Several Shades of M. K. Brown

« Women: what do they want? They might want to float into the sky while hosting a brunch party. They might want a couple of handsome cops to come over and get rid of a snake problem. They might seek a doctor’s treatment for ‘wise-ass disease‘ or fantasize about revenge and forgiveness at the dentist’s office. And what about men? Mr. Science just wants to carry out his pointless experiments. Earl D. Porker, Social Worker, converses with household items and forgets the cat food. One fellow’s head is a basket of laundry. »

Not much is known about the personal life of the mysterious M. K. Brown*. From her official website, we know that she grew up in Connecticut and New Brunswick, but that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, details from her long and prolific career abound**: she was a mainstay at the National Lampoon Magazine between 1972 and 1981 (including the regular series Aunt Mary’s Kitchen); a frequent contributor to various magazines, most notably Playboy, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones; creator of the animated series Dr. N!Godatu, which ran in the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 for a mere 6 episodes (two more remain unaired) until it was supplanted by the Simpsons; illustrator of children’s books… and so it goes.

A button featuring Aunt Mary, who probably would get on like a house on fire with Sylvia (see Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia: Wit, Wisdom and Cats).

In more recent years, Brown has been hanging out at The American Bystander, which I discovered by accident when co-admin RG (whose intuition for quality is fairly unfailing) picked up an issue of this magazine. A delightful surprise.

Despite the scope of her oeuvre and her very recognizable style, she’s not nearly as well known as she deserves to be. Fantagraphics, coming, as usual, to the rescue, published a sort of best-of in 2014, titled Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013. Interestingly, this collection did little to dispel the clearly purposefully cultivated mystique. Whereas usually one expects an introduction with the author’s birth date and a quick summary of their childhood and proclivities, in this case M.K. Brown remained firmly ensconced within her initials*** and shrouded in pleasant mystery.

* I will mention straight away that she was married to equally eccentric cartoonist B. Kliban (another WOT favourite), not because a woman’s worth is in being a wife to her husband, but because ‘M.K. Brown married to B. Kliban’ has a harmonious ring to it.

** From the category of things not entirely related to her career, she is also an enthusiastic horse owner and rider [source].

*** Her name is Mary Kathleen, which I first found on the Wiki page for B. Kliban, later confirmed through a podcast she was featured on (more about this later).

The first episode of Dr. N!Godatu. Janice’s voice (for those on a first-name basis!) is provided by Julie Payne.

Brown is clearly a female cartoonist, in the sense of never eschewing topics that a doltish reader would expect a woman to talk about just because it’s a ‘female’ leitmotif. She can start with something mundane like a hostess organizing a party, put a surreal spin on it, pepper it with playful language, and end up with a concoction that’s devilishly acerbic, quite strange, and very funny. Bill Griffith put it well – she ‘makes the personal universal, makes the universal personal‘. The result seems quite polarising; it’s the sort of thing you instantly click with, or something so foreign that it’s unappealing. Is any of it dated, as I’ve seen some people suggest? Not in the slightest. Human relationships haven’t changed much over the years, though we like to pat ourselves on the back for being so much more evolved. Focusing on the fact that someone is wearing a suit with shoulder pads (which are, by the way, coming back into fashion) to decide it’s no longer relevant to modern life is daft.

Here are some examples scanned from Stranger than Life of different vintages, lightly colourized by co-admin RG.

This one features Brown’s alter-ego, ‘White Girl’. « She can’t dance or sing the blues, but cluelessly does both anyway. It’s fun to speak through this character. I’m very fond of her. »

Here are three pages from more recent years, which also showcase Brown’s watercolours:

Published in The American Bystander no. 1 (Fall, 2015).
Published in The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring, 2016).
Published in The American Bystander no. 5 (Summer, 2017).

The American Bystander conducted a fun, hour-long podcast with Brown in 2016. I am a visually oriented person, and have immense trouble sitting through a podcast, so I had to tell myself I had to listen for the sake of this blog post – I hope you appreciate this sacrifice. It was a pleasure to listen to Brown, who sounds exactly like I pictured it, though I was somewhat underwhelmed by some of the softball questions she was asked – questions interviewer (in this case, Gil Roth) usually asks of a cartoonist, ‘what were your art influences?’, ‘what explains your sense of humour?’ I believe this has more to do with me than with the actual interview – I by far prefer to glean some understanding of a person through their work, as opposed to discussions about their work (which is a slightly strange stance for a blog writer). There is, however, a fun anecdote about how she used to put up her paintings on the walls to work on them, and had to cover her sleeping nocturnal husband and the bed he was on with plastic not to splatter him with paint. Brown also mentions that she has a stash of drawings which she could never get published because they’re too risqué – oh, how we would all love to see those! Click here if you’d care to listen to it!

~ ds

3 thoughts on “Several Shades of M. K. Brown

  1. Oyama Thistle July 6, 2022 / 02:31

    Thank you for this post, ds. My only prior exposure to Brown’s quirky, offbeat work was in the National Lampoon of the late 70s and early 80s. The “Mary Kathleen” was news to me! Thanks also for your mention of The American Bystander. Only the title font of Weekly Humorist reminds me of NatLamp, unfortunately.

    Liked by 2 people

    • redscraper July 27, 2022 / 11:31

      Thank you for the kind comment! I had to do a bit of digging to uncover her name, and even then hesitated to include it (if someone wants to use her initials, who am I to argue?), but as she mentions it in a podcast, I figure it’s okay to let that cat out of the bag!

      Like

  2. sbmumford July 6, 2022 / 13:10

    Interesting essay, thanks!
    The drawings are beautiful; Brown’s decisive yet finicky lines remind me a bit of Barry Blitt’s work. Both seem to hark back to English turn-of-the-century illustration.

    I love the cartoon of archaeologists reburying their discoveries. In fact, this actually happened in 1790 when a huge Aztec sculpture of Coatlecue was discovered while digging the main plaza in Mexico City. It was considered so horrific, blasphemous and dangerous that it was reburied for several decades.

    BTW, thanks for linking to Brown’s website, where I wound up printing out – for my fridge – her brilliant Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms office cartoon.

    Liked by 2 people

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