The Chester Brown Interview

GRAMMEL: CBG has pointed out as proof of comics’ maturity that we have hardcover collections of Watchmen and Dark Knight, and paperback collections of Chaykin’s Shadow, and the like. I’m wondering if you find any worth in the current vogue for high-gloss superheroes.

BROWN: I like some of it. I like Alan Moore’s stuff. He’s a good writer, and I’m glad he’s moved beyond that stage, that he’s doing his own stuff now. But I read Watchmen and enjoyed it.

GRAMMEL: Do you think it proved that comics are art?

BROWN: I don’t think he proved it. I mean, wasn’t it proved before him?

GRAMMEL: But it’s now being taught in university classes. Didn’t you see that in CBG? [Laughter.] Which only goes to show that they’II have classes in everything.

BROWN: Yeah, I know.

GRAMMEL: What did you think of the art in Watchmen?

BROWN: I liked it. Dave Gibbons is talented. He draws well.

GRAMMEL: Didn’t you feel claustrophobic reading it? It was so tight.

BROWN: No, I liked it fine.

GRAMMEL: What do you think of Frank Miller?

BROWN: I like his stuff. I enjoy his stuff.

GRAMMEL; Did you get excited about Dark Knight when it was coming out?

BROWN: Yeah, I liked it quite a bit.

GRAMMEL: What do you think of Howard Chaykin’s work? Do you feel a little dirty after you read it?

BROWN: No. I like some of his stuff. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of the things he’s done.

GRAMMEL: Did you read his Blackhawk series?

BROWN: No, actually, I didn’t. I skipped that.

GRAMMEL: The Shadow series?

BROWN: Yeah, I didn’t think much of that. But I liked American Flagg! OK — the early issues anyway. I don’t know, I’m reading Black Kiss, and at this point I’m not quite sure what I think of it.

GRAMMEL: I’m kind of curious because I haven’t picked up an issue. I usually do, but after a while I ask myself why. The guy’s got some talent, but —

BROWN: Well, actually, I’m picking them up because I’m getting them free. [At the editing stage I’m no longer getting it free; Bill apparently can’t be bothered to mail me copies from Picton so I’m actually paying for it now.]

GRAMMEL: He’s kind of like the Brian DePalma of comics. He’s got a lot of talent, but he just seems to use it to rub your nose in filth.

BROWN: Well, I like that. I like that he’s a talented artist who’s willing to take a chance to do something that looks ugly or looks disgusting — that doesn’t look like what other people are doing.

GRAMMEL: I’m actually surprised because I don’t have that feeling about your work at all. I find his work so cynical. Joyfully cynical.

BROWN: [Laughter.] It is joyfully cynical. But that’s nice. [Laughter.] I mean, at least the joy is in there. He does seem to be having some kind of fan.

GRAMMEL: Bill Sienkiewicz? What do you think of his explorations of different media? Does that excite you?

BROWN: No, I’m afraid Bill Sienkiewicz... He’s a nice guy, but no, his work doesn’t interest me at all.

GRAMMEL: Do you think that painted work can work in comics?

BROWN: Sure. I don’t see why not.

GRAMMEL: Have you seen any that works?

BROWN: Um... I can’t think of any offhand. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. But no, no, I haven’t enjoyed anything by Sienkiewicz.

GRAMMEL: How about Mike Grell?

BROWN: [Groans.] I did like him when I was, I don’t know, 14 or 15.

GRAMMEL: What was he doing at the time?

BROWN: Legion of Super-Heroes.

GRAMMEL: Oh. Long time ago.

BROWN: Yeah, long time ago. And he wasn’t writing. He did start writing shortly after with Warlord. And I was getting those early Warlords, and I thought that he was quite a good writer. I liked his stuff a lot. But by the time he was doing Warlord, I was starting to realize he wasn’t actually all that great an artist. And he’s gotten worse over the years, if anything. His artwork just seems to get worse and worse all the time. I haven’t read a comic by him probably since Warlord, but that Green Arrow comic looked awful.

GRAMMEL: Yeah, the guy just doesn’t know when it comes to anatomy.

BROWN: Yeah, I know.

GRAMMEL: Were there any strips in Taboo you really liked?

BROWN: [Laughter.] Hmm, well, I really like Bernie Mireault’s stuff. I didn’t think that the piece in Taboo was one of his better things, although it was nice. It was OK. The Bissette piece was OK. I really liked the first page with the hands zooming toward the window — that was very nice.

GRAMMEL: Did you like the “Throat Sprockets” story?

BROWN: No, I wasn’t big on it.

