A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Ambassador of Awkward

by Jeremy Ohmes

Messy relationships, humiliated superheroes, bumbling romances, out-of-place adolescents, embarrassing parents, and awkward Jedis. This is the endearingly uncomfortable and uncoordinated galaxy that Jeffrey Brown (MFA 2002) creates with his comics. 

Whether he is detailing the story of how he lost his virginity or poking fun at Darth Vader’s ineptitude as a dad, Brown draws inspiration from his own most vulnerable moments—filtering his experiences through painfully honest characters and a sparse, unassuming style. This deeply personal, often autobiographical aesthetic is what attracted the SAIC alum to comics in the first place. 

As a graduate student in SAIC’s Painting and Drawing department, Brown became disenchanted with his own work and much of the art he encountered in the studios and classrooms. He says, “A lot of the art I was seeing at the time was a little bit distanced from any emotional involvement. So I wanted to make something as personal as possible.”

He painted and he drew… and he drew some more, filling up sketchbooks and draining pens while the paintbrushes hardened. His most personal and interesting ideas spilled out as storylines and characters when it all clicked for Brown: “Comics was the kind of art I was most comfortable making and how I could really express my ideas.” 

He branched out beyond his department and found fellow comics enthusiasts in SAIC’s Writing program as well as the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation department. He elicited their feedback and expanded his concepts, eventually creating and self-publishing his first graphic novel, Clumsy—the bittersweet story of a doomed long-distance relationship. The book immediately earned rave reviews and launched Brown’s career as a cartoonist. 

During the past 12 years, Brown has published more than 20 graphic novels, including superhero parodies (Bighead, Incredible Change-Bots), a “Girlfriend Trilogy” (Clumsy, Unlikely, AEIOU), memoirs (Funny Misshapen Body, A Matter of Life), and his wildly popular Star Wars spoofs, Darth Vader & Son (2012), Vader’s Little Princess (2013), and Jedi Academy (2013). With each book, Brown has garnered a bigger following and converted more and more people into fans of the genre. 

Sitting in his favorite coffee shop on Chicago’s Northwest Side and shading in panels for Jedi Academy 2, the flannel-and-beard-sporting artist talks about the universal appeal of comics. He says, “There’s an intimacy of expression that comics provides. The language of drawing something that doesn’t look realistic, but the world you’re portraying feels realistic. There’s an emotional reality that comes through in the visual style.” 

This reality is enhanced by the medium’s ability to unravel complex truths and human experiences, or in the case of Brown’s comics, to observe life and translate it into poignant and often humorous vignettes. 

Brown says, “One of the reasons painting never gelled with me while I was at SAIC was that I wasn’t able to use observations from life to inform that work like I do with my comics.” Even when drawing Star Wars, there is a lot of Brown’s own life, observations, and experiences injected into the work—from awkward middle-school moments to the overwhelming self-doubt of parenthood. 

“My main process is just absorbing life and observing how people talk and act and what they say,” notes Brown. “Being a dad is important as well.” 

See Jeffrey Brown’s work here

Kids Are Weird and Other Observations from Parenthood are out now. Goodnight Darth Vader is out July 22, and Jedi Academy 2 is out July 29.