Brian “Box” Brown’s graphic novel Child Star, due out June 30 from First Second, is fiction, but it has the ring of truth. Mimicking a documentary film, the book depicts the life of Owen Eugene, a fictional child actor, through interviews with his family, agents, directors, and costars. Eugene himself is only shown in old TV appearances—mostly scenes from his 1980s sitcom Everyone’s Friend.
“It’s all these people talking about him and giving an impression of what this person’s life is like,” Brown says. “You never get the full truth: you get these kind of skewed opinions.”
Brown made the leap from the world of indie comics to publishing full-length graphic novels in 2014, when First Second, Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint, published Andre the Giant, Brown’s biography of the legendary professional wrestler. Until this new book, Brown’s graphic titles have all been works of nonfiction. His 2018 graphic biography of comedian, actor, and wrestling performer Andy Kaufman, titled Is This Guy for Real?, won an Eisner Award. He is also the author of Tetris (2016), a history of the video game, and Cannabis (2019), a history of marijuana.
Child Star follows a similar pattern to Brown’s nonfiction titles, examining its subject from different perspectives and placing it in the context of its era. “I had the most fun making this book,” Brown says. “After working on nonfiction for so long, I feel like I always have to take a break. You don’t have to research everything in fiction; you can kind of go along and make it up as you go.”
Nonetheless, Brown says, he did a lot of research on the settings of the book, and, of course, he watched a lot of ’80s sitcoms. But he would have done that anyway. “When I work I watch sitcoms all the time,” he says. “Whole series, one after the other. That’s where this book kind of came from. I have been watching sitcoms since I was a little kid.”
Brown has a special affinity for the ’80s. “It’s the years 1980 to 1987,” Brown says. “I’m sure it is some deep-rooted psychological thing. These are the years I am interested in.” They also correlate to his childhood: Brown was born in 1980, and in the afterword to Child Star, he talks about spending afternoons at his grandmother’s house watching sitcoms (many in reruns).
Though Brown admits to being nostalgic for those shows, Child Star is unsparing in its juxtaposition of the sanitized lives of sitcom families and the realities of the cast members portraying them. “The sappy moments are there just to sell things,” he says, and that is made clear in the interviews Brown invents with television producers, writers, and Eugene’s costars, most of whom have jaded views of their work, even as they look forward to “the next big thing.”
In one scene, a gay man who played Eugene’s dad talks about being in the closet while playing a womanizer on-screen. The actor says that his single-dad character would be a gay single dad today, and he’s quick to joke that he’s available if a network wants to reboot the show.
“I kind of wanted all the characters to have their own sense of desperation inside of them to still be stars—to think that this documentary being made about them now was going to propel them to a new level of stardom,” Brown says.
The story of Eugene alternates between documentary-style interviews and scenes from the TV shows and movies he starred in—scenes that draw heavily on ’80s sitcom tropes: there’s the swinging bachelor who must take in two orphaned children, the lighthearted sibling squabbles, and, of course, the inexplicably popular catch phrase (Eugene’s is “I don’t understand”).
Brown sets the sitcom scenes apart with visual cues, giving them a rose tint and drawing them in a strict nine-panel grid. “I wanted it to be obvious that you are looking at a piece of video,” he says, adding, “It’s that rosy color because sitcoms are like a warped look at reality.”
Indeed, Eugene’s life is at variance with the “reality” of the shows in which he stars. Like many child actors, he looks younger than he really is. And instead of a loving sitcom family, he has parents who exploit him and then later on try to rationalize how they treated him. One narrative thread that runs through the book is that the child star works nonstop while others reap the rewards: his parents get rich and his costars go on to better jobs, but Eugene never gets to take a vacation, let alone do any of the cool things his characters do on-screen.
Child Star takes an even deeper dive into the ’80s when it depicts Ronald Reagan writing to Everyone’s Friend’s producers, suggesting they do “very special episodes” on topics he considers important. Nancy Reagan even appears in an episode to repeat her famous “just say no” admonition.
“I pulled my punches a lot compared to what actually appeared on some of these shows,” Brown says. “There’s all kinds of really messed-up situations. At the time, I remember thinking these guys know what they are talking about, they are on TV, but they didn’t have a psychologist on staff—they just had the writer’s best judgment on what the characters should do.”
As a child, Brown recalls that he was influenced by sitcoms, taking what he saw and making something new of it. “I would make up premises for cartoon shows and draw the characters and make up names,” he says. “I love drawing wrestlers, and I would make up wrestlers pretend to be them. It was all part of the imaginary world I lived in.”
Brown says he stopped drawing in high school. “I got discouraged by other people who I thought were better artists than me, more natural artists. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it doesn’t matter—that it’s perfectly okay to like doing something you aren’t good at. I like shooting hoops; I’m terrible at it, the worst ever, but I love doing it.”
It wasn’t until after he graduated from the University of Scranton, where he studied literature, that Brown began making comics again, inspired by James Kochalka’s American Elf and the autobiographical comics of Jeffrey Brown. In 2005, he started posting comics on LiveJournal. Since then, he says, “I have been drawing comics every day.”
That first LiveJournal webcomic, Bellen, helped Brown build both his skills and an audience. In 2008, he won a Xeric grant to self-publish the graphic novel Love Is a Peculiar Kind of Thing, and in 2011 he won two Ignatz Awards, for his minicomic Ben Died of a Train and his series Everything Dies.
That same year, he also founded the small press Retrofit, which publishes self-contained single-issue comics by well-known and emerging comics creators. In 2013 Retrofit joined Big Planet Comics as a copublisher, and Brown left the press in 2018. “I was too busy doing graphic novels, and then when my son was born, I was like, ‘Something’s gotta give here,’ and it was Retrofit,” he says.
Brown’s relationship with First Second began with a rejection, after he pitched his Everything Dies series. “They weren’t interested in publishing it, but they were interested in it in general,” he says. “I ended up getting some interesting feedback from [editor] Calista Brill. When I was finished with that book, I started working on Andre the Giant. I sent that to Calista, and the rest was history.”
With Child Star about to publish, Brown is busy working on his next book. He no longer makes minicomics, but he occasionally does short stories for anthologies, and he recently returned to webcomics with Gumroadians, a gag strip for the e-commerce site Gumroad.
Brown is also ready to drop his longtime nickname, Box, which goes back to his college days. “I started using it as my AOL Instant Messenger name, then it became my LiveJournal username,” he says. When his first comics were published on LiveJournal, he signed them Box Brown, and that has been his professional name ever since. But there’s another famous Box Brown: a Virginia slave who escaped bondage in 1833 by shipping himself to freedom in Philadelphia, inside a wooden crate. Brown’s choice of the same moniker was coincidental, but he is ready to move on.
“I’m going to be 40 this year,” Brown says. “I think I am ready to be Brian Brown.”
Brigid Alverson writes about comics and graphic novels for PW.