Chester Brown's autobiographical comics

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Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown attracted attention from critics and his peers in the early 1990s alternative comics world when he began writing autobiographical comics in his comic book series Yummy Fur.

From this period, Brown produced a number of short stories, as well as two graphic novels, The Playboy and I Never Liked You (originally called Disgust and Fuck in the pages of Yummy Fur). The stories were much more personal and revealing than what Brown had written previously, and were drawn in a much more organic style and page layout, sometimes with a single small panel on a page.

In 2011, Brown returned to autobiography when he published Paying For It, an account of his experience with prostitutes.

The Yummy Fur autobiographical stories have been collected—the short stories in The Little Man (1998), and the graphic novels The Playboy (1992) and Fuck as I Never Liked You (1994, revised 2002). Paying For It (2011) has appeared only in book form.

Background[edit]

After bringing Ed to an end, Brown moved on to a series of personally revealing autobiographical stories, starting with "Helder" in Yummy Fur #19. The drawing style, done with a brush, became more and more sparse in an attempt to move away from the style of Ed the Happy Clown, which Brown had grown uncomfortable with. Most of the shorter stories, like "Helder", "Showing Helder" and "Danny's Story", took place not long before they were written, but the longer graphic novels took place mostly in Brown's adolescence in the 1970s.

Brown drew inspiration from Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar's autobiographical stories, but he says the biggest push he had at the time was from Seth, his friend and fellow Vortex Comics cartoonist; Joe Matt, whose one-page autobiographical cartoons Brown and Seth discovered in 1989, and who eventually moved to Toronto and became friends with the two; and Julie Doucet, whose comics were not explicitly autobiographical, but starred the cartoonist herself and contained autobiographical elements.[1] All four cartoonists would shortly join Drawn and Quarterly and become associated with one another to the public.

Some of Brown's autobiographical early stories dealt with himself as an adult, but he quickly ran into problems with friends who disagreed with his depiction of them. He then turned to his teenage years and produced some of his most highly acclaimed work. He says he found "the intense emotions of the period [of adolescence], as you’re figuring out sex and love and everything" to be "bound to produce rich material for stories."[2]

Stories[edit]

Helder[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #19; appears in The Little Man, pages 47–67)

The first of his autobiographical stories, "Helder" is a "straightforward observational memoir"[3] of his experiences with a difficult neighbour, a "dark story" involving "scenes of domestic abuse and violence."[4]

Story[edit]

The story takes place in Toronto in 1984, and Brown was living in a rooming house with shared kitchen and washrooms. One of the other tenants is Helder, who is living there with his fiancée, Anne. Helder gives Brown a cold welcome when he moves in, but soon comes to Brown's room to introduce himself and Anne—and to ask to borrow money. A week later, Anne returns the money and requests that the tenants not lend Helder any more.

Helder has a reputation for violence, and a few months later gets into a violent argument with Anne, who receives a black eye. Anne moves out and, since the lease was hers, Helder is also forced to move out, but returns regularly to borrow money from one of the tenants.

Brown meets a new tenant, Donna, who he wants to ask out. He waits too long, however, and she ends up going out with someone else—Helder. Later, Helder gets into yet another violent confrontation, breaking down Donna's door and smashing a window. Donna soon moves out, but Helder continues frequently to stop by to borrow money until someone calls the police, knowing Helder happens to be carrying a lot of illegal drugs. Helder is never seen at the rooming house again.

Showing Helder[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #20; appears in The Little Man, pages 68–101)

The story of how "Helder" came to be made. Brown's character worries about the artistic decisions he has made, consulting with friends Kris (his ex-girlfriend), Mark Askwith and Seth, but getting conflicting advice.[5] He changed some of the panels of "Helder" (mainly of Brown's character breaking the fourth wall by talking to the readers) on the advice of Askwith and Kris. Two of the original panels were reproduced in the notes to the collection The Little Man.

According to critic Bart Beaty, the story has an "aura of 'truth'", as "the anecdotal nature of the story lends an air of authenticity for readers who might well wonder why someone would bother to fabricate a story that is so slight."[6] However, Brown runs into trouble with his depictions of people. In particular, his friend Kris objects to the way she is depicted and has Brown change her dialogue.

