Bellen! Is A Peculiar Kind of Comic: An Interview with Brian Brown
BELLEN! by Brian "Box" Brown is a journal comic about a fictional couple (really!) named Ben and Ellen (hence, "Bellen"). It's one of those comics that has shown great strides as its creator improves over time. Brown has really come into his own in the last year and Bellen! is a real treat. It has a lot of the wistfulness of Peanuts in it (there's often something Charlie Brown like about main character Ben) but it's not really similar and the artwork continues to go in interesting directions. Very recently Brown won a Xeric grant for and then self-published a collection of Bellen! based on work he originally did for the Top Shelf 2.0 webcomic portal. I got a chance to interview him last month over email.
How did you come up with the idea for Bellen!? What prompted you to start posting it to the web in 2006?
Well, I had been doing auto-bio journal strips up until then and at some point I decided I wanted to have the freedom of being able to make stuff up to. But, really Bellen! was just a way for me to do a comic in that weird comic style of 8 square panels with talking heads in them. I posted a comic as an experiment and it was well received. Bellen! was born.
In rereading some of those first comics in 2006, you seem very directly inspired by James Kochalka's American Elf and perhaps Scott Dikker's Jim's Journal in that you're putting up snapshots of Ben and Ellen's life without tremendous regard for a punchline, a conclusion or even necessarily a moment. Were you consciously drawing on other journal comics out there or other influences when you began?
Most definitely. James Kochalka definitely and probably more than a little Jeffrey Brown too. I was definitely hoping to channel the best of my favorite comics. Plus, I was still very new to comics in general back then, I hardly knew what I was doing. Now, I know slightly more. My tendency to not use punchlines sometimes alienates readers, but I have this grandiose idea on trying to change what the general public thinks comics are. They don't have to be funny, they don't have to be anything, they're sequential images depicting something. I don't know, is that pretentious enough for ya? I think I fall into Scott McCloud's "Formulist" category in that I want to breakdown what a comic is and reconstruct it that's a lot of what I find interesting when making comics.
So just how biographical are the comics? Bellen being about Ben and Ellen, you a cartoonist named Ben who lives with his girlfriend.
Actually, my name is Brian, but that's a common confusion. For a long time Bellen! wasn't really auto-bio at all. Probably like the first year. It was just a fantasy. Now, I draw from my relationship for probably about 25% of them, the rest are drawn from experience but not necessarily auto-bio. They've mostly just been ruminations lately. Oh, and exercises in style.
I knew that -- I was, uh, just testing you :)
About when did you start adding color to the mix in the comics? There seems to be a "middle" phase of Bellen with color and a particular format ("Bellen" written across the top, wide rectangle format) where you really seem to have made a lot of growth in both the writing and the artwork. The influences on the earlier strips seem to be fading in favor of something more unique. Were you trying new things or was it just trying to do a better job each one?
I remember distinctly when I began using color. I had, for a while tried doing continuing storylines and I found it to be wholly difficult. I ran out of ideas for a storyline and decided to do this weird ill-fated series of comics where Bellen! was a sitcom. It was horribly received and gave up. That's when I decided to go back to 8 panel strips but changed the style a lot and added color and that big Bellen! banner. That was the very loose formula for a long time. Then for a long time I just tried to emulate, rather shamelessly every single comic I was reading. From Ivan Brunetti to Vaugn Bode. I was also always trying to do something new the coloring. That was also when I moved the strip to 3 days a week. I've always loved experimentation which could be what makes bellen! interesting or its downfall, I'm not too sure about it.
More recently you seem to be even more innovative in your approach to the narrative and the artwork. What inspired the more recent stylistic changes?
The recent stylistic changes have totally been out of a love for vintage advertisements and graphic design. It was time for a change. I think it's been going pretty good so far but I'm not sure how long it'll last. I think I may end up splitting Bellen! into two distinct versions, one with a more grounded view of the characters and one that's just totally experimental.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
Well, I pencil out the comic on 11x14 bristol, and ink it with either a Pentel Brush Pen, Micron Pen or G-Pen Nib and Speedball ink. Then it's old scan and then to photoshop, for coloring and lettering. Then I use some scans of old paper to make it look "old-timey".
You've had some comics on Top Shelf 2.0's webcomic portal -- how did that come about? Did folks at Top Shelf contact you directly?
