Review by Graham Johnstone
Jeffrey Brown is a respected creator of “autobiographical relationship comics” (as his cover-blurb puts it), though he’s also created humour books, such as Bighead, and the licensed Darth Vader and Son. Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations, is closer to the latter – it’s a gently humorous book about his relationship with his cat.
Jeffrey – or his familiar stubbly man-child avatar – appears on the very first page, in four-panel strips of him as cat lover, sharing stories on the phone, and watching videos of feline antics. The latter strip is titled ‘One Reason I Wrote This Book’, making this effectively a preface setting out the author’s credentials and motivations as cat-book author. The implied other reason he wrote the book presumably is that there is a lucrative market, beyond the comics field, for funny cat product.
The format being a smallish square, embossed hardcover, and publisher Chronicle Books (source of cheeky unit shifters like What’s You’re Poo Telling You?) further locate it in the gift book market. Royalties from worthy indie comics probably don’t add up to a living wage, so let’s avoid moralising and simply consider the book.
It begins, logically enough, with ‘Where Cats Come From’ which tells how young Jeffrey rescues a kitty from up a tree, and persuades his parents to let him keep her. We don’t see Jeffrey’s face again, usually just his legs and sometimes torso. This is a smart device that both gives a cats-eye-view of humans, previously seen in Tom & Jerry, and also increases reader identification with these fairly archetypal situations – the cat rubs against your legs, almost trips you up, or attacks your ankles – this could be your cat.
Brown delivers all this with some charm. His trademark naive, expressive figures, are drawn in his Sunday best smooth line, and he retains his comics mastery of time and motion. Many pages have a formalist beauty, often making use of ‘fixed camera’ effect, (as in the cover image) to emphasise feline motion. Perhaps the best example is the featured image, using what comics scholars call a polyptych effect, with the three panels in each row representing a continuous space at consecutive moments – here showing a hand swinging a rope, and the cat chasing it.
Another memorable page begins with a cat’s questioning ‘meow?’ as she looks around for Jeff. Kitty then walks in the normal reading order of left to right along the first row, then down steps and ‘backwards’ along the next row to the left, before taking us down more steps to the last row and finally along to the right. This is a piece of formalist fun, yet it’s also still a story, beginning with a desire, prompting a series of actions that result in an ending when she finds Jeff.
This, then, is a commercial book, but not a cynical one, and Brown certainly brings some charm and skill to the party. Typically for gift books though, it’s more packaging than content – it’s a extremely brief read for your $13, but it’s one that cat lovers and comic lovers alike can enjoy coming back to.