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Out of the Box

Box Brown

Interviewed by Chris Auman

Published 2019

Box Brown, comics artist

Box Brown loves tackling pop culture topics and icons (Andre the Giant, Tetris, Andy Kaufman) and turning them into informational nonfiction comics. His latest work, Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, examines the long process through which marijauana was made illegal in the United States and in countries all over the world.

Recently, Box took time away from his drawing board to answer a few questions about his research process, his workload and what inspires him to draw.

RW: You seem to have found your groove writing non-fiction graphic novels, is this something you see yourself pursuing for awhile?

BOX: Yeah, I started working sincerely on nonfiction stuff in around 2008 with my project Everything Dies—an attempt to make a bunch of comics about religion. Then from there I did the Andre the Giant book.

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RW: How do you decide which topics to cover?

BOX: Usually it's something that I've been obsessing on for a while. If I find myself telling the same stories about something over and over again, and even repeating myself, then it's something I should probably make a book about.

RW: Your latest book, Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, tells the story of weed from ancient times to the present, why did you choose this topic?

BOX: I feel like I've wanted to yell this story from the rooftops ever since I was arrested for weed when I was 16. I was an angsty teenager but the entire process kept me saying "this is bullshit" to myself over and over again. I had actually suggested this book to First Second right after my Andre the Giant book. But, then they came back to me talking about it at some point. I think once cannabis media saturation started to take hold over the last few years in the U.S.

Recommended Reading

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box BrownCannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America [First Second]

Box Brown turns his attention to weed in this nonfiction graphic novel (it's a thing). Looking way, way back to the old school days of the B.C.E., when cannabis was cultivated and used for religious purposes, all the way up through the disastrous War on Drugs of the Nancy Reagan Era, Brown illustrates (literally) the way colonialists, capitalists, and politicians (we'll call them rich white men) criminalized the plant and ruined countless lives along the way.

RW: What is your process for a project of this size, did you do all the research for the book first, and then start drawing, or do you do it in tandem?

BOX: I kind of do it all at once and also the research process for a book can kind of start before I realize I've started. Many times I've already done a lot of the research almost by accident before I start the book just out of natural curiosity. But then you have to really get down to the nitty gritty research backing up your version of the story. Sometimes that changes the story that you might have had in mind before you got started. I feel like the research never ends even after the book comes out.

RW: Have you picked your next topic yet?

BOX: I'm currently working on a book about the 1980s toy boom!

RW: Excellent. Where did the nickname Box come from?

BOX: Boxbrown was my AOL Instant Messager name and then my LiveJournal name, then my professional name? Makes no sense, just use your real name folks.

RW: Can you tell me about Retrofit Comics?

BOX: Retrofit Comics was a little mini-comic publishing house I set up at my old apartment in West Philly. I had big plans when I was a lad to have a side business as a publisher as a way to help fund my own comics work.

It really failed miserably in that respect. Like total failure to support me or even itself! But, when I took on Jared Smith from Big Planet as a partner it became so much better than I ever could have made it by myself. It was amazing for me to work with all of these amazing comic artists and get to know everyone a little bit.

It really made me feel like the center of an incredible artist community because people would send me so many comics all the time and tell me about their work. It's an intense lot of work though, eventually I couldn't keep up with anymore.

RW: I read in The Comics Journal that your previous drawing schedule was 12 hours a day, every day! Now you’re down to 9 hours a day, five days a week. Did cutting back actually make you more productive?

BOX: It definitely made my life more worth living. I work much less now, a measly 40 hours per week, but I am much happier and healthier than I was when I was living the workaholic lifestyle. It's not necessary to work yourself to death!

RW: I’ve also read that you enjoy watching documentaries when you draw. Any current favorites? Do you also listen to music as well, and if so, any particular genre?

BOX: I do love documentaries so much. My favorite of all time that I always recommend is the 10 episode series "First Person" that Errol Morris did. He invented this contraption he called The Interotron where him and his subject could look directly at each other but also be looking directly at the camera while the interview was going on. And, he just interviews 10 incredible subjects including Temple Grandin and a many totally unfamous people who did extraordinary things.

I do love music so much. It's kind of always a nostalgic experience for me though. I find it hard to stay abreast of current music and always have. I hear things that I like and become obsessed with them and then forget about them and then years later I listen to them again and it reminds me of my past life. I'm not going to list off a bunch of bands, I'll just tell you that one of my favorite songs I listened to this year over and over again was the song "She's an Easy Lover" which my whole life I thought it was just a Phil Collins song, but turns out it's a duet with Phillip Bailey from Earth Wind and Fire, and the Phillip Bailey parts MAKE the song. How did that piece of trivia escape me all these years?

Recommended Reading

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box BrownAndre the Giant: Life and Legend[First Second]

Many may remember Andre “The Giant" Roussimoff as Fezzik in the Princess Bride or as the heel in WrestleMania III. Never comfortable in his enormous frame, no matter how much fame or money he made, it was lonely for Andre at the top. Box Brown watched interviews and hours of wrestling to put together this illustrated biography of the towering Frenchmen, from his early days in rural France to his time as an internationally recognized celebrity. Brown gives life to a man who seemed superhuman to most but who was only too human to those who knew him well.

RW: When was the first time you realized that you were good at drawing and what was the drawing that did it for you?

BOX: Pfftt... I think it's just more of feeling of just enjoying trying to draw. I still think about it this way. There's almost no way to view your work objectively. I've found the journey to be less about getting better at drawing, although you work tirelessly at it, and more about just being comfortable with however a drawing might come out. I didn't realize until recently that, even if you're not good at something it's totally OK to still do it and enjoy it. I was shooting hoops by myself, missing every shot, literally. But, I was having fun. This was THIS YEAR 2019 age 39 I realized you can enjoy doing things you're not good at. Wild.

RW: When and why did you move to Philly and from where did you move?

BOX: I moved here in 2008 when I met my wife! I used to live in Jersey City, NJ for a few years and before that at home with mommy.

RW: What is your favorite thing about the City of Brotherly Love (besides the Liberty Bell, of course)?

BOX: I've grown to really think of this place as home! I think my favorite thing is how much the entire city loves the Eagles. Like, they LOVE the Eagles here. I don't really follow sports closely at all and I grew up in North Jersey, but I really love the sense of camaraderie around Philly sports. It's gross from the outside looking in kind of, but once you get in it's like a warm and loving hug.

RW: Favorite drawing implement?

BOX: I like drawing with a 3H pencil that's been worn down to a completely round nub.

RW: Are you going to finish that cheesesteak?

BOX: Probably not. You can have the rest.

RW: Thanks, Box Brown!

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