I was reading someone's comic on livejournal, maybe Edward Grug III and Jessica McCleod's Love Puppets after they had landed the spot on TS 2.0 and saw that Leigh Walton commented saying that he was glad to run it or something that indicated that he was the editor and I replied to the comment saying that he should run my stuff, kinda snarkily. And, he wrote back saying to send some stuff in. So, I sent him Bellen! and he liked it but thought I should try to put something original together for them. So, I did the original "Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing" comic and they ran it.
The big news recently for you is -- you won the Xeric Grant, (which is awarded to help artists self publish comics). Congrats! What led you to apply and what did you put together in your application? What was the process like that led up to you learning you'd won?
I was out of work for a while late last year. I had moved to Philly and had a lot of time on my hands. I had a few comics together I had done for Top Shelf 2.0 and some anthologies, probably about 35 pages? And, I had gone up to visit the Center for Cartoon studies a few months prior. I was talking to former Xeric winner Colleen Frakes and she was telling me all about it. So, I figured what the heck? I ain't doin' nothin' else. Then they accept the proposal in November, I was like "shoot" well gonna have to finish this book then.
Luckily/unluckily I was still out of work.
The book that you're self-publishing based on the grant money is Love Is A Peculiar Type of Thing. Were you already familar with how to self-publish a book or was all of this a learning process? Can you walk us through the major steps of how you got the book together and printed?
I was pretty familiar with self-publishing. I had put together a few Bellen! compilations, but nothing at this magnitude. I kinda had no idea what I was doing! Ed Brisson of New Reliable Press was a HUGE help in getting this thing done. From choosing a printer to soliciting Diamond he was on point with the advice. I was pretty familiar with getting files together for printing but nieve too. One recent blunder was having all the books sent to my current workplace. It was a real pain in the ass getting 14 30lb. boxes across town. But, the whole Diamond thing was way new to me. Then they raised the minimums and the pressure is on to sell these things.
What comics are in the book?
The three comics up on Top Shelf 2.0 and a lot of 7-10 page stories about Ben having anxiety and falling in love. I have no idea how people will receive these stories to be honest with you. Almost all of it is drawn directly from my life, so it's nerve wracking.
Now I understand the big challenge is meeting Diamond's new minimums to get them to actually carry the book for distribution. How many book orders does their minimum translate into for your book? Also what kinds of things are you doing to promote the book? I saw on your LiveJournal the interview you did with Sam Seder on Air America's BreakRoom Live - very funny but also maybe they gave you a link on their website? Any other out-of-the-box ideas you're thinking of trying?
I sent out a ton of copies to major long shots like Howard Stern and This American Life. Someone once told me that when you're promoting you should try to get yourself out there any way you can especially on media that you watch or read or listen to. The Breakroom Live Interview was great! I'm actually up for Unemployee of the Month so I may be on again. They mentioned my site again last Friday too. It was really thrilling.
Speaking of the Seder interview - do you want to tell us what a typical day for you is right now?
Wake up at 7am. Feed the cats, shower, listen to Stern while I update the website. Head to work and input porn information for a few hours, mail stuff out at lunch, a few more hours of porn, the gym, then it's comics creation and other related stuff from about 7-10. Then hopefully spend some quality time with my girlfriend and cats. There's also a healthy amount of coffee in there too.
You do another strip - this one a topical, political satire called American't. I think you're pretty good at that and many of these comics have a real bite in them, something I wasn't really expecting after reading Bellen. What's your motivation for this comic and is it something you plan to keep doing?
American't was spawned during the election. Politics was consuming my life and I felt like I had to add something to the spectrum. I couldn't do it in Bellen! so the people got American't. Politics is still a big thing in my life, hence the Breakroom Live interview but I just don't really have the time to get back to American't. Though, I really would love to do a lot more. Maybe I'll return on a more regular basis someday. For now, it'll just be one every few months or so.
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Of course! I love comics! Let's see, recently I read Andew Lorenzi's mini-comic and it was wonderful. I really love the new BOASAS comics. Pranas' Inkdick and Jay Marcy's are both pretty great auto-bio comics. I'm really looking forward to Seth's new book and of course American Elf. Lots of other stuff too. My friend Josh is making these great comics about his friend Hardcore Dan, who is probably the best new comic character in the last few years.