Box Brown has been on a bit of a tear of writing and drawing nonfiction comics lately, publishing a biography of Andre the Giant, a book about the history of Tetris and now his newest book, Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, out now from First Second. As you might expect from his previous interests, it focuses less on Kaufman’s comedy career and a whole lot more on his wrestling efforts. That makes it a worthy addition. The way that Kaufman combined sincerity and performance art, to where you couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t, was always the most noteworthy thing about him, and Brown digs deep into the mythology of kayfabe (or pro wrestling protocol). His simple drawings manage to get a lot in without coming off as obsessive or overworked, and there’s a hefty list of sources in the back, should you want to read more. Brown answered our questions about the book, wrestling and why he doesn’t procrastinate over a series of emails.
Paste: So, how much wrestling did you watch growing up? How much do you still watch?
Box Brown: Oh a lot. Every chance I could get. But wrestling wasn’t on as often. I would watch WWF Superstars and Challenge on Saturdays and Sundays and WCW Saturday night. WCW on TBS was really great for me. I remember the first time I discovered it and I was blown away that there was something other than WWF. I was also really into the magazines. I had a WWF mag subscription and bought a lot of Apter mags. Also, a friend of mine had a lot of the old pay-per-views on VHS that we would watch a lot. I also used to rent a lot of wrestling VHS back when that was a thing. Now, I stay pretty close to the news but don’t watch as much WWE. The business is a lot different now than it ever was before, but I guess so is everything in this late-stage capitalist society.
Paste: What’s your opinion of Glow?
Brown: It was pretty great! Love the wrestler cameos. But really for me the better project was the GLOW documentary.
Paste: What’s it like working with First Second? You’re in a nice little groove of these nonfiction books. Do you have a list of ideas you’d like to work on? Do they get any input into which ones you pursue?
Brown: Oh yeah, it’s my decision (almost) entirely what I am going to work on. First Second approves the concepts and sometimes suggests topics, but it’s hardly a situation where they’re forcing me to work on a subject they picked out. I really can’t even do a book unless it’s something I am obsessed with.
Is This Guy For Real? Cover Art by Box Brown
Paste: Judging by the size of the list of sources in each of your last three books, you spend a lot of time doing research. Do you enjoy that? What’s the process like?
Brown: Yes, I love the research process. I love finding stories and then corroborating them either in person or with another source. The process is always continuing throughout the creation of the book, and I’ve even sussed out info after finishing the first draft because new info had come to light.
Paste: How do you edit down the research you collect? Do you know approximately what size book you’re shooting for? Do you try to include information that you haven’t seen previously published?
Brown: I mostly just work and work and work and hope to get everything I wanted to get in. Then after my editor (the wonderful Calista Brill at First Second) reads it I get a sense of what is missing. Especially with this book I was kind of writing as I went and improvising on the page (like Andy would). I think if you could spend years planning to make a book or you can just sit down and make the book. You can always edit out things or add things later. I try to get first-person sources when I can and try to get new info out of them when I can. Unearthing something new is what you always strive for.
Paste: Can you break down what percentage of time you research vs. writing vs. pencil vs. finish up vs. procrastinate?
Brown: Well, I try to never procrastinate. I love the process of making comics and I never put it off to do other things. It usually takes me about three to four hours to make a page of comics that’s already been written. The writing and research process is kind of hard to describe. I usually have an idea about where I want to go but then research will lead me to places I didn’t know existed. I am very flexible in terms of writing and often change things up on page. I also “shoot for the edit,” which is a film term. I try to just get everything I can in there knowing I can edit later.
Paste: I’m impressed that you don’t procrastinate. Do you think that you’ve learned how to stay focused or is it just something you were born with?
Brown: It’s OCD. I’m almost completely sure of it. I think I do have a strong work ethic, but I also can have tunnel-vision. It’s not always great when you’re trying to also have a life outside of your work. It’s a balance that I’ve often struggled with. Procrastination feels like worry to me, which is something I try to avoid and I’m very bad at it. Getting all of my work done feels like a way to stave off worry. See, it’s OCD.
