The Strange Drawings of Brian Brooks 

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

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The character — a thirteen-year-old loner with black hair and pale skin — was in the developmental stage, with only eleven drawings. All of them were red, black, and white, and in all of them, she appeared inside a frame. Each image was accompanied by a clunky phrase like "Emily did not search to belong. She searched to be lost." And her bangs had a shine that made her look like a bird had pooped on her hair, Reger said.

Though rudimentary in concept, the brand had potential. Between 1992 and 1998, some boutiques in Santa Cruz and San Francisco bought and sold Emily T-shirts. Then in 1998, Reger and his business partner, Matt Reed, secured a distribution deal with Hot Topic, an up-and-coming mall chain that specialized in music-inspired accessories for teens. That same year, the Los Angeles Times did a story about Cosmic, and Hollywood producers began calling Reger to ask about Emily's backstory and find out if the company was interested in a movie.

Hot Topic carried the Emily brand in its first eight stores and continued to add her as its empire grew to almost 600 stores in 2004. The Hot Topic deal flushed Cosmic with cash, and Reger and Reed decided to hire an artist to flesh out the brand and churn out designs. Reger picked Brooks. Initially the job was part-time and paid $11 an hour.

Brooks took the job, thinking he would only work for Reger for three months, then head back to Boston with a stash of cash. While shopping with his mother, he had seen an Emily notepad at a Hot Topic store in Phoenix. "I knew she was becoming a cult thing," Brooks said. "It was a proud moment. I told my mom that I knew that guy."

Brooks moved to Oakland, into a flat in a cold, dilapidated Victorian on lower Shattuck Avenue with two of his best friends from high school in Phoenix. Almost immediately, he went to the Temescal Library, which was operating out of a dreary temporary storefront at the time, to practice drawing Emily.

One of the first changes he made was to blacken the white background in which Emily always appeared. Next, Brooks changed Emily's clunky catchphrases into clever remarks. Where earlier designs used multiple sentences to describe Emily, Brooks sometimes used a single word: "Strange."

Brooks also gave Emily a feisty attitude and rock 'n' roll credibility. His first blockbuster design was Emily drawn with her arms folded like Uncle Sam saying, "I Want You to Leave Me Alone." That one sold 5,000 T-shirts. "That was one of his early designs that struck a chord and gave us this attitude that empowered the wearer to not just be saying something about the character, but something about themselves," Reger said.

Brooks' other drawings used as slogans song titles like "Too Much to Dream," "Mommy's Little Monster," and "See Emily Play."

He quickly lost sight of his plan to leave Cosmic in three months. "I was so excited because it was growing so fast," he said. He began working fifty to sixty hours per week, releasing drawings four times per year, during each clothing season. At first, Emily only appeared on totes, stickers, shirts, and socks. But as Cosmic secured licensing, manufacturing, and distribution deals with other companies, the line expanded.

In 2000, Cosmic signed a deal with Chronicle Books to do one Emily book and four stationery products that led to three more books and eight more stationery products. The Chronicle Books deal introduced Emily to mainstream book stores and international readers. Cosmic began taking Emily to international trade shows. The same year, the company opened an Emily store in Tokyo. Emily became so popular that in 2005, the Damned, a British punk band, asked Cosmic to do a cover for their single "Little Miss Disaster." Brooks drew a windswept Emily, in her characteristic black, white, and red.

Brooks was Emily's primary artist until the company hired someone to help him in 2002. The same year, Reger promoted Brooks to art director, the post he held until his departure. In that role, other artists typically drew for Brooks. He came up with ideas and snappy lines and oversaw their designs and the merchandise to make sure it was consistent with the Emily brand.

"Brian's contribution was not just art," Reger said. "It was also spirit and character. He was a genuine weirdo in a company of everybody being individuals. He embodied a spirit that kept things alive and kept things interesting. There was no limit to his ideas and imagination. He would go home and work for hours and hours."

For his first five years at Cosmic, Brooks was thrilled. "I was doing what my idols were doing," he said. "It was like I had several hit records."

Until about 2001, Cosmic gave Brooks bonuses when Emily's sales jumped. And even after 2001, he received many raises. But the more Brooks gained Reger's confidence and rose in seniority, the unhappier he became. The more he worked, the less time he had to explore his own creative interests. The one character that he created outside work became part of Cosmic's brand portfolio when Brooks offered her to the company. Oopsy Daisy is an innocent preteen girl with a constant deer-in-the-headlights gaze who stays in trouble despite her best efforts to be good. Oopsy, not Emily, graced the front of Cosmic's best-selling T-shirt. The shirt — "Oops, I said the F-word" — sold 50,000, many more than the best selling Emily shirt.

Other than Oopsy, from 2001 until 2005, Brooks didn't produce any art unrelated to his job.


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