M.K. Brown’s gently absurd cartoons have appeared in magazines like The New Yorker, The National Lampoon and Playboy over the years, as well as underground comix mags like Arcade, Young Lust and Wimmen’s Comix. She’s kind of a legend, a woman with a very quirky sense of humor next to other cartoonists with very quirky senses of humor. The effect that a reader gets from reading the first comprehensive collection of her work, Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013, is a kind of dazed middle-class whimsy, head spinning at the wonderfully silly and smartly off-kilter way that Brown looks at the world.
Brown is one of those rare cartoonists who’s been able to follow her own muse for most of her career, and while some of the material presented in this book has the sort of off-center approach that many of the best New Yorker cartoonists take (as in the excerpts above), other pieces are more freeform, more of what seems like a reflection of Brown’s unique inner life; all bulbous people drifting through life, doing faintly ridiculous things for pretty much no good reason. As in the piece below, you wander into people’s ridiculous lives, enjoy spending a minute or two with them, then wander back away again.
I keep using words in this review that try to describe the oddball nature of Brown’s humor, but that quirkiness is the overriding element of this collection. Her style, with all its fun and frustrating aspects, might be best on display on a three-page color piece that Brown does about a trip that she and some friends took to Guatemala and Mexico City. Brown’s recreation of that trip is wild and whimsical and occasionally surreal, suffused with color and a flurry of images that seem to almost fly out of the page. This is cartooning at its most personal and most exuberant: splashy, bright, loud and eventful.
It’s also a bit internal, like when a friend goes on a trip and shares stories about their time abroad but you just don’t quite understand what they’re saying as they scroll through their pictures. Was there actually cows that looked like aliens or is that an exaggeration? Were the insects really that colorful? The stories Brown presents in this book reward more attention being paid to them, but there’s a subjective, interior approach to them that is both very appealing and very strange.
The overall effect of this book is a kind of skewed autobiography, the story of M.K. Brown’s life told obliquely through the cartoons she presents. In her recurring character White Girl, Brown presents a character with a bland and unchanging facial expression and dull clothes who seems to yearn to be free of the constraints that she lives under. White Girl may be held back in some ways in her life by the experiences she has, but she’s free in her body and – more importantly – free in her mind, which allows that quiet, bespectacled White Girl to hilariously get funky and be free – to dance, to use her VCR or to show readers how not to do carpentry.
It’s tempting to see Brown in her White Girl character, in part because she actually looks like that character, but also because we see much of White Girl’s attitude in these stories: beneath a happy veneer of blandness lies a world of wonderful whimsy. Stranger than Life presents a world of people who have more going on in their heads than appears to be true on their bland faces.
I think I come across in this review as being more negative than I mean to be: Stranger than Life is a lot of fun, one of the most quirkily entertaining books I’ve read in a while. I wish there had been more creator’s notes, so I’d have more context on some of these oddball pieces, but really that would have taken away some of the mystery as well. I loved spending time inside M.K. Brown’s very unique head.