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.
Emily is a preternatural 13-year-old misanthrope with Nico hair who, ironically, refuses to be corrupted by the mainstream. Perennially dressed in black, Emily carries a slingshot and has a cat name NeeChee. Emily's subtext of open-mouthed wonder at the stupidity that surrounds her is actually a rational response to the world's goings-on. Absurd, maybe, but paradoxically brilliant.
"Brian just really has worked hard at developing the styles of Emily so that it kind of still fit in Emily's world," says Mandana Towheady, Cosmic Debris' PR flack. "He experimented and it really worked. So it's all been Brian. We've been joking around about how (Brooks) broke Emily out of her box."
Brooks created the deceptively sweet Oopsy Daisy, which centers around the mishaps of a preteen girl and some of her peers. A pint-size tot in a florid aura embracing a world in which fake is real and cool is defined in corporate terms. Her moral indignations are realized in pithy quips that accompany various graphics ("Oops, I got busted," or "Oops, I used the f-word!" or "Oops, I killed a Princess" -- the latter was banned from a national chain store for its use of the word "killed").
Courtney Love is her biggest proponent and wears the merch with regularity. Then there's the title of Britney's latest sugar-slab, "Oops, I Did It Again." "She may have nicked that from Oopsy Daisy," Brooks says, laughing. "We don't know. But that record title kick-started national sales for Oopsy."
Brooks derails questions about the sarcasm behind Oopsy as much as he denies any philosophical conclusions to anything he does. He uses tricky double negatives: "There isn't nothing. I'm just trying to make somebody laugh. Just trying to get somebody to start word play and using it to exercise their brain so their mouths aren't always open in front of a TV screen.
"I'm able to be a lot more crazy with her than Emily," he continues. "The goofiest stuff can happen to her and the morals are harder to see."
Out soon on Chronicle Books will be a series of comic books based on the Emily and Oopsy Daisy characters. The Cartoon Network and Fox are reportedly ready to make offers for cartoon rights. The 300-plus national chain store Hot Topic is planning a huge back-to-school campaign centered around Emily.
Brooks understands that the essence of punk rock was never having to communicate in the world of corporate pros, an idea that would make Brooks and Cosmic Debris total sell-outs. But logoizing youth-culture for profit is no longer the death knell for street cred that it once was; the rise of hip-hop culture saw to that.
Growing up the middle of two brothers, Brooks spent most waking hours drawing. As a kid, his "mom would have to drag me to the other kid's houses. I would always just like to stay home and draw. I thought I owned my own company. I would make these dumb books and make promo copies of them. I would hand draw the stamp that said 'Promotional Use Only.'"
He moved from a private school, Brophy, to the public Central High after his freshman year and graduated in 1990. "After Brophy, the next year I was hanging out scaring the people I went to Brophy with, hanging right there in front of the canal," he says laughing. "I never really had artist friends in high school, it was more like the punks."
In 1993, after a couple years at Phoenix College, Brooks followed a high school pal to San Francisco, became somewhat lost and wound up at the San Francisco Art Institute studying graphic design. His old man, a local doctor, footed the schooling. He graduated three years later.
"The faculty and the students here saw the value of what he was doing and recognized his devotion to his work," says Larry Thomas, San Francisco Art Institute's dean of students, who remembers Brooks well. "So whether he planned it or not, it's interesting how his work has taken off."
"If I didn't get out of Phoenix," Brooks explains between a couple of burps, "I probably would've ended up downtown and be way sadder. It's just so sad there, the heat, the grocery stores. But on the other hand, I'm totally patriotic of Phoenix. I'm serious. I'll move back in four years and set up a food co-op on the shady side of Camelback Mountain."
Beneath Brooks' exterior there's a self-composer: a soft-spokenness masked with humor, sentences armed with laughter. Even if he were revealing his deepest secrets, you'd still sense reserve.
The Zen-like quality of his simplistic world now is continually disrupted by topical predicaments of a consumer-driven lifestyle. In other words, he's got money and will soon be stinking rich.
"It just means that'll I have nothing to do in 20 years because I will have purchased every record that I always wanted," he laughs.
Brooks typically works about 80 hours weekly and doesn't ever go out. He's too busy, he says, to oblige the whims of some girlfriend. He loathes sex, claims it makes him think of soft drinks. An ex-girlfriend of his says the experience of going out with Brooks was the strangest, weirdest time of her life.
Nevertheless, the sarcastic subtleties and poke fun are lost on most. Paul McCartney for one. A coloring-book series goofing on McCartney earned Brooks a cease-and-desist order from the rock star's management a few years back. It gave Brooks a bit of hope.
"That was the greatest thing ever," Brooks says, and follows with a pause . . . "Although I'm listening to George right now. I don't know, I think Yoko was the best songwriter of the Beatles. But Paul did the best music, hands down. Shit dog!"
The man with the Hasidic ape drape could easily be described as a kid held in thrall by pop culture who turned around and successfully made a career of it. Brooks' saw his ideas go from debris on sticky floors in outhouse-quality rock bars to flying from racks in international chain stores and boutiques. His work continually conveys a duty to the pursuit of theme-driven images with the same elements that made his bedroom line of do-it-yourself coloring books worthy: poetry, style, comedy, defiance, and, of course, ambition.
Is he a sellout? Of course. One sticker image depicts Oopsy Daisy with outstretched arms, upturned palms, and a bewildered expression. The tagline reads: "They're selling me out!"
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If you ask him, it's all about his heroes, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa and the Damned. "That was what I always wanted to do, make cool stuff that came in glossy packages."
What about the punk rock ethics and DIY spirit he once championed?
"Man dog, dude!" he says.
We suspect what he means.