I was a little surprised when I got my copy of Box Brown's Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. I've long been a fan of Brown's webcomic Bellen! (previously reviewed here) and I expected to see my favorite round-headed lovebirds Ben and Ellen gracing the cover. Instead, the front of Love features Ben, the male half of the fictional couple, and then Ben again, an arrow pointing from one Ben to the other. Why is been on the cover twice, I wondered. And where is Ellen?
As it turns out, Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing is not precisely a Bellen! book. Rather, it functions as a companion to Bellen! in much the way the film American Splendor works as companion to Harvey Pekar's comics. We open with "New City Stroll," a wonderfully satisfying Ben and Ellen story that is exactly what I'd hoped to see from a longer-form Box Brown comic. Having just moved in together, our couple takes a stroll through Philadelphia and has small adventures while Ben contemplates whether he likes his new city. It's a perfect little nugget of Bellen! goodness, the kind of story that reminds us how fascinating the mundane can be and how we're often sweet and sour in a single breath. Then we cut immediately to Box Brown himself as he briefly explains, as if being interviewed for the Bellen! documentary, the relationship between his boozy depressed self and his nearly physically identical proxy Ben.
From there, Love becomes much more meditative, exploring the vast territories of loneliness, companionship (and the things we try to substitute for companionship), and coping with thoughts of aging and death. There are still those celebrations of the private, silly moments couples in love share (notably "Mundane Magic") and parsing the nature of love (the all too true title story). But most of the stories focus primarily on Ben or Brown himself.
In Bellen!, Ben has been a sort of everyman for the young, educated, agnostic set, but in Love, he suddenly gets a personal history. He has a sister. He's a child of divorce. There are definable girls before Ellen rather than the implication of earlier failed relationships. Bellen! has always been slightly more about Ben than Ellen, but with Ben taking center stage, it might be tempting to regard Ellen as a mere appendage (and in one story, Ben even likens meeting Ellen to growing another limb). But contrasting stories like "The Life of Ben" -- which portrays Ben's entire life as leading up to his eventual meeting with Ellen -- and "We Were Morons Once" -- perhaps the most visually striking story, which plays with the similar framing of comic panels and yearbook photos to explore the way we replay and share our memories -- with the interludes about Box Brown's own anxieties over isolation, art, and leading an authentic life without regrets, she becomes something more. She becomes the symbol of an aspirational life, a life where we still have our neuroses and our fears, but we are loved for them, and have something reassuring to cling to even in an unfair, war-torn, and ignorance-filled world. With Ellen, Ben is still Box Brown in many ways, but he is groping and growing beside someone who anchors him, calls him out on his shit, and lets him sometimes forget about his troubles and simply enjoy life.
It's little surprise, then, that the sole cracks in this otherwise solid text appear where Brown steps out of his earnest search for meaning and presumes he (or Ben) has any kind of answers. In "Your Sins Will Be White as Snow," Ben develops a perverse obsession with Chick tracts and the well-meaning evangelist who foists them on passers-by. Although it's filled with some wonderfully identifiable moments of internal conflict (I remember being quite excited myself the first time I got handed a real-life Chick tract -- I'd always thought people who enjoyed them unironically were a bit of a myth -- then feeling too guilty to actually keep the thing on my person), it ends on a disappointingly jokey note that's too slight and too cynical for the normally thoughtful Brown. Similarly, the final story, "Standing Like Curious Children," offers some morsels of stunning insight (having recently lost someone very close to me, the idea of loved ones as appendages hits painfully close to home). But a much older Ben reflecting on his life -- and impending death -- proves uncomfortably didactic and loses the unvarnished honesty that generally suffuses Brown's work.
These minor issues, though, do little to detract from the overall success of Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. It manages to be an intensely personal work that invites us to reflect upon our own lives rather than make judgments on Brown's. It assures us not only that we are not alone in our discontentment, our impatience, our pretensions, and our moments of existential panic, but also that there are people out in the world who will love us exactly for our crazy selves.
Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing was published with a Xeric Grant and hits stores June 3.