The life and lines of Allie Brosh: Hyperbole and a Half
“Do you like velociraptors, pirates, sharks and boats? Then you will probably like my blog!”
So begins Allie Brosh, a 24-year-old human biological sciences graduate of the University of Montana whose illustrated storytelling blog has gone from zero to nearly 2 million (monthly visitors, that is) in less than a year. If you haven’t seen “Hyperbole and a Half,” here’s a rough analogy: David Sedaris sets out to write a graphic memoir, but decides to use the MS Paint application on his computer rather than hire an artist. On a blog.
Brosh’s piece, “How a Fish Almost Destroyed my Childhood” is the most entertaining short memoir I have read in years. Her writing is twisted and sharp but also earthy and accessible. Her naive art plays brilliantly against dark comic themes. What sets the Sandpoint, ID native apart, however, is her deft twirling of text and images for optimal clarity and hilarity.
How do you put these pieces together? Do you write the text first and then draw the pictures, go back and forth, or is there some secret method I can’t know about? I’m really interested in how you choose what parts will be a picture and what parts will be text.
I get an idea or I remember a story and first I just write down the main points I want to cover (possibly adding little sketches) then I sit down and actually draw a few of the scenes to see if it can work visually. Then I start putting text in and adding pictures where I think they need to be. As far as how I choose what parts will be illustrated and what will be text, I usually try to illustrate the parts where action or a particular facial expression is important. For example, if I find myself writing “I frowned up at the big scary man,” I’ll know I should probably just draw that out because a picture would be more powerful there. Sometimes I use pictures to show a progression or provide an emotional juxtaposition (the fish story is a good example of the latter).
How long does a heavily illustrated piece take?
It can take up to 16 hours of straight work for long posts. Sometimes much less if the drawings are simple or I have a really, really good idea of where I want the piece to go, but most of the time it takes a good while. I’d say 10 hours is about average.
Does this method of blending text and pictures come from a particular influence: graphic novels, comics, text-visual art, all of that, none of that, what?
I think some of it comes from my way of telling stories in real life. I find myself using big gestures/theatrics and sound effects to illustrate what I’m trying to say. I’ve always had this frustration surrounding trying to tell a story properly – it never seems to come out like it felt. That’s when I usually resort to some sort of more visual demonstration.
Also, I used to really like to draw in MS Paint when my parents first got a computer and I’d even use it to pass time when I was bored in my dorm room in college, but I didn’t really think to use it on my blog until I started reading rage comics. When I first discovered rage guy, I laughed for ten minutes straight at just the one picture. I literally could not get myself under control. I don’t know what it is about it, but it triggered something in me that made me want to start drawing again. I made a few comics and really liked doing them, but I didn’t want to just change my blog into a comic, so I decided to blend the two. I like having the option of augmenting a story with pictures or augmenting a picture with text. I think it allows me a lot more freedom in what I can do.
The rage guy picture is hilarious and I can see the influence. Some stories are driven primarily by the pictures, while others are very narrative. The goose story had a little bit of both–and a video. How do you decide which media to use for a story?
I’ve moved increasingly toward using lots of pictures in almost all of my stories because I feel like they almost always make them funnier, but it’s true that some stories rely more heavily on text than others. I think this is because those stories have stronger narratives and don’t really need to be illustrated as heavily. In fact, sometimes I even feel like pictures would detract from the story. A good example of this would be my drunken boating adventure (Allie Gets Drunk). I think I consider that to be one of my best stories. I thought about going back and adding pictures to it, but the more I thought, the more I realized that the pictures would almost take away from the narrative.
“How a Fish Almost Destroyed My Childhood” is the best memoir I’ve read this year; that is, if you want to call it a memoir. Because you are breaking free of prescribed forms of storytelling, I wonder what kind of license you allow yourself when telling an event from your life. Do you feel free to add details that will make it funnier? Or is that pretty much the way you remember it?
I usually stick pretty close to the actual course of events as I remember it, but I’ll add a couple details where my memory fails me. For example, I couldn’t remember what my mom was doing during the whole fish ordeal, so I think I just said she was grocery shopping or something. Just little details like that. The addition of small details grows in proportion to how young I am in the story. I can remember things pretty well all the way back to when I was two and a half, but those memories are definitely much fuzzier. I’d say once I hit six or seven, most of the details are factually accurate.
