The Strange Drawings of Brian Brooks 

The artist behind Emily the Strange attempts to exorcise his creation from his art.

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Brooks never wanted to work as a nine-to-five artist, or a nine-to-five anything. As a twelve-year-old growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, he idolized George Harrison of the Beatles and punk bands such as the Toy Dolls, who urged rebellion against bourgeois ethics.

Under Harrison's influence, Brooks got his hands on a copy of the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita and, after reading a few pages, concluded that Krishna requires his followers to renounce their worldly possessions. Brooks loved his budding collection of Beatles and punk rock albums too much to become an ascetic. But as early as seventh grade, he knew he never wanted a job. "The adults would say you're going to be an architect," Brooks said. "It just didn't sound right. At twelve I thought I was going to make a career of [art] and make a living out of it."

At the end of ninth grade, he dashed his parents' hopes that he would ever become a doctor, like his father, or a teacher, like his mother. That's the year Brophy College Preparatory, his rigorous Phoenix Catholic school, expelled him for flunking every subject but P.E. and Algebra, which he mysteriously passed with a C+. At his new public high school, he dropped all his advanced placement classes so he could hang out with the hip kids.

Brooks' transition from smart rich kid to social misfit coincided with his transition from casual to serious artist. While his grade school classmates played with their friends, Brooks spent most of his evening holed up in his bedroom, drawing. When he was twelve, he created a fictitious company called Brooks Publishing Limited to handle his fictitious affairs. "There were no requests coming in," Brooks said. "I'd take the art around to my two brothers and my mom. I had an audience of three."

He didn't have much to say when he was twelve. But even then, he began a cartoon series called The Family that foreshadowed his future as a satirist. The Family was a more-disciplined and rigid Chinese-American version of his parents and two brothers. The kids went to bed at 7 p.m. in the summer and the dad followed suit within an hour. The dad resembled Brooks' own hardworking father, whom Brooks felt never knew how to relax. "I've always seen him as Chevy Chase from Vacation," Brooks said. "Very nice, but not very real-worldish. Every time we went somewhere, we were embarrassed."

Though Brooks didn't want to ever get a job and barely acknowledged that he was in high school, he wasn't a slacker. In his sophomore year, he started staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. practicing his drawing techniques. He soon stopped sleeping on a normal schedule. Some of his pieces were so intricate that he would spend one week on them. His art teacher created an award to recognize his talent and work ethic at his senior year awards ceremony. By the end of high school, he had a file cabinet containing more than 2,000 chronologically organized drawings.

When Brooks graduated from high school, his parents pressured him to attend community college. So he began taking art classes and general education classes. "It was just a place where I could fend off the future," Brooks said. "I was just going with the flow." Then his father suggested he apply to art schools. His dad had to escort him on a campus tour. At first, Brooks didn't understand the value. "I was already an artist in my head," he said. "I knew that real art got done at home."

But when he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, he got wings. There, he focused on printmaking. More importantly, he became aware of conceptual art. That's when he began focusing on bugs, sadness, and atheism — three subjects that persist in his work today. His pieces became more intimate and emotional. The characters seemed to talk to each other and each of his drawings began to tell a story. He also became a master at evocative detail. One drawing he did in college is a color-by-numbers scene of Jesus being carried off the cross. Under his loincloth, Jesus has a boner.

Brooks' father paid for art school, while Brooks worked on campus to make some extra cash. But during college he never thought about how he would make a living. "I knew once you got to a certain point, you wouldn't have to worry about money," he said. "I just knew it was gonna work. I didn't question it."

After school he got a temp job stuffing envelopes at the Names Project Foundation, the San Francisco nonprofit that oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and another temp job at an architect's office. But every other month he asked his dad for money.

Graduating from college was a big letdown for Brooks. He lost his access to the screen printing room, his meager community of friends, and his sense of direction. He disliked his life in San Francisco so much that when he went to his younger brother's graduation from Boston University in 1997, he decided to move there. Six months later, he was sleeping on the couch in the house his brother shared with five friends and recycling beer cans to get $7 or $8 a day for cigarettes and food. It was one of the happiest times of his life. "It was wonderful," he said. "I just had so many friends. I was hanging out in book stores. Going to New York."

His dad sent him a check every month. And he got a few temp jobs catching bound paper or T-shirts coming off of large offset printing presses. But blue-collar labor ill-suited him. One screen printing company fired him for ruining six of their industrial screens. He failed to wash the emulsion off their screens because the washroom was occupied when he needed to use it. Another reprimand came from a book store where Brooks worked. His boss wrote him up for jokingly telling a co-worker that he ran the Boston Marathon the previous day. Her write-up said Brooks was untrustworthy.

A year into this drudgery of petty jobs and temp work, in 1999 Brooks got a call from Rob Reger, one of the owners of Cosmic Debris. Brooks and Reger knew each other from the San Francisco Art Institute, where Reger was a teaching assistant for one of Brooks' classes. Brooks' work ethic and weird sense of humor had impressed Reger. "We communicated," he said. "We liked all the same stuff."

One of Cosmic's employees, Noel Tolentino, suggested that Reger consider hiring Brooks to work on a new brand that Cosmic wanted to refine, Emily.


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