GRAMMEL: Besides Alan Moore, are there any of the British creators that you’re excited about?

BROWN: Hmm...

GRAMMEL: What about Kevin O’Neill?

BROWN: Kevin O’Neill. No, doesn’t interest me. I didn’t think much of... what was that thing called? Marshal Law,

GRAMMEL: Did you prefer Dark Knight or Batman: Year One?

BROWN: Batman: Year One.

GRAMMEL: Was that because of the art?

BROWN: Probably. I really like Mazzacchelli’s stuff, and in Dark Knight the thing I thought was holding it back from being really good was the inker. What’s his name?

GRAMMEL: Klaus Janson.

BROWN: I wish Miller had done Dark Knight all by himself.

GRAMMEL: Yeah, every once in a while you can see that he inked himself.

BROWN: Yeah, you could tell. It looked so much better when he was inking himself.

GRAMMEL: Did you find Dark Knight to be a moral work?

BROWN: Did I find Dark Knight to be a moral work? No, I didn’t even think of it in that way. It was just a nice, fast-paced adventure story for me.

GRAMMEL: That was a Journal question.

BROWN: Yeah, it sounded like one.

GRAMMEL: I figure I’ll throw in a few for them and they’ll be happy. A lot of times the people who seem to appeal to you in books, music, and comics are the people who seem to be using the freedom that they obviously have, so I’m wondering how you’ve reacted to the European work that we’ve seen since they seem to be working from scripts most of the time. Is there anything that Catalan’s published that’s excited you?

BROWN: Catalan, yeah. The Cabbie. Which actually doesn’t feel like a scripted work, or if it is it’s scripted an episode at a time. The other Catalan book that I really liked was Squeak the Mouse. That was great.

GRAMMEL: What about Munoz and Sampayo? Anything that they’ve done that you’ve liked?

BROWN: They’re OK. They don’t appeal to me the same way. I like their work. I’m more impressed with Munoz’s artwork than I am with the stories themselves. The stories are OK. They’re well-done, but… I don’t know, nothing that really impresses me there.

GRAMMEL: You mentioned Heavy Metal. Do you remember what it was about Moebius’s work that interested you?

BROWN; His ability to draw. He just drew so well. The stories were mostly kind of forgettable. The Arzach stuff was kind of neat because you could interpret it in different ways. It didn’t have words bogging it down. But the stories weren’t really...

GRAMMEL: Nothing in the writing that was interesting.

BROWN: Yeah. It was just the drawing.

GRAMMEL: You were in the minicomics scene, and perhaps you can give us who are outside of it an idea of where to find some of the best work.

BROWN: I think most of the people I really like in minicomics I’ve mentioned in the Yummy Fur letter column. Terry LaBan, who’s doing Unsupervised Existence, which I think is going to be a Fantagrapnics one-shot or something like that. [Ed. note: Fantagraphics is publishing this as a series.] He’s doing something for Fantagraphics. And John MacLeod, who’s doing Dishman. And Colin Upton, who does all kind of stuff in British Columbia, Canada.

GRAMMEL: Given absolute freedom in publishing schedules, page count, format, etc., how would your work differ, if at all?

BROWN: If I could do whatever I wanted to do? Hmm. Well, I do like having it come out as a regular comic book. If I could I’d want to have it come out monthly, if I didn’t have any kind of time problem with producing it. Also if I could just take my time with something, well, that would be nice, too. Just to be able to have a book come out of my work. I don’t know, probably if I had to work that way though, I wouldn’t get anything done because having to work to a bimonthly deadline it does make sure that you’re getting the work done.

GRAMMEL: In discussing doing a Yummy Fur compilation you wondered, “Where do you draw the line as to where an ongoing graphic novel ends?”

BROWN: Yeah, it’s not hard for novelists to know where the end is because there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. But when you’re doing a comic book as an ongoing series… if I had started doing this as a graphic novel — as a novel — then I would have no trouble with it. But I don’t think of it first as a novel.

GRAMMEL: So you’re interested in doing comic books in conventional terms, and not necessarily interested in moving on into doing a Maus type work, which is intended to be a wholly separate creation.

BROWN: No, I’d be interested in doing something like that, and I could do something like that in Yummy Fur, but I just haven’t got around to doing something like that yet.

GRAMMEL: I’m just wondering if it was an interest because, as I was saying, our role models are things that never end.

BROWN: Well, also the thing is I’ve just begun my third year of doing this full-time. If I’m going to make a career of this, I have many, many years ahead in which to do stuff. So I can do something like this a couple years from now.