In this story, Brown "uses no panel borders at all – but still maintains the grid’s left to right zig zag reading"[7]—immediately after this issue Brown would abandon the grid entirely. Originally, Brown had penciled in the panels with borders and backgrounds, but when it came time to ink the artwork, he decided to ink only what he considered essential, dropping the borders and much of the background detail, later saying he had "become dissatisfied with [his] drawing style for awhile and wanted it to be freer -- more spontaneous."[8]

In the end, Brown ran into the problem of telling his story using people he knew:

"[M]y 'story' intersects with other people's 'stories' and sometimes those people are going to think I'm not telling their story right. If those people are friends, I've got a problem."

—Chester Brown, 1998[8]

Brown decided to base his next story on his adolescence, as, aside from relatives, he had lost touch with those he had known as a teenager.[8]

Disgust/The Playboy Stories (aka The Playboy)[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #21-23)

Brown's experiences as an adolescent obsessed with the Playmates in Playboy magazine, while wracked with guilt over his obsessive masturbation, and his difficulty relating to women as an adult.

Originally, this story and I Never Liked You were planned to be one book, but as Brown "began to plan it out, it just seemed too complex."[9] Originally titled Disgust, it came to be known as The Playboy Stories, then was finally collected as The Playboy.

The Little Man[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #24; appears in The Little Man, pages 102-120)

Inspired by Peter Bagge's "Dickie Bird" strip from Weirdo #10, "which was a perfect simulation of the type of juvenile drawings so many of us did while trapped in dull classrooms."[8]

A "true story"—a retelling of a story that Brown would tell to a friend when he was in elementary school. Brown's character is caught playing with his penis by his teacher, who grabs him by the penis and tries to cut it off with scissors, stretching it in the process. The story progressively gets bigger and more ridiculous, with the police chasing after Brown, who escapes by spinning his stretched penis like a helicopter's blades, while urinating on the police at the same time. Brown then shoots his principal and drives away in a police car. Towards the end, the scene cuts to Brown continuing to build up his story to his friend, Russell. He's cut off by his mother, however, as he gets home, who asks Russel to leave, telling Brown, "I just...don't want anyone here right now."[10] The story closes with a page of the young Brown urinating in the toilet at home.

Danny's Story[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #25; appears in The Little Man, pages 128-141)

A short story of Brown waking up, urinating, picking his nose, getting dressed and being confronted at his room door by a talkative, black neighbour, "Danny". In the end, Brown tries to close the door, but "Danny" forces his hand inside, which Brown then bites. Danny yells at Brown, "White man never have respect for black man!"[11] and eventually leaves, as Brown ponders breakfast.

The real "Danny" had asked Brown to include him in a Yummy Fur story. Brown did, but never showed it to him. Brown says he was seen flipping through a copy of Yummy Fur #25, but believes "Danny" didn't recognize himself in the story.[12]

Fuck (aka I Never Liked You)[edit]

(originally appeared in Yummy Fur #26-30)

Once again telling a tale of Brown's adolescence. Brown has trouble relating with the opposite sex, even when they are the ones trying to connect with him. Originally titled Fuck, the story was retitled I Never Liked You when collected.

Paying For It[edit]

(original graphic novel)

Brown's first time tackling autobiography since he finished Fuck/I Never Liked You.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, Sook-Yin Lee, Brown gives up on "possessive monogamy" and makes the case for taking up the life of a "john", detailing each of the 23 prostitutes he has visited to date and his debates with friends over the issue. Includes a 50-page, 23-part appendix elaborating the case for decriminalization of prostitution.

Style[edit]

"Beginning with the Playboy series, I really tried to pare down my style. I was feeling trapped by my style. I wasn't totally happy with it. I wanted to try to rebuild my style in a way that I would like. And that process went even further with I Never Liked You, where I was trying to get even more pared down than The Playboy."

Chester Brown, 1997[13]

During this period, Brown "abandons the fixed 6 panel grid" that he had used up until that point, "and replaces it with a more organic collaged sequencing using panels of a more varied shape."[7] He would later move back to a grid system, using a six-panel grid in Louis Riel and an eight-panel grid in Paying For It.

