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Nearly a decade ago, Phoenix resident Brian Brooks was churning out little Xeroxed coloring books filled with inventive characters, clever phrases and subtle skewerings of pop icons. He put Yoko Ono on a snowplow in suburbia. Paul McCartney peddled frozen entrees at sporting events. One showcased geometrically shaped bugs predisposed to sadness and existential brouhaha that crawled around posing impossible questions. Another saw the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 reconstructed into a gang of docile, Old West cowboys in which Jennie Garth was a gender-bending wrangler with a penchant for pistols.
Brooks would summon up courage and hand out his line-drawn coloring books at local all-age punk shows. The experience taught him that his efforts to find an audience for his work were in vain. The do-it-yourself presentation of his books, it seemed, lacked the necessary glossy allure to capture the fleeting attention of nihilistic pubescents, even when offered free at all-age punk shows. You'd see the tomes on a bathroom floor, soggy under leaky urinals, or out in the club's parking lot swirling around in monsoon dust devils with Burger King wrappers and cigarette butts.
No matter. To date Brooks has produced over a hundred such books inspired by the spirit of punk rock -- the Damned, in particular -- and success was the last thing on his mind. Brooks didn't get into art for approval rating. "I would have quit a long time ago and stayed working at Zia records," he laughs.
The spindly 29-year-old Central High grad and current Oakland resident suddenly finds his finger squarely planted on the sugar-fueled pulse of America's youth market. Here is a guy once dismissed by some as nothing more than an artsy oddball with a dubious fashion sense. His future didn't extend beyond staying holed up in a bedroom hunched over a sketch pad at his mother's house.
Funny how things change.
Julia Roberts and Courtney Love are suddenly huge fans of stuff Brian Brooks creates. His work is spotted with increasing regularity on television, from Mad TV to Friends, and hailed in teen glossies as the coolest shit since the Pop Tart. Deals are being negotiated for a TV series or two. His cartoon caricatures, namely Oopsy Daisy, are influencing the look of kids in America. And it's just starting. What Brooks creates varies little in verve and humor from what could be found in his coloring books handed out at local punk shows.
In person, the self-taught artist is as droll a presentation as the themes in his work: Picture a glam-damaged Brian Eno circa early 1970s meets Romper Room aesthetic. Plus, his hideously fun mullet-with-ear-flaps 'do is an intentional nod to Hasidic Judaism, which from a distance gives Brooks that look considered funny with children on TV: a grown up head on a child's body. Lately he's taken to wearing Top-Siders and "comfy" cardigans. "I look like a retarded Dalai Lama!" he tells me.
No one who has met Brooks could deny his lunacy. He was locally infamous for antics of outright nonsense. I once spotted him making out with a tree on Mill Avenue. He's known to chirp non sequiturs in a falsetto voice at highly inappropriate moments. He'll leave rambling phone messages saying he's counting the beats between notes in Frank Zappa guitar solos. He'll reference a Billy Joel lyric while discussing tofu pizza. He's kept track of every single meal he's eaten, and every single outfit he's worn, since September 1995, and he references it daily. It's an overall flamboyance that captures perfectly the man's sense of absurdity.
"When people first meet me they never know if I'm telling the truth about anything," he explains over the phone from his home. "I don't what it is. Maybe it was too much Zappa growing up. I spent all my time basically being funny, just to humor myself."
Two years ago, Brooks started working at a San Francisco-based pop art design house/arts collective called Cosmic Debris. The company was started by a couple of art-school outcasts, who, like Brooks, were weaned with punk-rock ethos. Its founder, 31-year-old Rob Reges, met Brooks while the two attended the San Francisco Art Institute.
Cosmic Debris creates, manufactures and distributes cartoon clothing and accessory lines. Its logoized characters and quips grace tee-shirts, skateboards, night-vision socks, stickers, bracelets, buttons, chokers and so on.
All this "Debris," these lines on the surface, could easily be dismissed as smart bomb eye candy for kids whose lives are so boring that there is little else to do but spend teen dough on the latest tee shirts, mouse pads and pink socks with bubblegum daisies that Tori Spelling finds desirable. But the stuff is more clever than that. There are twisted undercurrents. Cosmic Debris simultaneously mocks and celebrates the notion of bad pop art, one part existential obnoxiousness, one part market theory. The two most popular lines are Emily Strange and Oopsy Daisy, two girls on polar worlds. The Emily character was created by Reger, and Brooks took her from a linear Goth princess to a symbol of teen angst embraced by malcontents and consumerists alike.