Melancholic comic book illustrations from an artist condensing his last 10 years of effort

An undocumented, yet highly popular, pastime is people watching, in all its legal, voyeuristic and highly fascinating glory.

The wealth of people we encounter in our everyday lives is abundant, varied and intrinsically, by human nature, of great interest to the majority. Paul Brown is a Bristolian artist who is fascinated by the human experience.

Through a series of illustrations, Paul has formed a collection of work over a 15-year period that has come together in a series of zines that touch areas of the human condition that contain a sensitive quality. Thoughtful, beautiful and amusing, Paul’s work offers a highly sophisticated and multi-faceted take on the experiences of the people who pass through our everyday lives.

The series of four zines entitled ‘Browner Knowle’ are highly personalised accounts of Paul’s meandering, artistic documentation of people and places over these 15-years. With an identifiable nod to Bristol, they provide a poignant referential for the artist and an account of so many personalities we can all identify from our own everyday experiences.

He explains: “When I was living in Ashley Down I spent a lot of time loitering around Stokes Croft and spending time in Take-Five Café, over the road from Turbo Island. This was great for my drawing because I always used to walk round with a sketchbook and draw the characters I used to see. The zines are 15-years of work that have been sitting in sketch books, boxes and scrap bits of paper over that time.”

Placing the characters on the street into his own melancholic narrative, the wealth of people that pass through Browner Knowle is as real and visible as an evening loitering in Stokes Croft. The arguing cider couple, the homeless, the loner, the old man stumbling down the street. The thoughts, the dialogue and the disaster.

Paul is acutely aware of the slant his work carries: “I’m probably drawn towards the notion of melancholy because that’s what I’ve more acutely experienced. You’re never going to get a great laugh fest out of my work.

“In those moments when you experience melancholy, often one also has a sense of beauty within that feeling, a sense of painful longing that is to do with memory of both situations, and emotions. For that reason I hope people can connect to it without thinking it is wholly depressing, that the words and images convey something more that resonates with the reader/viewer. That’s essentially what I’m trying to achieve with the work. Though I’ll readily admit I don’t necessarily succeed.”

Depressing is not the word. The black comedy in his work is a huge feature. A great example of this is the ‘Pretty Vagrants’ series he features on the back of the zines – a parody of traditional collectors cards that feature homeless people under the slogan; ‘keep em, collect’em or swap’em’. Dark, amusing and very, very real.

A lot of Paul’s work is drawn from the social. The appearance of class is extremely visible in his work and clearly provides an influence as he explains: “It’s getting more sinister and darker these days in that people are desperate and people are being left behind. Before it was the case with the infrastructure of society that you always had a way to get people out of it. Now, because of the nature of people’s debt and the economy changing and the rich getting appallingly richer and no one being able to trust politicians any more, the underclass are getting more and more invisible and that is really worrying.”

“I’m on the cusp of Bedminster and Knowle is up the hill. It’s kind of funny walking around those areas and noticing it’s got a bit grimmer from poverty, drugs and crime, whereas back in the day it was just knocking off policeman’s hats with a catapult. It all seems a bit more sinister now.”

Society plays a huge part in Paul’s work, but also in his rhetoric. Staunchly opinionated and damning of a culture that in his opinion “supports such a wealth of cultural mediocrity”, it’s hard not to be engaged by Paul’s slant.

“The obsession still, with ‘Strictly Come X-Factor’ is depressing. It is leading to the death of culture. It also goes hand in hand with the idea that everyone has a talent, when the truth is not everyone has. It used to be that if you were in a band and you wanted to be successful, you had to do the hard work and you did pubs and got glassed off. Now you just have to appear on a scummy show on television and impress an oaf who managed the Teletubbies, who then dictates terms. It’s absolutely preposterous.

The modern obsession with bypassing the hard yards to success is something that riles Paul, as it is directly at odds with the hours needed to produce quality artwork.

“Anyone who puts together something of any worth will take the time to do it. You do a drawing and if it’s not right you throw it away and then do another one and after the 500th attempt you might do one you think is alright and then you’ll look at that one two months later and throw that one away too.”

The painstaking, methodical grind of the artist is something Paul also finds contrasting with modern politics, in which he sees the quick solution attitude having wholly permeated.

“No one believes in anything any more. There are no more –isms left to believe in and no one trusts politicians. There was definitely a time when you could say politicians were in it for the right reasons. They had a conviction and believed in something, but that stopped under Thatcher and capitalist venture politics. As much as I despise and wish the woman dead, however disgusting her politics were, at least she believed in them. I think most politicians are careerists; they are on the money circuit. That’s how most politicians think. They can do their job for four or five years and then get a nice directorship somewhere, or do the lecture circuit. I think you’d find far more interesting people on Turbo Island. It’s far more fascinating listening to half an hour of some drunken lunatic than anything any politician has got to say at
the moment.”

In the Browner Knowle series, the brilliantly drawn illustrations are coupled with narrative that allows the reader real insight into the, often highly personal, world of the characters. It’s these snippets of editorial that clarify and charge so much of Paul’s zine work with real feeling and emotion.

“The story doesn’t end with my work; it goes beyond the final sentence. I don’t think you should give everything away in a story. There should always be something that goes beyond the art, so you don’t see everything. Any art form that makes you think about what happens afterwards is what you want.”

Paul’s work leaves you no choice to think hard about the themes he puts in front of you. The scenes that convey loneliness, detachment and isolation batter your consciousness and force you to confront what may be, for some, aspects of life that may be all to real.

He explains: “It’s also the idea of your existence being entirely based on material things, whereas most people’s existences shouldn’t be based on material things. It’s a myth that five minutes of fame and material wealth is all we require in life. When the truth of our lives and our individual and collective experience is just so much more. That’s why some people may find themselves sobbing into their mirror at 3 in
the morning.”

While not entirely comfortable, there is definitely a certain level of catharsis that can be achieved from this level of honesty. While not entirely aware of the quality of his own work, Paul tells Crack that by printing his work, “we are likely to lose our readership”, and that “instead of chatting about art we should be chatting about Benny Hill instead”.

Crack wanders down the road of art and culture with Paul, who gives glowing endorsements of The Smiths, PJ Harvey and Radiohead, describes Charlie Brooker as a “modern genius”, calls Banksy “the urban Rolf Harris” and says Gary Glitter “made some terrific records despite his disgusting sexual orientation”. Crack is slightly breathless at the end of our time together.

Our final conversational topic is, rather aptly, on the dead genius of Bill Hicks, whose stark, black comedy and brutal honesty finds numerous parallels with Paul’s work.

Paul’s admiration for the man is clear: “Bill Hick’s approach was born essentially out of a real love of being alive and recognising that a lot of people have to endure modern life. What you get is this incredible honesty, about how he perceives the world.

Paul’s artwork does exactly the same and you feel all the better
for it.

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