LINCOLN SQUARE — This weekend, Jeffrey Brown will be among the star attractions at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego, but more often than not the comics author can be found at the Lincoln Square outpost of Beans & Bagels, inking the panels for his latest work in relative anonymity.
Though as a child he fully expected to make a career out of drawing Marvel Comics' "Wolverine," it's Brown's sketching of an altogether different iconic character that's turned him into something of a pop culture sensation.
"Darth Vader and Son" (2012) and its follow-up, "Vader's Little Princess" (2013) — both of which reimagine the "Star Wars" Sith Lord as a put-upon dad — have catapulted Brown from cult figure to bestselling author status.
"The only thing I've heard is that George Lucas asked for more copies" of "Darth Vader and Son," Brown said. "That's a pretty ringing endorsement."
Not bad for a project that started as a concept for a Father's Day Google doodle, with Vader and 4-year-old Luke Skywalker standing in for Brown and his then 4-year-old son Oscar.
Google ultimately passed on the doodle, but the idea of depicting Vader, the quintessential sci-fi villain, as an exasperated parent, struck a chord with Brown.
"I put Vader in situations that I was in as a parent," Brown said. "The way I draw little Luke is close to the way I draw my son."
"Princess" features Leia as a rebellious teen — "Instead of crashing your car, she's blowing up the Death Star," Brown said. And his forthcoming "Jedi Academy" depicts the "Star Wars" universe as a bubbling cauldron of middle-school angst, a place where even knights in training have to worry about the lunchroom seating pecking order.
In many ways, Brown is simply using "Star Wars" as a canvas for his ongoing examination of common human experiences.
Readers solely familiar with Brown's Vader work are often surprised to discover he's published a number of autobiographical graphic novels, one of which — "A Matter of Life" — is debuting at Comic-Con.
"What's strong and striking and unusual about his work is the vulnerability and tenderness of his comics," said Jim Trainor, associate professor of Film, Video and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Trainor served as the faculty advisor for Brown's master's thesis at the Art Institute, a work that ultimately became Brown's first published graphic memoir, "Clumsy."
At the time, Brown was struggling in the school's painting and drawing department.
"I knew the work I was making wasn't saying what I wanted it to say," Brown said.
A visit from Chris Ware, one of the foremost comics artists working today, spurred Brown to change directions.
"In the back of my mind, the most fun I had was when I was drawing comics as a kid," he said. "This felt right, expressing something personal and meaningful that people were responding to and I enjoyed making."
The combination of words and images particularly suits Brown, who minored in English as an undergraduate.
"It's this visual language," he said of comics. "I've always been a 'write first' artist, the drawings are always in service of the writing."
"Clumsy," a recounting of a failed relationship, was scripted as one- or two-page stories, "like a poem," said Brown.
It's incredibly crudely drawn but at the same time has a "level of intimacy that was almost embarrassing," said Trainor, who places the work closer to the tradition of literary fiction than popcorn superhero comics.
Brown's comics are "radical for their human qualities," said Trainor, who counts his former student among the medium's more innovative practitioners.
Ideally, Brown, who now teaches comics at the Art Institute, would love for the Vader series to lead readers to his other work, but he acknowledged, "Not everything is for everyone. And that's fine. It's one of the reasons I've gone back and forth between the goofy and more serious. They're all reflective of me in different ways."
W. Dal Bush, co-owner of Wicker Park's Challenger Comics, lauded Brown's skills as a shape-shifter, his "ability to do deeply personal autobiographic work" while at the same time "traffic in the absurdist."
"I think he's definitely in the same vicinity as Chris Ware," Bush said. "Jeffrey Brown's a talented cartoonist. I would want to read him in any format."
If that sort of praise has gone to Brown's head, it's not evident as he sits in the corner of Beans & Bagels, hand-coloring his latest drawing with his trusted collection of brush pens.
The soft-spoken Brown, who lives in Lincoln Square with his wife and now two young sons, is simply happy to have cobbled together a living as an artist.
"Only 10 percent of people who go to art school will still be making art in 10 years," he said. "To some extent you have to want to do it. It's hard. It is something you really have to stick with for it to work."
Other than briefly visualizing himself as a pro football player, Brown has never wanted to be anything but an artist.
"My mom saves everything. There's stuff from when I was two and three — unintelligible scribbles," he said. "I don't know that I could ever explain it. It's a compulsion. The physical act is enjoyable. It's like eating or sleeping."