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Clumsy By Matt Martin
Top Shelf Productions Ė Jeffrey Brown (w/a)
Oh, doomed relationships. Iíve had more than one of those (though, if Bill Jemasí press releases are to be believed, a good portion of comic readers have not).
Clumsy is the debut graphic novel by Jeffrey Brown, a creator that Iíd heard absolutely nothing about until now. My initial impression of the product was that for a measly ten bucks, I was getting an awful lot of story in a fairly economically sized package (the novel is about the dimensions of your average manga trade paperback, only considerably thicker and on higher quality paper). The cover design is simple, almost monochromatic, with a hand-printed sort of look; in a lot of ways, the exterior of the book reminds me of a miniature version of the recent graphic novel Subway Series.
Flipping through the pages, I was struck by one simple fact. And Iím going to be really, really honest about that fact:
Mr. Brown is probably not going to win any awards because of his art. A closer look revealed that he probably isnít going to take home any trophies for Best Letterer either.
Itís a harsh thing to say, but itís true. Brown has a very amateurish style, scratchy and crude. His figures serve their purpose, conveying the action (though saying that a book about relationships has ďactionĒ is probably not entirely accurate) adequately. And while Brown has about three different facial expressions in his arsenal, they also get the job done. In addition, there are more than a few instances where his hand-lettered bubbles either are unclearly printed or have words so crammed together so as to force the reader to squint to make out whatís being said.
However, after all those uncomplimentary things are said, thereís another simple fact to be addressed:
The style just starts to grow on you after a while. And then you stop noticing that he isnít exactly a master draftsman and just follow his story.
The story itself is predictable, but thatís sort of the point. Itís about Jeff, a fairly conservative (or so it seemed to me) guy and his one-time love, Theresa, a girl that he once assesses to himself as a ďdirty hippie.Ē Thatís the long and short of it.
From the beginning, itís pretty clear to the reader that the pair will not last (and itís even clearer if you read the dedications on the first page, where he refers to her in the past tense), even aside from the fact that they are conducting a very long distance relationship. Over the course of a story that is told as a series of roughly one-page vignettes, it becomes increasingly obvious that the type of relationship that Jeff needs to be truly happy is hard to find and even harder to give. The author is a needy, clingy, dependent guy. Thatís the only way to put it. And Theresa, as hippies are wont to be, tends to be a bit more on the free-spirited side.
Her smoking, drinking and history of drug use turn him off. When she mentions, during a conversation about who theyíd sleep with if they could sleep with anyone, that she would sleep with a woman (albeit a woman from a comic book, so to her, it doesnít count), Jeff is simply speechless, reacting with all the subtlety of a pole-axed cow and sitting straight up in stunned disbelief (though I gotta tell you, if my fiancťe told me that, my reaction would be decidedly different and I think a lot of guys out there know what Iím talking about). Throughout it all, however, Jeff stays the course and tries to make it work. And you can see that he honestly believes that it will.
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As the story unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that Jeff is not the only person with insecurities to work out. Theresa still lives with her parents, a fact that puts a noticeable crimp in their style whenever he makes the flight up to visit her. On holidays or special occasions, his presents to her leave her feeling inadequate in regards to the gifts that she gave him. Theyíre little insecurities, but ones that are obviously going to grow into something greater, particularly when a reader can see reflections of his own past relationships in them.
In the end, the lynchpin that holds the graphic novel together is the blunt honesty that Brown displays in telling the story of their relationship, seemingly never flinching away from showing his own foibles and emotions. The story is notably one-sided, but thatís OK; itís his story.
If I had to complain about one thing, itís the manner in which the story is laid out. In a very Pulp Fiction style, Brown jumbles the sequence of events up, an effect that is disconcerting initially, as he doesnít explicitly state dates and locations on each page. Rather, the reader is left to figure out on his own how things all fit together. Again, itís a little complaint. Itís made even littler by the fact that Clumsy could not conclude with such poignancy if it were not for the contrast of the final three scenes, ďThe End,Ē ďFirst TimeĒ and ďYou Can Ask Me.Ē That effect is made possible solely by the mixing up of the storyís timeline.
When all's said and done, Clumsy is aptly named, at least in regards to the art. However, in terms of his ability to relate a touching, painful and honest story, Brown is anything but.