If you’ve been in a book store recently you might have seen the cutest Star Wars books ever; “Darth Vader and Son” and “Vader’s Little Princess”, the brain child of artist and writer Jeffrey Brown. Toy-Lines recently interviewed Jeffrey on his Star Wars themed books, his Star Wars fandom, and just who shot first, Han Solo or Greedo?
Toy-Lines: How long have you been writing and drawing comics?
Jeffrey Brown: I’ve been drawing comics since I was a little kid, but professionally, almost fifteen years now. My first self-published book Clumsy was drawn in 2001 and came out in 2002.
TL: Were your parents supportive of your art as a child and as a career?
JB: They’ve always been very supportive – there was a time when they were encouraging me to also take classes of a more practical nature (computer design classes and so forth), but once I was pursuing fine art they were fully behind me. They even helped pay for the first print run of Clumsy.
TL: Where did you attend school for art?
JB: I was a painting major/English minor at Hope College in Michigan for undergraduate, and then received my MFA in Painting & Drawing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
TL: You started out doing more personal bio books like “Clumsy” and “Unlikely”. What made you want to do a Star Wars book?
JB: I grew up loving Star Wars, and the whole time I’ve been drawing the autobiographical comics I’ve also been making more humorous books, often science fiction, like Incredible Change-Bots or Cat Getting Out Of A Bag. When the opportunity to draw Star Wars came up, I jumped on it.
TL: How did “Darth Vader and Son”, “Jedi Academy” and “Vader’s Little Princess” come about?
JB: Initially, I was approached by Ryan Germick, who runs the Google doodle team, about sketching a possible home page image based on the idea of how awkward an everyday father/son moment would be with Luke and Vader. My son was four at the time, so I made Luke four years old and put Vader in my shoes as a parent. Scholastic had approached Lucasfilm about doing a heavily illustrated middle school Star Wars book, and my editor for Darth Vader and Son suggested me as someone to write and draw it. As soon as the response to the first Vader book came back so positive, we were able to make the second book with Leia. I’d already had ideas for a Leia book, but they didn’t really fit with the first book, so Vader’s Little Princess was a way to give her a book of her own.
TL: How did you approach Lucas with getting them created?
JB: I’d published with Chronicle Books before, and knew this idea was perfect for the kind of books they publish. They’ve also done a lot of other Star Wars books, and so after Google decided not to use the Vader and son idea for father’s day, I took the concept to Chronicle, who took it to Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm really got the idea and liked it enough to give it the go-ahead.
TL: Did you create the books before Disney bought the rights to Star Wars?
JB: The Disney deal happened while I was working on Vader’s Little Princess and Jedi Academy.
TL: How is it different working with Disney compared to Lucas?
JB: The only real effect was having to wait before they decided if they wanted to do more Jedi Academy or Vader books, and once they figured things out it was business as usual for my part. I’m sure the publishers deals may have been affected somehow, and the people I work with at Lucasfilm may have had changes with their work, but for my part it’s been pretty much the same as it was before. I’ve had an extremely smooth experience working with Lucasfilm, before and after the Disney purchase.
TL: Have you met George Lucas? Has his response to your books been positive?
JB: I haven’t yet, but I’m hoping to someday – maybe if I make enough of these Star Wars books! I’ve heard that he asked for copies of the first book, which is pretty cool.
TL: Do ideas for your Star Wars books come from observing your children or just observing in general?
JB: Vader and Son is very much based on my older son Oscar, but not having a daughter, I was observing friends and listening to other parents of girls for inspiration. With Jedi Academy, I’m mining my own middle school experiences for inspiration and ideas.
TL: Your Star Wars books are a heartwarming cross between the genius of Charles Schulz and Star Wars. Were you surprised with each books success?
JB: I was surprised, especially by the response of kids. I thought initially I was writing for parents like me, who grew up with Star Wars, but the kids seem to get as much (or more) from the books. It’s always surprising when something so fun to do ends up getting such attention.
TL: I’m guessing you were a Star Wars fan growing up?
JB: Definitely. I had the toys, the Topps trading cards, a ton of books. One of the most influential books for me was The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, which has the screenplay accompanied by a ton of storyboard and concept art. For a while I thought I might become a storyboard artist after reading that book.
TL: Favorite Star Wars character?
JB: Probably Yoda – I love that first scene with him in Episode V so much.
TL: Favorite Star Wars Episode? Why?
JB: The Empire Strikes Back. Not only does it have the perfect mix of action, drama, and comedy, but it has At-At’s, and Hoth, and Yoda, and Boba Fett, and the Imperial March.
TL: Did you read the Marvel Star Wars comics as a kid and if so, any favorite issues?
JB: I did. My favorites were always the Al Williamson issues, especially his film adaptations.
TL: What was your favorite Star Wars toy as a kid? As an adult?
JB: As a kid, probably my Hoth Luke and Tauntaun (the one he could ride, not the one with the split belly). Also, Yoda, with his cloth robe and orange snake. Now, I have an IG-88 which is great because his arms and legs have more maneuverability than the original stiff legged, stiff armed action figure.
TL: Who shot first, Han Solo or Greedo?
JB: Greedo shot first. From a certain point of view.
TL: Do you still have your Star Wars toys from childhood?
JB: I don’t, which I’m kicking my teenage self for. I sold them all off when I left for college. At the time it seemed like a bunch of money for some toys, but now I wish I had kept at least a few of them.
