Disclaimer: All of the comics reviewed in this column were either comped by the respective creators/companies, or purchased from Dr. Volts Comics in Salt Lake City.
A MATTER OF LIFE (graphic novel, full color, 96 pages, Top Shelf Productions, $14.95)
WHO’S RESPONSIBLE? Jeffrey Brown (writer, artist, letterer and colorist).
STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY (illustrated children’s book, black and white, 160 pages, Scholastic Inc., $12.99)
WHO’S RESPONSIBLE? Jeffrey Brown (writer, artist and letterer).
Comics artist/writer Jeffrey Brown has never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve … or to do so very publicly.
His first published works included a series of painfully autobiographical comics about his romantic and other relationships (“AEIOU,” “Clumsy,” “Unlikely”), as well as goofy, unabashedly geeky tributes to the comic books, movies, television shows and toys that he loved as a child – and continues to love to this day (“Bighead,” “Incredible Change-bots”).
All have gathered him critical acclaim as well as a somewhat small but loyal following. However, he’s experienced his biggest commercial success to date with two official, Star Wars-related projects: the gag strip collections “Darth Vader and Son” and “Daddy’s Little Princess,” which depicted Darth Vader as the put-upon father of pesky young Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, respectively.
Two very different but recent book projects see Brown not only continuing to mine the Star Wars universe, but also return to his independent, supposedly “confessional” comic roots.
“A Matter of Life” is a self-described “autobiographical meditation on fatherhood and faith.” Flashing back and forth between the past and somewhat recent events, it explores Brown’s alternatingly strained and close relationship with his father, a minister, as well as showing him experiencing the joys and pains fatherhood for the first time, with his son, Oscar.
“Star Wars: Jedi Academy” is the first in a planned series of books for Scholastic and Lucasfilm. The illustrated prose novel follows Roan Novachez, a would-be star pilot who is crushed to discover he has been rejected as a student for the Pilot Academy. But instead of attending Tattooine Agricultural Academy with some of his friends, Roan is sent to Jedi Academy.
“A Matter of Life” showcases Brown’s newfound maturity, both in terms of writing and art. While the graphic novel does explore the heady concepts of mortality and existence, it smartly does so in a grounded, open-ended fashion. No conclusions are drawn (despite Brown’s admissions about being an atheist).
The often-touching story “episodes” are depicted in a less cartoony style than the one Brown usually employs. And there are even a few, beautifully painted pieces.
“Jedi Academy” may not be as ambitious in scale, but it also shows a more mature writer at work. And it’s possibly even funnier than the two earlier, gag-strip collections. (The hilariously welcome “Ewok Pilot” strips Roan writes and illustrates for his school newspaper might provide fodder for another, separate collection as well.)
Brown continues to take a more male-centric direction with his autobiographical tales -- allegedly because he doesn’t want to shine an unwanted spotlight on his partner, Jennifer. And “A Matter of Life” isn’t especially new-reader-friendly and does lack some contextual elements. (If you hadn’t read any of his earlier, autobiographical works, you’d have no idea who some of these people are.)
And he’s clearly trying to appeal to Star Wars fans of all ages with “Jedi Academy,” even if the book is being marketed to early-teen audiences. Consequently, some of the concepts may go over the heads of really young readers, while adults might find a few bits to be juvenile in tone. It’s a tad heavy on the prose as well.
There are those turned off by Brown’s deceptively “crude” and “simple” cartooning style, though he’s taken off some of the harsher, less-attractive edges in the art for both books. And the sometimes, religious/philosophical ponderings in “A Matter of Life” might turn off fans of his more light-hearted earlier material.
“Jedi Academy” also assumes a pretty vast, prior knowledge of all things Star Wars (otherwise, you might not get some of the references/jokes).
A few flaws aside, both books are among Brown’s very best work. “A Matter of Life” proves he can do something “heavier” or “weightier” in tone while still keeping his stylings and unique sensibilities intact.
And it’s encouraging that he’s not using the success of his Star Wars-related projects and career as an art professor (at the Art Institute of Chicago) as an excuse to curtail his more “original” comics pursuits. Rather, both things seem to have given him a better perspective on life and his art.
Jerk-bot, better known in human form as Jeff Michael Vice, can be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), as well as be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff)