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Jeffrey Brown is some kind of wonderful

Christopher Borrelli

1:34 PM CDT, May 25, 2013

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Jeffrey Brown — cartoonist, Lincoln Square resident, serious adult who has several cat-themed products under his name, including a box of novelty postcards titled "The Cutest Sneeze in the World: 30 Cat Postcards" — has been asking for it. For some time. Man, oh, man, this guy.

His first book, "Clumsy," published a decade ago, was full of amateur strips on sex, on relationships; his next books appeared similarly dispensable and covered such subjects as Jeffrey Brown, Jeffrey Brown's loss-of-his-virginity, and Jeffrey Brown. When he wrote the (charming) screenplay for a Sundance-accepted indie film, 2012's "Save the Date," of course the whole thing felt like an extended reminder of that post-collegiate time between drifting and settling down.

Not to mention: He looks like a child in his comics, and even as he grows older and has children — his second son was born this spring — Brown's image of himself remains a 13-year-old with a Halloween-hobo stubble.

He's kind of wonderful.

He's been begging for snark, for cheap critical derision at the sentiment and seeming artlessness of his output. And yet, remarkably, even when he's writing about his relationship with his first son in "A Matter of Life," one of his two new books, there's nothing cute or cheap. "A Matter of Life" winds along leisurely and uncertainly, like a more neurotic "Family Circus," starting with Brown's calm, gentle relationship with his father, a minister in Grand Rapids, Mich., then settling into a series of found moments about the fragility of life and Brown's own relationship with his oldest son.

His son asks Brown if daddy hits mommy, and they reassure their son that no one is hit; which leads Brown to wonder if his son will mention this conversation, and his denial, in school someday. Standing on a sidewalk, Brown looks both ways before crossing a street, begins to step off the corner, when an old woman asks him if he knew the "young man who was killed here last night."

There's not much more than bits like that, nuggets, short moments.

Brown overreaches with the opening and closing — big black spaces, full of stars and specks of planets — but it's the kind of unnecessary, warm gesture that only reminds you how genuine the rest of the book feels, how it rarely lurches in such an overly lyrical way to arrive at the small, quiet moments of kindness. Indeed, getting across kindness, never the easiest quality to deliver with any measure of sincerity, might be Brown's finest instinct, the truest bit in all his work.

It's not for nothing that the two biggest hits of Brown's career, last year's "Star Wars: Darth Vader and Son" and the new "Star Wars: Vader's Little Princess," never seem like the novelty books they actually are, twin series of one-panel gags about Darth Vader's parenting skills.

Instead, when Vader stares down Princess Leia asking "What exactly is it that you do?" Brown captures the impenetrability of knowing one's parents. Sounds like a stretch, perhaps. And yet his "Vader" books capture the everyday push-pull between parents and kids — oppressor and rebel, you might say — so thoughtfully and cleverly, the "Star Wars" stuff recedes at times.

It could have been the best Sunday newspaper comic, but that, like Brown's work itself, is a bittersweet truth.

Jeffrey Brown will appear at Lit Fest at 11:15 a.m., June 9, on Plymouth Stage. Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.

A Matter

of Life

By Jeffrey Brown, Top Shelf Productions, 96 pages, $14.95

Star Wars: Vader's Little Princess

By Jeffrey Brown, Chronicle Books, 64 pages, $14.95