TL: What’s a day in the life like for you?
JB: Most of the day is writing and drawing, with a little bit of reading, occasionally playing soccer, and lots of hanging out with my sons and wife. And then more writing and drawing when everyone else has gone to bed.
TL: What’s your inspiration?
JB: Life and art. Just observing the world around me, and then lots of reading, watching films, listening to music, looking at paintings.
JB: Charlotte Salomon, Chris Ware, Julie Doucet, Carl Sagan – there’s probably more, because there are so many people who have meant so much to me, or whose work has been such a big part of my life.
TL: What do you do to relax?
JB: I watch hockey, and play soccer once a week. I read a lot, both comics and prose, fiction and non-fiction.
TL: Have you ever been to Star Wars Weekends in Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios?
JB: I haven’t yet – no time with all the projects I’ve been juggling! Hopefully I’ll go in the next year or two. I have been to Star Wars Celebration, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
TL: The Gentle Giant maquettes of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and Princess Leia look great. How involved were you with their creation?
JB: Not very – I got to see some of the prototype sculpts and was invited to give feedback, which was pretty much “Those look great!”.
TL: Did you draw any of the Star Wars books to John William’s Star Wars score?
JB: A little bit to the Empire Strikes Back score, but mostly I just have the movies playing in the background.
TL: While my favorite Star Wars characters are Han Solo and Chewbacca, you really represent Vader in a whole new way, a “Lighter Side” of the Sith if you will. Do you find that challenging?
JB: It is a bit of a challenge, because I never want to completely mollify him, but at the same time, I didn’t want the tone of the books to get too dark at any point, and I wanted to make sure that any violence was handled in a way that supported the tone and didn’t seem out of place.
TL: Some panels have movie dialogue in them. How did that work out? Did you have the idea first and then search the movie for the dialogue later, or was it the dialogue first and search for a funny idea?
JB: I used both methods. Sometimes I just wanted to draw a particular scene and needed to find the right parenting situation to mix it with, and other times I had a situation but needed to track down the right quote to use. Sometimes they both came to mind together from the start.
TL: You worked at Barnes and Noble, was this during your days of trying to break into comics?
JB: I started working there before I was even drawing comics, really – in fact, a good chunk of Clumsy was drawn while on break at the store. I worked there for seven years, finally quitting when I was down to one four hour long shelving shift a week.
TL: Your blog entry on meeting John Hughes was really interesting. Do you think his humor helped inspire your work? It sounded like you enjoyed talking to him whenever he came in.
JB: His humor helped inspire me – I’d been watching his films for years and years, of course – but also just hearing real life stories and advice from someone who had such a successful creative life was also a big help and inspiration. He was just always a kind and generous person to me when he came into the store, and I probably didn’t ever let him know just how much I appreciated that.
TL: You’re also a J.R.R. Tolkien fan. How have you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”? How many times have you read the books?
JB: Once I came to terms with the idea that it’s okay for films to be so different from the books, I’ve grown to really love them. I think there’s space for stories to exist in all different forms. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the books, although I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings since the last movie came out. For the Hobbit, we have the Nicol Williamson audio version, which is beyond brilliant, and I’ve listened to that with my son countless times as well.
TL: Any plans on doing a book based on Tolkien’s characters?
JB: No plans, but I would enjoy doing that. Maybe some year I can draw the art for the Tolkien calendar – I think I had the annual Tolkien calendar for over ten years straight when I was growing up, and I would love to do that.
TL: I’ve read your favorite villain is Cobra Commander. My friend and I always debate this, which uniform of his is more menacing? The silver domed helmet or the hood?
JB: I go back and forth on my preference, but I think the helmet is slightly more ominous. I like the look of him with the hood, though, it could be really creepy.
TL: Can you tell us a bit about “Jedi Academy”?
JB: Jedi Academy is middle school set in the Star Wars universe, told through the journals, comics, report cards, notes, school newspapers of the main character Roan. Roan originally wanted to be a pilot, but has ended up at Jedi Academy, and is discovering light sabers and the Force and everything. It’s a lot of fun to write and draw, and I use a lot of my own middle school memories to build the book on.
TL: So, “Star Wars: Jedi Academy Return of the Padawan (Book 2)” is due out this summer as is “Good Night Darth Vader”. Do you have any more ideas for more Star Wars books?
JB: I’m working on Jedi Academy 3 and one more Vader book, and I have more ideas but I’m probably ready for a break from Star Wars. I don’t want to burn out on it, and feel like I should take the break from drawing the books while I can still see myself doing more of them down the road, rather than waiting until they become a drag on me creatively.
TL: Are you surprised at the merchandise that has been created for these books like the Gentle Giant maquettes, the journals, post card books and calendars? Do you have a favorite?
JB: I’ve been part of putting together the postcard books, journals, and calendars, but even how many of those there are now has started to surprise me. I love the maquettes, seeing those is probably the most stunning thing, besides the tiny Darth Vader and Son key chains available from vending machines in Japan that my friend Adam Pasion sent me!
TL: Jeff, we here at Toy-lines would like to thank you for this opportunity to interview you. We wish you the best of luck in your career and with the Star Wars themed books.
To check out Jeffrey Brown’s blog please click the link: http://jeffreybrowncomics.blogspot.com/
The Toy-Lines Crew