Friday, July 17, 2015

The Little Man: Collected Short Pieces 1980-1995 written and illustrated by Chester Brown

The Little Man: Collected Short Pieces 1980-1995 written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1973-2006/ This revised edition 2006): Canada's most lovable, prickly, occasionally misanthropic cartoonist collects a decade-and-a-half of short pieces here, along with new notes on the origins and meanings of those short pieces. 

Chester Brown also spends a fair bit of space writing about the significance of Doug Wright's Family in the End Notes. Truly, Chester is Canadian, born and raised in an Anglo Montreal suburb but more identified with Toronto, his home for much of the last 35 years.

The Little Man offers a pretty useful guide to the changes in Brown's cartooning interests over the 15 years covered by the book. His early work consisted of often grotesque, boundary-pushing fantasy and absurdism, embodied by his Ed the Clown series. Shorter pieces included here show that grotesque cartoony portion of Brown's body of work, with some very funny pieces and some of the more disturbing short horror pieces to ever appear in comic form. 

Indeed, the horror pieces involving funny animals Gerbil and Bunny become even more disturbing (as Brown acknowledges in his notes) when one discovers that 'Gerbil' and 'Bunny' were the pet names Brown and one girlfriend had for one another at the time the pieces were created. And around the same time, Brown was working on an illustrated story of Jesus from which we get an outlier -- a Gnostic story of Jesus and his twin. This is range, folks.

Brown would get bored with fiction as the 1980's waned, turning instead to often painfully honest and closely observed chronicles of his own life. But he'd also become interested in comics as a vehicle for historical and social observation. Sometimes he melded general discussions with the personal. Here, Brown discusses theories about schizophrenia in concert with a discussion of his own mother's struggles with schizophrenia; we would see this structure again in the graphic novel Paying For It. Brown would also do a relatively 'straightforward' historical graphic novel in the oughts, Louis Riel, but even that meshed at points in the text with the piece about his mother's schizophrenia through Brown's discussion in the notes of his theories about madness, whether that madness was Riel's or his mother's.

In the short pieces, one also sees the changes in Brown's artwork. He becomes looser and more adept at a simplicity of linework as time goes by. Nonetheless, it's all of a piece artistically, even the very early stuff. The Notes are generous in their contextualization of the works, and in Brown's deadpan, prickly self-evaluation. He will pick his nose. He will eat it. He will draw it. He will publish that drawing. And you will go, 'Eeww!'. Highly recommended.

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