Creating a world JC cartoonist tells story with pictures, prose

When most people think of newspaper cartoons, they picture the Sunday strips or single-panel drawings depicting current events.

Yet for Jersey City artist Brian “Box” Brown, a well-wrought cartoon can be on the same literary level as books, telling a story with simple truths.

Brown has created the comic strip “BELLEN,” which tells the story of Ben and Ellen, a contemporary couple slogging through the ordinary ups and downs of life.

The characters and adventures aren’t extraordinary, but they convey truthful slice-of-life episodes that have emotional appeal.

Discovering his passion

Brown, who graduated from the University of Scranton in 2002 with an English degree, says that while he drew a lot as a kid, he didn’t draw regularly until he was in college.

He read cartoons for a long time, and liked the “Farside” and “Garfield.” In college, he had a subscription to the New Yorker.

“I started making up gag strips when I should have been taking notes,” said Brown with a laugh.

He said that another cartoonist he liked would write about something that happened in his life, and he found that idea appealing.

In 2003, he began drawing autobiographical strips, but then eventually decided that he wanted to do something different. After he tried out various ideas, he decided on the idea of a cartoon about a guy and a girl. In 2006, “BELLEN” was born.

Initially, he was doing the strip five days a week. He says that he tried out many different art styles and characters. After a lot of trial and error, he is finally pleased with the result.

“The last 100 strips, I’m happy with,” said Brown, “everything before that was trash.”

While he says that there are some similarities with the characters and his own life, the characters have taken on a life of their own including the character of Ellen, who is loosely based on his girlfriend.

“She loves it,” said Brown about his girlfriend’s reaction to the strip.

He said that she finds it interesting to know where the ideas are coming from.

“It’s all fiction,” he said. “Some of it is based on events, but not really.”

From sketch to finish

Brown says that if he has an idea for a strip, it can take him about two hours to complete it. He starts with a hand-drawn sketch, scans it into his computer, fixes the edges in Photoshop, and colors it. The coloring process usually only takes about a half hour, he says.

“Coming up with the idea can take longer,” said Brown, who added that an idea can sometimes take months to develop. “Sometimes I sit down to draw and I don’t have any ideas.”

When he was growing up, he like certain genre hero comic books like Iron Man and the X-Men, but he doesn’t like them as much anymore.

“When I was a kid, I really liked the Dark Phoenix series [X-men],” he said. “My local shop closed when I was 13. I don’t read them anymore.”

Another thing that has changed is his skill level with drawing.

“I can hardly look at them anymore, which is a sign of progress,” he says about his first strips. “I think you have to be a little ignorant or naïve or you wouldn’t do it.”

He added, “If you are waiting to be perfect, you are never going to do it. The only way to learn is to just do it and not wait until you can draw well.”

Building an audience

After Brown determined the direction for his strip, he began to think in terms of an audience – in particular, the newspaper syndicates.

“I made BELLEN into newspaper type strips and put together a package for the syndicates,” he said. While that didn’t work out, ultimately he is happier now, since there are so many rules with syndicates.

“I guess it would have been nice, but I’m really more excited about where it is going. I’m working with an agent right now,” he said. “I enjoy doing it now because of the freedom I have.”

Additionally, he has started to print his comics in book form after he gets three months worth of strips. He is currently up to volume number four. He distributes the books himself and has built up an audience in certain circles, including Canadian stores.

“I saw an ad for this place in Nova Scotia,” said Brown. “They sold out there.”

He said that his comics were so well-received in Canada that they also interviewed him on the radio.

“I was on this radio station in Halifax,” Brown said, adding that it is also doing well in certain shops in Boston.

Bark if you like comics

The name for the strip is a combination of the two main characters – Ben and Ellen – like TomKat or Brangelina; yet the name “Bellen” has other meanings too:

“It also means bark in German,” he said, explaining that after he posted the first comic, a girl from Austria wrote to tell him that it means bark.

Brown says that he can see himself doing “BELLEN” indefinitely and would like to perhaps follow the characters as they grow up, get married, and maybe have children.

The next volume of collected comics will be out in September.

He says so far, the feedback has been great.

“I get all kinds of [feedback]. Recently someone had the comic on their wedding site,” he said, adding that sometimes he doesn’t believe all the comments because they are too positive.

“People thank you for writing the comics, which is the reason I started doing this,” said Brown.

In August, his website will be up and running. In addition to the comics, guests will also be able to buy T-shirts, the collected comics, and more.

He hopes people will look at his work and change their preconceived notions about comics.

“I’d like people to look at the comic and ultimately, I’d like to change the way people think about comics,” said Brown. “It’s not just superheroes, not gag strips in the paper, but it can be used to express a wide range of emotions.”

He added, “It has visual art and language. In my mind, it is the best way to tell a story.”

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