Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Death gets personal for Box Brown



There's a funny thing about some artists where they can work wonders with a subject that's at arm's length, but when they get too personal, things start to crack. That's how I've felt for a while about Box Brown's work.

Everything Dies has been a brilliant stroke from Brown. Brown's refined style is a perfect match for his accounts of false prophets and rhyming religious email forwards. But it's often jarring when Brown talks about his own faith, or rather his lack of faith.

I noticed back when Brown published the lovely Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing that when Brown talks about his lack of interest in an afterlife or a divine governor, he lurches from the narrative to the didactic. Against the rest of he book, it comes off as weirdly preachy. The same problem plagues Everything Dies in the early chapters. While Brown is trying to explain what he himself believes, it's a strange contrast against the memetic spread of the idea of Rapture.

Lately, Brown has gotten better at explaining himself. Or maybe he's better at easing us into his mindspace. "To Exist" is a personal meditation on Brown's frustration with responses to the ubiquitous "Coexist" bumper sticker, and while it takes a firm aim at evangelicals as anything Brown writes, there's something gentle here as he explores the notion of difference and how intolerance threatens to ever-narrow our definition of difference. "But I Don't Want to Die" chronicles Brown's personal history with religion and his gradual transition to atheism, and here, working in a more narrative framework, Brown comes off as far more honest than he does in "Pre-Need" and far less finger-wagging than in "Demonstrable Proof."

But "Ben Died of a Train" is the comic I've been waiting for Brown to write, the comic about a person who dies young and tragically. When Brown writes about death, he often envisions himself dying as an old man, something that feels oddly like a comforting fable in a series that's so often critical of comforting fables. But "Ben" is something else: art-making as a funereal act, coping with death by rewinding and distilling memories and spinning them through Brown's own peculiar lens.

I hope that in the coming year, Brown focuses more on his more his more historical and journalistic religious comics. They're great fun to read, and I find I learn a lot about a particular belief or religious group that I didn't know before. But I'm also glad he took the time to offer a deeper view into his non-religious psyche, one that's less about instruction and more about point of view.

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