Jeffrey Brown originally came to popularity with his “Girlfriend Trilogy” – an interlinked set of ruthlessly honest works (Clumsy, Unlikely & Any Easy Intimacy) that helped define the character of autobiographical comics for the 00s alongside the likes of James Kochalka and Craig Thompson. In the years since then Brown has diversified, releasing pop-culture parodies, two volumes of observational cat comics, animating a music video and making a film – but it’s not unfair to say that the various autobiographical works he’s released in that period weren’t exactly breaking new ground. They stuck heavily to the template of his earlier pieces, and even though they were still funny, well-observed and relatable, they had a tendency to feel tempered by Brown’s advancing age and the more stable emotional context of having settled down.
That’s all changed in his latest offering. A Matter of Life feels like Brown re-focusing on his autobiographical work, bringing to it some of the additional invention and vigour that he’d previously been ploughing into other endeavours. For the first time, this autobiographical work is presented in full colour. For the first time, it opens with a multi-page sequence of meditative illustration, rather than throwing you straight into the autobio material. And for the first time, it presents its themes overtly and consistently. That’s not to cast aspersions on anything that’s come before, but where Brown’s previous autobio was by character uncertain and raw, A Matter of Life feels confident and assured. It’s the work of someone with something to say, about huge topics like religion, life, death, fatherhood and family.
At the same time, it retains those qualities that made Brown’s work so readable in the past. At times it’s hilarious, at times its touching, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Like all good autobio comics, it doesn’t just help you understand someone else’s experiences – it can help you understand your own too. And it looks as good as Brown’s work ever has, from the bright, bold, textured colours to the note-perfect facial expressions and body language. The cover alone is a brilliantly crafted and realised image, but Brown has taken as much care with every page inside, and it’s rare you can say that about a comic of any sort.
The usual disclaimers do apply, of course – if you find autobio comics insular, naval-gazing and self-indulgent then there’s little here that’ll likely change your mind. But if you’re a fan of Brown, or the genre (and we are) then it’s as strong as anything you’ll find within it. If anything, the main problem with Brown’s work is that it’s so consistently good that it’s almost hard to notice when he puts out something even better. But A Matter of Life is a visible leap forward for him as a creator, and when composing our best books of 2013, it felt wrong not to acknowledge it for that reason alone.