The ABCs of Autobio Comix

Kinder and Gentler Comics

There are two additional cartoonists I want to write about because I think they may define the future of this format – Gabrielle Bell and Jeffrey Brown.

Gabrielle Bell currently publishes her new comic strip, Lucky on line, on schedule, and on a website dedicated to the series. It’s a great model for Internet distribution, but not yet a way to make any money. After she’s acquired enough strips, she will publish them again in book form. With diminishing markets for newspaper syndication, the disappearance of alternative comics in pamphlet form, and a building resistance to reading paper products, is this method the new paradigm for success in the cartooning field? When new forms for e-publishing develop and social networking systems expand, her approach may turn out to be the portal to a whole new audience.

A recent story line involved bed bugs, both the tiny pests infesting New York City, as well as man-sized insects who cuddle up with her in bed and engage her in conversation. She describes her comics as semi-autobiographical vignettes. “I think that the ‘semi’ gives it an air of mysteriousness,” she says. “It’s not really about myself. I think I use my semi-autobiographical character more as a vehicle to talk about life.”

In another of her stories “My Affliction” she uses the Gabrielle Bell character, but in an adventure story. “It’s completely fictional and fantastical. It’s kind of surreal. I think the word surreal applies here because it was based on automatic writing and the juxtaposition of weird phenomena. In it I have a dog and I don’t really have a dog and we go on these weird adventures, and we get caught by a giant and put in a cage and all kinds of strange things happen. It’s completely not autobiographical although I use my own character. It’s also talking about a psychological state and human relation problems in general. Ideally I would like that to be my contribution to autobiography. To take the autobiographical character but abstract it and use it in a fantastical way.”

Other stories are almost totally based on actual experiences, like her account of the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, or stories from her childhood in rural California. Brooklyn is now the usual background for her slice of life stories, where she attends classes, works at part time jobs, and learns to survive in the big city.

“I try to be honest. Sometimes I hold back on how weird I am. And sometimes I hold back on how cool I am. It’s very hard to be objective about myself and I try as much as I can but I don’t try too hard. I can never be truly honest about myself. It will always be skewed. I’m trying to make the audience feel that they’ve gained something reading my comics – some kind of insight that comes from my own foolishness or mistakes or blindness.”

When faced with tough decisions, her character often wavers. She’s not a party animal, but a cautious observer who looks before she leaps. Her subtle story lines are more about waiting to see what happens or watching others play the fool. There is often an unspoken dialog with the readers that is communicated through small gestures or inaction. She may be bold at times, but she won’t make a big thing out of it. Don’t expect a brickbat across the bean. You have to read carefully or you might miss the point.

“When I approach my comics, I feel like I’m speaking directly to the audience. There isn’t a psychological distance or a literary distance, but there is this sort of intimacy about it. I never get sick of myself. It’s always been a very compelling subject, one I’m always fascinated with.”

Her artistic and literary influences include Justin Green. “I suppose it was the way he visually, symbolically represented a psychological state he was in, in pictures. He was talking about his feelings or his emotional state when he was illustrating it with striking images that were sort of absurd or a weird juxtaposition. He’s telling this very visceral story about his childhood, and at the same time using interesting pictures to get at that.”

She also relates to what her peers are doing today. “I do want to say Aline Crumb is really great. Sophie Crumb, I really like her stuff. And a lot of women cartoonists who do important autobiographical stuff, like Vanessa Davis and Ariel Schrag and Carol Tyler. Sarah Glidden and Julia Wertz do good stuff too.”

Jeffrey Brown is one of the newer stars of alt comics, and has produced more than a dozen books during the last decade. His contemporaries in the autobiographical comic field include James Kochalka, Liz Prince, Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, and Lauren Weinstein. He started his cartoon career by self-publishing mini-comics. When Top Shelf Productions published his first book, Clumsy, in 2002 it became a surprise hit, selling more than 20,000 copies to date, according to Brown.

“I write and draw autobiographical books using my own life, telling stories about the everyday moments of life the way I might tell a friend, but in comics form, drawn in a simple style that gives the art the feel of a handwritten diary.”

His work obviously has a certain resonance for a particular group of readers, but at the same time it’s self absorbed and drawn awkwardly. The anatomy, the lettering and the page layouts are crude and naïve. His personal narratives proceed as if they are being made up as he goes along, without much prior thought given to dramatic pacing or innovative design. His character is pudgy, whiny, and weak. Perhaps I’m hopelessly old school and my criticisms are quaint and obsolete. Maybe the young comic reader today values spontaneity and unpretentious self-expression more than artistry.

