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In Print: Jeffrey Brown's true romance

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After the first 100 xeroxed-and-stapled copies of Jeffrey Brown's graphic novel, Clumsy, sold out, he started thinking about trying to get it professionally produced--the handmade copies were running him an exorbitant seven dollars apiece. But after none of the ten or so publishers he approached was willing to take it on, he decided to do it himself. That's when Chris Ware--whom Brown had met at a book signing two years earlier, shortly after moving to town to attend a master's program at the School of the Art Institute--suggested he get in touch with Paul Hornschemeier, another comics artist who was making a living as a freelance designer and as a rep for the Canadian printer Westcan.

"I probably would have helped out anyone that asked," says Hornschemeier, "but once I saw what Jeff was doing I got really excited about it." The 224 pages of Clumsy tell the autobiographical story of Brown's yearlong love affair with a girl named Theresa through an achronological series of vignettes. Done freehand over the course of four months, the simple line drawings convey the fragile hope and joy of a new relationship--and the fear and confusion of its disintegration--in six spare panels per page. Jeff and Theresa have pear-shaped bodies, round eyes, and spindly limbs, his invariably covered by strangely endearing masses of stubbly hair. When they have sex--which happens a lot--they grin from ear to ear and say things like "You're so pretty."

"I wasn't satisfied with the portrayal of relationships in the majority of the media," says Brown. "Like in the movies--it's so unrealistic. Being in a relationship you realize that everything you learn about them, outside of being in the relationship, is just so inaccurate and filtered through so many things that by the time you see it presented to you, it's just like, 'That's not what it's like.'"

Hornschemeier helped Brown do all the preproduction work on the book, which was printed by Westcan, from getting an ISBN to designing a cover to deciding what paper stock to use. Over the week they spent scanning Clumsy into Hornschemeier's computer, the two became friends. Says Hornschemeier--who moved to Chicago last winter after a bad breakup of his own--"I would be scanning pages and reading it at the same time, and I was like, my god, yeah. I would read the page and we would talk for hours. We probably would have gotten it done in two days without all that."

Hornschemeier's own work is as meticulously produced as Brown's is seemingly tossed off. Issue seven of his self-published comic Sequential is perfect-bound and hinge-scored, with glossy two-color inside pages and a sleek, matte-laminate four-color cover. But they're both working with the same emotional vocabulary. "Jeff does it more with just line quality," says Hornschemeier, "and I tend to do it more with color and shading, but there's a similar sort of lonely, awkward quality to both."

Hornschemeier, who has taught himself the finer points of design and preproduction over the last few years, included extensive notes at the back of Sequential number seven on how he did everything, from scanning to binding. But he doesn't think slick production values should be an end in themselves. "All that stuff is just really interesting," he says. "Not just the formal aspects--like 'What paper do I print this on?'--but do you print it on paper? Or do you print it on garbage bags or plastic, or do you silk-screen it?...Basically it's just really important to me that it's a choice. Like, with Clumsy, that's a comic book. Yeah, you could have done it another way, but I think that's just a beautiful choice."

The two authors will talk about self-publication and printing--"complete with handouts," says Hornschemeier--at the free release party for Clumsy and Hornschemeier's new quarterly, Forlorn Funnies (published by California's Absence of Ink Comic Press). It's Saturday, June 29, at 7 at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North (773-342-0910).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.

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