GRAMMEL: Do you have any interest in doing anything in a more realistic manner a la the Hernandez Brothers? Do you wish sometimes you could do that?

BROWN: Yeah, I certainly do, and maybe I will be able to do that someday.

GRAMMEL: You’ve gotten a lot of critical attention. You ‘re in the early glow period. How does it feel? Are you sure enough in your own opinions of your work that the acclaim means little or nothing, or is it a good confirmation that maybe you’re on the right track?

BROWN: I like it. It’s an interesting feeling. But I’ve always felt that I wouldn’t be affected by reviews, good or bad. That it wouldn’t really make a difference to me. I certainly do appreciate all the good reviews I am getting, but that I could take it if I got a bad review. Have you seen the recent CBG that had a thing about Yummy Fur?

GRAMMEL: No, I no longer get CBG.

BROWN: No, I don’t read it either.

GRAMMEL: [Chester hands me a copy of CBG with Don Thompson’s latest obtuse pan of Yummy Fur. I read the review. We laugh.] Is that the only negative criticism you’ve had?

BROWN: The only stuff in print that has been negative about my work has been Don Thompson.

GRAMMEL: It’s kind of a badge of honor. [Laughter.]

BROWN: That’s true. So when I read that I was annoyed, and I was planning to write back right away. But it makes me think, “Am I unable to take criticism, or is it just because it’s stupid criticism?” [Laughter.] The Comics Journal ran — and I’m sure they will at some point — a piece from someone pointing out the book’s flaws, would I be able to take it better? Because it’s not a perfect book, and I know that. I don’t know how I’ll react yet. If this is any indication, I won’t be happy. Maybe it’ll be different if it’s coming from people I respect.

GRAMMEL: The only thing that I could see that would really bother you about Don Thompson’s criticism is that it is in a publication that reaches a lot of people who might pick it up, and it is therefore a detriment to your own welfare — economically, at least.

BROWN: I’m not sure that I view it that way. There is a particular kind of reader who reads the Comics Buyer’s Guide, and it’s a particular kind of reader who reads The Comics Journal, and I’m not that concerned about the people who read the Buyer’s Guide, you know?

GRAMMEL: When I first mentioned doing an interview with you a while back you weren’t sure why anyone would be interested. Since then you’ve had a lot of critical acclaim, your book is selling better, you do get feedback in the letters column. Do you feel that you’ve accomplished something now, or do you feel like you ‘re being paid to learn?

BROWN: Hmm. I’m not really happy with what I’ve done. Looking over my work I think it should be so much better. I look at other people’s stuff that I admire and it just looks way better to me. I mean, I look at Peter Bagge’s stuff and I think, “Why couldn’t you do this?”

GRAMMEL: Do you think this is because you;re too close to your own work?

BROWN: No, I don’t think so.

Looking through your issues, at one point you said this was a good time to support the black-and-whites, and you mentioned Alien Fire. Did it scare you that a book that good could die? I don’t know about you, but I thought Alien Fire was very, very impressive.

BROWN: Yeah, I agree. [Pause.] Yeah, it was scary, because Alien Fire wasn’t the only comic book that was doing poorly at the time. Everything was. All the black-and-whites were suffering. And, yeah, it was very worrying.

GRAMMEL: I had said, “So what?” to most of the comics that had ended because of the glut, but I was amazed that Alien Fire didn’t continue. I found the second issue to be one of the most moving comics I’ve ever read.

BROWN: I know. Wasn’t it great?

GRAMMEL: Are you optimistic about the comics scene?

BROWN: I guess I am. I guess I have to be. I want to be, but it’s not a short-term thing. It’s going to be a very slow thing. All these retailers aren’t gonna wake up all at once and say, “Hey, it makes sense to go with better comics.”

GRAMMEL: Do you think there’s enough quality work out there that it’s going to force a change?

BROWN: There isn’t a whole lot.

GRAMMEL: Who do you think are the people that could change people’s minds about comics?

BROWN: Anyone who’s doing good work, I suppose, could. Retailers just have to have the courage to take the chance to push the stuff. I mean, the situation in my local store is that I went in on the day that books came out, and I got the last Yummy Fur only because he saved it for me. There were none on the shelf.


2 Responses to The Chester Brown Interview

  1. Pingback: Tea With Chris: Empty Cans of Beer | Back to the World

  2. MatthewThurber says:

    BROWN: Well, actually, I’m picking them up because I’m getting them free. [At the editing stage I’m no longer getting it free; Bill apparently can’t be bothered to mail me copies from Picton so I’m actually PAYING FOR IT now.]

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