“I think the first thing readers connect with is the honesty,” says Brown. “I just try to be honest and fair and straightforward, and I'm trusting the audience by revealing certain things about myself. I also try to put in a lot of humor, even if that gets lost in the drama for some people. I try to make work that gets people to think about their lives and find meaning, and that's something people appreciate. I think my work tends to resonate more strongly with a younger audience, who are around the age I was when the events I'm writing about occurred. ”

Brown is never the hero of his stories, and he often presents himself as indecisive and shallow. “The whole point of titling my first book 'Clumsy' was because I know how flawed I am, and how flawed we all are, and especially when you're young and in love, how stupid the stuff you do is and yet you can't help but do it. One thing I've learned from how people respond to my work is that everyone feels differently anyway; some people talk about what a great boyfriend I'd be and what a bitch such and such girl was, and other people will read the same book and talk about how I should've been dumped way earlier and need to grow a pair. All of which misses the point of a book like Clumsy, which is really just trying to get people to think about relationships and how they aren't perfect and that it's okay that relationships are sloppy and hard and they end. I just try to be honest about it and not think too much about how I'm presenting myself, for better or worse. So I just try to focus on the people that do get my work, and hope that I'm creating a body of work that will be appreciated by as many people as possible”

“The book I wrote about losing my virginity, Unlikely, wasn't just me going through a catharsis about that experience. I was interested in that experience of losing your virginity being built up into this huge thing, so big that there was inevitably disappointment afterward. Looking back you see that it wasn't such a big deal and half the reason it all went so wrong was because of how you built it up in your own head. I think when people read that book they tend to filter it through their own experiences, and so some people will have it resonate because of having similar feelings and experiences. Our lives our composed mostly of everyday moments, seemingly insignificant details, but I believe that's a place where we can find meaning just as much as in the spectacular things that happen in life.”

I prefer my whiskey straight, as they say. I like Crumb's stories about himself because he's unapologetic about his faults and weaknesses. I like Spiegelman's rational, intellectual means of dealing with suicide and madness. I enjoy Mary Fleener and Dennis Eichhorn's descent into self-destruction and their narrow escapes from disaster. They're full of action and exciting to read, but ultimately the work is judged in the marketplace, not by critics like me.

The Urge to Emerge

It’s amazing to note how many variations on the theme of autobiography have emerged since Justin Green wove his tale of woe. In the forty years since Binky Brown countless other artists have followed his example and told their own strange and wonderful stories in the comics medium.

There will be a small number of cartoonists reading this article who demand, “What about me? Why aren’t I included here?” The simple explanation is that there are so many young and old artists exploring the autobiographical genre that I can’t include them all. My apologies, but not my regrets go out to you, the unsung contender. If you’re good, your work will prove it. If you’re serious, keep on drawing until the kudos come home. It helps to have a lot of real life experiences to draw from, and many twenty-year-olds just haven’t gotten there yet, so live life and be persistent.

“There's been a glut to be sure, but I think it's good. It's one way for a beginning comic artist to learn the craft of comics,” says Mary Fleener. “Autobio stories have been criticized, sometimes unfairly, and I've heard other artists accuse autobio people for ‘not using their imagination.’ Like it's the easy way out ... listen, nothing about creating comics is easy! I like underground comics, and I like writing about provocative things and I like being a rebel. If someone is uncomfortable with my work, that means I’m doing my job.”

“My motivation in producing my comics has always come from the same place,” insists Joe Matt. “I’m a complete voyeur and I love comics. It’s only natural that my work would be the type that I’d most enjoy reading. My work is of such a personal nature that I can’t help taking it personally. I enjoy the way new work can inform older work, and I enjoy striving for a better, deeper, more skillfully portrayed depiction of my life. Put simply, my intentions and motivations are to amuse myself, to analyze myself, to strive for self-awareness and self-understanding, and ultimately, to create that which doesn’t exist that I’d most like to read.”

I try not to think about the fact that I've drawn myself on the toilet,” says Aline Kominsky-Crumb. “Telling all is sort of a compulsion. I can't really help it so I have to live with it. As I get older I care a lot less what people think about me.” She also recommended, “Don't romanticize or glorify yourself. Be hard on yourself - it's useful to you and others.”

“For a while, I worried about the balance of being honest and about offending people,” says Carol Tyler. “Then I came to an important revelation about the true intention of my work. So I took off the fear burqa and focused on making stories with the highest level of integrity, hoping that those who might be offended will understand eventually that I have depicted them within the needs, parameters and the context of the story. Believe me, I’m not out to get anybody. I’m out to get a great story.”

“I’m not talented at making up plotlines out of thin air,” says Howard Cruse. “Also, I get bored with projects and am likely to abandon them unless they are related to themes I care about passionately. So I usually turn to events in my life and aspects of my personality that are fraught with emotion or cause me to cringe at the memories of when I need fuel for creativity. The cringe-inducing ones are best for comedy.”

It’s always good to have experiences worth telling before you start doing autobio,” advises Peter Kuper. “Some get it earlier than others. As my wife keeps insisting, not everything that happens is interesting or worth telling. Go figure!”