Is This Guy For Real? Interior Art by Box Brown
Paste: How did you first encounter Andy Kaufman’s work and what drew you to it?
Brown: In the mid-‘90s, Comedy Central started showing his work on TV. I was immediately struck by because it was so different than what I was used to. I remember trying to explain this foreign man in a bongo-playing bit to my friends but they didn’t really get it. It was so difficult to describe, it was just something you had to see. Of course, I was also drawn to his wrestling stuff because I was a complete wrestling nerd. Then Man in the Moon came out, which I didn’t love but I remember being a big deal.
Paste: Are there things you feel you have in common with Andy Kaufman (i.e., creating a persona or multiple personae for yourself)?
Brown: Not in creating personae. I think Andy liked to do things his own way, which is how I like to do things. I think I’m often put off when there seems like only one way to do something, like the Draw Comics the Marvel Way book. Or any how-to book really. I like to feel my way through things and find my own path. I think that’s what Andy did. He was a unique talent.
Paste: I’ve read that you didn’t draw comics when you were a kid (that you came to it relatively late, in your mid-20s). Why do you think you didn’t when you were young? What made you start drawing them?
Brown: I drew throughout childhood for pleasure. But when I hit puberty I often saw it as a childish thing to do. Further, I didn’t think I was good enough to pursue it even though I had a strong interest in it. Even throughout high school I avoided taking art classes because I didn’t think I could be good at it. It’s so silly to think about now. I didn’t get back into drawing until I was 25 and I basically had to learn to draw all over again.
Paste: What led you back to drawing? What did you go to school for?
Brown: I majored in English but I did really poorly in all of my English classes. It was a weird period of my life when I was very unaware of who I was or what I actually wanted. I think I was searching for a creative outlet but not really finding one in “Poetry Writing I” or whatever I took. Honestly the first comics I drew were in college, while I was supposed to be taking notes for class. I would just doodle and make jokes and single-panel gag strips just to amuse myself. I never thought anything of it. One time I left a notebook at a friend’s house and he thought it was funny. I think he thought the jokes were funny but also that this was supposed to be the notes I was taking in class. Still though, I never thought I had the illustration chops to make real comics. For a while I was even trying to get my friends to draw my comics for me, but it wasn’t really working. When I read American Elf by James Kochalka in 2005 it shook something loose. Whatever it was about those strips, it made me think I could do it.
Is This Guy For Real? Interior Art by Box Brown
Paste: Are you a competitive person?
Brown: I think I like to compete with myself but not other people. I love to challenge myself to do more and better work, but I absolutely hate the concept of competing with others. For one thing it’s almost never a balanced fight. You’re either much worse than your opponent or much better. In both cases it feels bad to lose and bad to win. If you’re evenly matched maybe it’s worthwhile to compete but it happens so rarely. I also think that people can often see others’ success as a personal loss, which is total horseshit.
Paste: I guess I ask because you’ve focused on both computer games and wrestling lately, and that’s sort of a common thread between them. Have you ever wrestled or anything like it?
Brown: I wrestled in second grade and hated it and lost every single match. After that my mom used to use it as a threat if I got in trouble. One great thing about pro wrestling is that wins and losses aren’t the same as in actual competitive sports; it’s all about the performance.
Paste: You’re a pretty intense tweeter. What do you like about that form of communication? It seems like a lot of comics folks are on there, even though I still think it’s primarily a verbal platform rather than a visual one. Whassup with that?
Brown: I guess a lot of artists (especially comics artists) have a lot to say and like being the center of attention. I spend a lot of time on Twitter but in a way I also hate it because it can be a time suck. I mostly just use it to make stupid jokes and very occasionally promote my comics. Maybe follow me @boxbrown.
Paste: Do you like being the center of attention?
Brown: Yes and no, I guess. I think all artists on some level like being the center of attention, but there’s also a part of me that just wants to be left alone so I can just make my comics. Really at some point I thought of the book reading and event as something glamorous. But really I’m never more happy than when I’m home and quietly drawing comics. But then again, if no one read them? That wouldn’t be as satisfying.
Is This Guy For Real? Interior Art by Box Brown