M.K. Brown Is Stranger Than Life



Even in the present post-sexist age, I may be the only male cartoonist who credits a female cartoonist as a major influence. Of course, I wasn’t always aware of this…

David Chelsea is reading:

Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013
by M.K. Brown


Most cartoonists I meet nowadays grew up on Marvel and DC, but my taste was formed by MAD, ZAP, and the 1970s National Lampoon. The Lampoon is best remembered for its stable of writers, many of whom went on to write for Saturday Night Live or to become successful screenwriters (one of them was John Hughes), but they had an equally excellent stable of cartoonists, including Gahan Wilson, Bruce McCall, Shary Flenniken, Charles Rodrigues, Randall Enos, Jeffrey Jones, Edward Gorey, and Neal Adams (who also was also a top artist for DC, though I didn’t know he worked for anyone but the Lampoon until years later), but the one who really rocked my world was M.K. Brown.


It is hard to describe M. K. Brown’s drawing style to anyone who has never seen it. Certainly, she is the SQUISHIEST cartoonist I can think of; the figures and objects in her drawings always seem about to mash and fuse together like cookies baking on a tray. Everything and anything in her panels- rocks, furniture, houseplants- jiggle with life, and little distinction is made between living and inanimate objects- one of her characters, Earl D. Porker, Social Worker, spends his life being nagged and ordered around by the furniture in his apartment.

The detail that rocked my world

Finally, more than forty years after her work first started to appear in print, M. K. Brown has had her comics work collected in one volume by Seattle’s Fantagraphics Press. The book is Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013. (A second book devoted to her strip AUNT MARY’S KITCHEN is promised). For me, this is the Comics Event Of The Year. In my personal Pantheon Of Comics, M. K. Brown is in the Top Four (the other cartoonists occupying spots are Winsor McCay, R. Crumb and Rick Geary).

Not M.K. Brown.
Not M.K. Brown.

One detail sums up what I respond to in her work. It comes from the story THEY CAME FROM SPACE, which appeared in ARCADE magazine in 1976. Note the crescent moon. If every cartoonist from the beginning of time turns turns the inner edge of the crescent into a face in profile, M.K. Brown is going to be the first to put a face on its OUTER edge.

Another detail from this story surprised me: until I saw the signature on this strip, I had no idea that “Mary K. Brown” was a woman. I actually thought this might be a Lampoonish joke on the artist’s part, and it wasn’t until I started to see references in print to M. K. Brown as “her” that I came to believe it (Another female cartoonist named M.G.Lord once said she went by initials not to pass as a man, but because her full name was Mary Grace Lord and she didn’t want to come across as a religious fanatic). Before that I had vaguely imagined the cartoonist as looking like the cowpoke character Beans Morocco- no more than a shadowy profile under a broad-trimmed hat.

Some cartoonists use their work to broadcast their personality to the world, and others hide behind it. M. K. Brown definitely falls in the latter category, which may be why she is not more widely known. Her work was included in the feminist cartoon anthology TWISTED SISTERS, but she has little in common with that sisterhood other than gender; the other artists in the collection (Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner) are all about strident autobiography smeared in menstrual blood, while she plays it close to the vest. A story called SELF-PORTRAIT purports to be autobiography, but presents such a muddle of contradictory information and tall tales (“I was born in Hamburg, Germany, before the War” “Actually, I was born on an Indian Reservation”. “The truth is, I was born in Connecticut.”) that it can’t possibly be taken at face value.

Teen David channels M.K. Brown
Teen David channels M.K. Brown

The publicly known details of her actual life are scant. Wikipedia lists her birthplace as Connecticut, but does not provide a birth date. It was rumored among Lampoon fans that she was, or had been, married to fellow cartoonist B. Kliban (of CAT humor book fame), and Wikipedia confirms this. A few photographs surface in the new book, which show that she does not look much like the “White Girl” character that sometimes seems to be an authorial stand-in. A mutual friend once had dinner with her, but had little to say other than she was “elegant”.

If it is difficult to imagine who her influences could have been (there was a similar kind of squishiness to Dr. Seuss, as well as in animated cartoons of the period like YELLOW SUBMARINE and THE POINT) it is equally difficult to see her influence in later cartoonists. Roz Chast and Bill Griffith contribute essays to the new collection, but I can’t see that they’ve taken anything from her.

I, on the other hand, blatantly ripped off her work as  as a young cartoonist. My teenage sketchbooks teem with M.K.Brownish doodles. Note the scribbled foliage and the hands with fingers fused to form paddles.

This sequence from a 1975 Piggola strip has all the hallmarks: the skewed smiles and squinty eyes on the human characters, the misshapen coffee cup and salt shaker, the preoccupation with houseplants, and the ultimate metamorphosis. Brown’s characters were always turning into other things, including a woman stung by poisonous flying ants who becomes a pig. Well, the only thing M.K. Browner than that would be to turn a pig into a houseplant:






These panels from my recent all-ages comic SNOW ANGEL are another attempt to evoke her style, though I didn’t push the strangeness as far as I could have- it occurs to me that if M.K. Brown had drawn the story, instead of a little girl dressed as as angel, Snow Angel would have been an angel-shaped depression in the snow that stopped criminals by tripping them up.



M. K. Brown’s last National Lampoon story appeared in 1981, and in the years since she’s largely left comics behind for fine art, the occasional New Yorker carton, and children’s books, two of which, Big Goof and Little Goof and Let’s Go Swimming With Mr. Sillypants, I used to read to my own kids.

Just once, I had a brief encounter with someone whose M. K. Brown obsession exceeded my own. While still in high school, I was already having comics published in two local papers, The Portland Scribe and The River City Sun, and someone wrote to ask me to contribute a strip to his humor zine. I don’t remember his name, but I think he was another high school kid living out in the suburbs- Lake Oswego or Tigard. Eventually I got a copy of the issue with my strip. The editor himself seemed to be the only other contributor, and the issue included a strip by him which was a TOTAL M.K. Brown ripoff- something about a farm boy going out in the morning to feed the family herd of clams. I rather dismissed this at the time- I had moved on somewhat from my own heavy imitative phase, and for all I knew, the woods were full of young cartoonists slavishly copying her style. The issue is nowhere to be found in my files, but I would LOVE to see it again. Nameless M.K. Brown fan from the 70s- are you out there?

Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013
by M.K. Brown (Author)
Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Fantagraphics; 1 edition (March 13, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1606997084
ISBN-13: 978-1606997086

Hey, and if you’re going to buy the book ANYWAY, how about clicking the Amazon Associates link below? It will help put my kids through college: