter Of Life. They have slightly different haircuts. [Laughs.] It’s about Star Wars, but there’s definitely a lot of me in that book.
AVC: In A Matter Of Life, you make it clear that you were a big science-fiction fan as a kid. Even though your Star Wars books aren’t remotely canonical, you’re making many references to the films. Do you feel any pressure playing around in one of the most beloved franchises on the planet?
JB: Because I did grow up with Star Wars so much, I think I knew how much I loved it, and I knew a lot about it. When I started drawing Darth Vader And Son, I was just having so much fun that I didn’t have many expectations or time to think about the response. I thought, “It’s Star Wars. It’ll do okay.”
AVC: Star Wars is some people’s religion.
JB: I don’t think I ever expected it to resonate with people the way it has. Knowing how much I loved the movies, I knew my love would come through in the work. I was pretty confident that anyone else who grew up with the movies and had the same kind of feelings I did about them would get the books.