An alt comics artist as comfortable in the realm of commercial kid-friendly entertainments (Darth Vader and Son) as he is more personalized autobiographical fare, Jeffrey Brown tackles the core issues of fatherhood, aging and religious upbringing in his A Matter of Life (Top Shelf Productions). Switching between memories of his boyhood in a home with a traditionally religious minister father and his adult uncertainties about the proper message to provide his own son Oscar, Brown’s graphic novel should strike a bell for any parent who’s ever questioned the teachings they’ve tried to give their kids.
Opening and closing on images of a vast, unknowable cosmos, Brown’s book first closes in on the images of the artist and his son considering the sun above their heads. It looks like a bug to young Oscar, which immediately brings up memories of Brown’s own boyhood phobia of insects, then recollections of his going on a church mission. This stream-of-consciousness approach can be initially disconcerting to those expecting more linear storytelling, but Brown keeps circling around his exploration of personal faith in a world that so often can seem random and beyond our control.
In one particularly effective one-page sequence, we see the artist as a student lying in a bunk bed at night, thinking, “Some day I’ll die and I won’t exist forever and I’ll never have another thought,” followed by nine panels of him lying back, wide-eyed, considering the ramifications of this. It’s a moment that many of us have had in our lives, and Brown captures it beautifully.
Throughout the graphic novel, there are vignettes depicting the artist’s relationship with his son and his father, who of course has problems with son Jeffrey’s declarations of faithlessness. The issue of aging also figures strongly in the book, both with Brown’s father and an elderly neighbor who the artist rescues after he’s fallen down in the bathtub. A Matter of Life is as much about the shadow of death, both human and beyond as when father and son consider the dinosaur fossils in a natural history museum. “When I was little, I had recurring dreams about dinosaurs, usually chasing after me,” Brown recalls at one point. “My dreams became Biblical when I got a little older.”
Brown illustrates this all in his warmly detailed cartoon style. His drawings are intensely humane and his ability to capture the small moments in all of his family’s life is what keeps you reading. Both challenging and sweet, A Matter of Life is a wonderful testament of the ways that comic art can look beyond the trappings of genre storytelling.