Confessional cartoon chronicler Jeffrey Brown's new autobiographical work, A Matter of Life, will sit next to Craig Thompson's Blankets as one of the most touching and wise graphic memoirs we have about growing up in a religious household and grappling with faith.
Avid consumers of graphic storytelling know Brown for the autobiographical work that established his career (Clumsy, Unlikely, AEIOU, Funny Misshapen Body). More mainstream readers will have encountered him through his best-selling meditations on fatherhood, Darth Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess. For the legions of cat lovers, his Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations and Cats Are Weird and More Observations deserve pride of place.
In addition to being versatile and prolific, he's scruffy. And by "he," I mean the author, his character self and his drawing style. Brown's scratchy, spare lines express a desire to make art that is as honest and human as possible – an insistence on perfection of idea rather than perfection of product. And yet he achieves both in A Matter of Life. Billed as an autobiographical exploration of fatherhood and faith, it is his most personal work to date — which says a lot, given his deeply revealing books on relationships and growing up.
Told in short vignettes that probe the memories of three generations of Browns — Jeffrey, his minister father and his son, Oscar -- A Matter of Life is both delightful and thought-provoking. As in previous works, Brown's more serious themes are leavened with deadpan humor. The book opens and closes with full-page spreads that zoom in on the heavens, framing the story with a cosmic perspective. "When I was little," the opening captions read, "I believed in God. At least, I think I did. At some point I realized I didn't believe. And I hadn't in a long time. If ever. It doesn't mean I don't believe in something bigger than myself." Cut to Jeffrey with his son on his shoulders, walking along a tree-lined street, asking the obvious next question: "Oscar are you chewing on my hair?" This juxtaposition of the big, philosophical questions with the simplest of father-and-son banter is a constant throughout the work.
Many whose attendance in God's house on a weekly basis was mandatory will sympathize with the young Jeffrey banging his head against the pew in boredom or furtively reading human biology books in his father's office. Or with the a-w-k-w-a-r-d scene in which he shares his newfound apostasy with his parents — an announcement that meets with silent, blank stares.
On the other hand, Brown conveys his own sense of the divine in small moments: a stubbed toe, fear of bugs, a confusing childhood memory, acts of kindness in everyday life. These trifles are infused with meaning and cherished by the author in a way that evokes the New Testament notion of Jesus in all things — but for Brown, without the Jesus part. He acknowledges, in another series of panels overlooking glorious mountain vistas, that where others see God's presence he sees beauty and wonder, but not a celestial presence.
Like all accomplished serial memoirists, Brown has mastered the art of mining the same veins of material over and over — looking at the same incidents from a different vantage point, highlighting a new stream of consciousness, focusing on an event that took place offstage in a previous work or with added bathos, in this case, abetted by the birth of his son. With each new round of toil he extracts new, rough-hewn gems — of which A Matter of Life is the most profound.
Did I mention that Brown's work is hilarious? That you will smile and laugh throughout? That you'll be inspired by the Brown family's goodness and gentle relationship with each other and the world? Reading this is a joy. Rereading it is, too.