Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #178: The Little Man by Chester Brown

I seem to be reading a Chester Brown book every two years or so -- with The Playboy late in the 2010 Book-a-Day run, and then Ed the Happy Clown at the beginning of 2013 -- so I'm just about due for another. I must have realized this subconsciously -- assuming that there are specific subconscious motivations for all actions is a good way to make the universe utterly deterministic, at least in your own head -- because I picked up The Little Man today.

This is Brown's odds & sods collection -- or, more politely, the book of short work from the first half of his career. It collects strips that predate his '90s omnibus comic Yummy Fur, some short strips from the Fur itself, and other work that originally appeared in various anthologies. It is, as it must be, very miscellaneous.

Even the earliest stories have Brown's usual disorienting eeriness -- it opens with a four-page story in which toilet paper rises up and kills all of mankind -- and his mature art style is basically in place withing twenty-five pages. Brown does explain, in his extensive endnotes, that he has a lot of "juvenilia" -- stories that he created in his teens and even earlier -- but he only reprints one small pantomime strip from age twelve in those endnotes. (However, that strip is, at best, promising for a twelve-year-old, so it's easy to understand and agree with Brown's choice.)

One of the more interesting things this book illustrates is Brown's transition from a rigid grid -- usually six panels, though sometimes four or nine -- to his later floating panel look, which he explains comes about because he draws each panel separately on a different sheet of paper and only pastes them into pages afterward. In this book, that transition happens abruptly between "Helder" (an autobiographical story about an annoying housemate from 1989) and its follow-up "Showing 'Helder'"(a meta-autobiographical story about the process of creating the former, from a year later). The sparser look suits Brown's art well: he's an obsessive and focuses on tiny details, and placing his panels so carefully lets him be very precise with those details.

Thematically, The Little Man is all over the map: near-collage stories of redrawn panels from old comics put into a new sequence, the retelling of a gnostic story of Jesus, several then-contemporary autobiographical stories in large part about how weird his various male housemates are, some typically Brownian surreal stories of odd events and unlikely occurrences, and a self-educated screed on how evil psychiatry is. (The self-educated so often become cranks on the topics they've educated themselves about, and so it's an occupational hazard of the solo artist -- writers or cartoonists, in particular.) But each piece has definite strengths, and The Little Man holds together more than most short-story collections do, because of Brown's consistent art style and his similarly consistent concerns and images.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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