Clumsy: A Novel

By Jeffrey Brown
232 pages, black and white
self-published; distributed by Top Shelf Productions

It takes guts to have a cover like that of Clumsy. It’s easy to pass it by with its “brown wrapper” look; even the text on it (the title, author’s name, price, and parental advisory) hardly grabs the attention for more than half a second. And yet, somehow, there’s something about it that made me come back. Maybe it was the confidence of the book that is determined to succeed by sheer talent, or maybe it was just the hand-drawn “Parental Advisory” label. What I do know, though, is once I started reading I simply couldn’t stop.

When Jeff and Theresa first met, they instantly hit it off; never mind that they lived over 1200 miles away, this was definitely the start of a relationship. As the two visited each other and talked on the phone, both felt like this was meant to be. But could their relationship truly survive the distance or each other?

It’s not surprising to me that James Kochalka is quoted on the back of Clumsy, because Kochalka and Brown have a lot in common with each other. Clumsy is a deeply autobiographical story by Brown, but like Kochalka’s works he avoids the trap of making comics autobiography equal boring. Brown does this by telling his story in one- and two-page vignettes, each a complete unit unto itself. Like Kochalka, there’s a certain sense of wonder and innocence about the stories, as if Brown is seeing the world around him for the first time. Brown also isn’t afraid of making himself look a bit of a fool when the story calls for it; it’s a very unflinching look at young love that shows the good as well as the bad.

I’m sure Brown’s art may turn off a lot of potential readers; at a glance, it’s very much a childlike doodle, six panels crammed onto every page. What I found the more I looked at it, though, was a real sense of emotion that is absent in so many comics. Looking at how Brown draws his own face, you can see every bit of grief and happiness and uncertainty that travels through his head at a moment’s notice. His wide eyes make so much of the art; as you follow his gaze, you can really understand what he’s thinking and what he and Theresa are going to do next. It’s a sweet art style, and I think it’s much more effective than a casual glance will reveal.

Clumsy is subtitled “A Novel” and it definitely is. Watching Jeff and Theresa’s relationship travel from beginning to ending is surprisingly engaging and clever. Brown may have titled his book Clumsy, but the book was created with a great deal of confidence and talent. It’s a charming debut, and with his next work Unlikely already in stores, I know what I’ll be reading soon. Hopefully Brown is here to stay.

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