The drawing style became much simpler than it had been in Ed the Happy Clown. Brown "just didn't like [his] drawing",[14] and so made an attempt to rebuild his style into something he would like better. He says he was looking at "cartoonists who drew in a simpler way"[14] at the time, such as in the Little Lulu Library reprints from Another Rainbow Publishing that had recently started being published, and his friend and fellow Toronto cartoonist, Seth, who drew in a simpler, New Yorker-inspired way.

Brown had great admiration for Robert Crumb's and Harvey Pekar's autobiographical work, but initially was afraid of being accused of "being a Pekar ripoff."[14] Ultimately he was inspired to try his hand at it by Joe Matt's and Julie Doucet's recent forays in autobio.

Original appearances[edit]

Original appearances in Yummy Fur
# Date Story Publisher
19 January 1990 "Helder" Vortex Comics
20 April 1990 "Showing Helder"
21 June 1990 Disgust/
The Playboy Stories
(The Playboy)
22 September 1990
23 December 1990
24 April 1991 "Danny's Story"
25 July 1991 "The Little Man" Drawn and Quarterly
26 October 1991 Fuck
(I Never Liked You)
27 January 1992
28 May 1992
29 August 1992
30 April 1993

Paying For It appeared only in book form, but the rest of Brown's autobiographical stories appeared in issues of Brown's ongoing comic book, Yummy Fur, between January 1990 and April 1993.

Most of the stories were significantly reformatted when published in book form, particularly the two graphic novels, The Playboy[15] and I Never Liked You. Both books saw the panels arranged more sparsely on the pages, sometimes having only a single, small panel on a page.[16] While no new content was added, the page counts of both books increased significantly as a result.

"Showing Helder" was also significantly rearranged when it was reprinted in the Little Man collection, and some of the panels were completely redrawn.

Book collections[edit]

Year Title Publisher ISBN Notes
1992 The Playboy: A Comic Book Drawn and Quarterly 978-0-969-67011-7 reformatted collection of Disgust/the Playboy stories from Yummy Fur #21-23
1994 I Never Liked You 978-0-969-67016-2 reformatted collection of Fuck from Yummy Fur #26-30
1998 The Little Man: Short Strips 1980-1995 978-1-896-59713-3 includes "Helder", "Showing Helder", "The Little Man" and "Danny's Story"
2002 I Never Liked You: The New Definitive Edition 978-1-896-59714-0 black page backgrounds changed to white, panels slightly rearranged
2011 Paying For It 978-1-770-46048-5 never serialized; introduction by Robert Crumb

Reception[edit]

His autobiographical comics are among Brown's most highly thought-of works, and ranked #38 on the Comics Journal's list of the 100 best comics of the century in 1999.[17]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Brown, The Little Man, page 165
  2. ^ Rosenkrantz, page 2
  3. ^ Wolk, page 151
  4. ^ Kasa, Deni (2010-04-19). "Humour and Reflexivity". More Than Words. Retrieved 2011-04-30. 
  5. ^ Pustz, Matthew J. "I Gave It All Up to Draw Comics: Autobiographical (And Other) Tales About Creating Comic Books". Inside the World of Comic Books, pages 61–81 (editor: Jeffery Klaehn). Black Rose Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55164-296-3
  6. ^ Beaty, page 256
  7. ^ a b Frank, Santoro (2010-10-16). "Class with Frank part 2: Doin' the Chester". Comics Comics. Retrieved 2011-04-30. 
  8. ^ a b c d Brown, The Little Man, page 166
  9. ^ Juno, page 140
  10. ^ The Little Man, page 119
  11. ^ The Little Man, page 141
  12. ^ The Little Man, page 167
  13. ^ Juno, page 135
  14. ^ a b c Juno, page 136
  15. ^ Verstappen, Nicolas (August 2008). "Chester Brown". du9.org. Retrieved 2011-05-23. "You have re-drawn the beginning of Louis Riel for the graphic novel format and also re-arranged panels for The Playboy graphic novel." 
  16. ^ "I Never Liked You". Eyes In The Dark. 2008-09-25. Retrieved 2011-05-23. "There is plenty of space between the panels, and quite often there is only one panel on a page." 
  17. ^ Hatfield, Charles. "The Autobiographical Stories in Yummy Fur". The Comics Journal #210. page 67

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]