In other stories, I’ve exaggerated a bit – like in the Milk Crisis of 2005 story, the old man obviously didn’t fly into a psychotic rage, but he did get very, very angry. It wouldn’t have been very interesting to illustrate him with that level of anger, though. Or, in the fish story, I probably wasn’t completely covered in blood like in the pictures since fish don’t really bleed that much, but there was definitely blood and it might as well have been all over me.
I have one story planned that will take two separate events and blend them, but I will never just make something up entirely. I don’t really feel like I need to.
I guess I was fortunate to have such a colorful childhood, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time.
We’ll come back to your childhood, but I want to follow up on the readers, who seem to intuit what is hyperbole and what is more organic to the actual experience. So what seems to happen is that a lot of the comments are people telling their own stories. Did that reaction surprise you in the beginning?
It didn’t really surprise me because I think that’s the natural human tendency – to want to share in something you find entertaining or interesting. Think of times when you and your friends are hanging out, telling stories; one person will tell a story and it will spark a memory in another person and maybe that person’s story will elicit a story from a third person.
I think my readers’ comments can sometimes be funnier than the actual post. I love reading through my comments, and sometimes I’m even inspired by them. I can’t remember exactly which posts were inspired by comments, but I know that I’ve read comments that have jogged my memory of a particular event in my life. It’s a very nice back-and-forth.
[NOTE: Brosh responds to her critics here.]
A few weeks ago, Dan Visel of Institute for the Future of the Book said someday in publishing there’s going to be a shift toward “valuing the community” that exists around a certain work. Your description of reading the comments seems to mirror that idea.
I feel a strong sense of connection with my readers. We’ve typed a lot of words to one another and I consider many of them true friends, so I care about how they feel about what I do. I guess I feel a sort of social responsibility to them.
I found it refreshing that you polled readers about advertising to the site, for instance. What would you have done if they all said, “I will come to your house and kick you in the face?”
If they had all strongly disagreed with my decision to advertise, I probably would have tried to figure out why they felt so strongly about it and then I would have worked toward finding a way of making money that wasn’t so offensive to them. Compromise is important to me and I like everybody to be on the same page. I’d hate to think that I was taking something away from them to give something to myself. It just doesn’t feel right.
So tell us a little about your childhood, why do you think it’s so entertaining?
I was a very active child. I have almost crippling ADHD and it was much worse when I was a kid, so I had to find lots of things to do to keep my mind stimulated. Often, the activities I found to occupy myself ended badly because with ADHD comes rampant impulsivity, and I never really thought anything through before just jumping in and doing it. The severity of this trait has lessened over the years, but it is still very present in my life. Impulsivity breeds adventure.
Also, my mom is kind of a hippie (I mean that in the most loving way possible) and she wouldn’t let me watch TV or play video games, so I had to go out and explore and get into trouble if I expected to entertain myself. I spent most of my childhood running around barefoot in the woods like a goddamn wild animal.
Then somewhere along the way, I became slightly neurotic and overly self-analytical :)
A potent combination for humor. You’re very honest about your fears and mishaps. Do you ever think, ‘Wow, I should have left that detail out?’
Actually, it’s been quite the opposite! Often, I’ll put something in a post that I’m a little unsure about revealing, but I’m always blown away by how many people come out and say “me too!” It makes me feel more normal. I think my self-esteem has been greatly increased by allowing myself to be vulnerable.
Is your boyfriend cool with all this exposure? How about your family and other friends?
I think Duncan kind of likes it. He has a couple small, unfounded anxieties over the whole thing, though. He seems to think I’m a lot more famous than I actually am – the other day, he was like “You aren’t going to run off with Andy Samberg, are you?” Admittedly, if I was going to run off with anyone it would probably be Andy Samberg, but I don’t think Duncan has anything to worry about.
As far as how he feels about the way I portray him, I always run posts by him first before hitting publish, just in case he really disagrees with something. Most of the time he’s fine with it, though. He has a good sense of humor and he’s perfectly comfortable with a little goodhearted fun at his expense.
My family thinks it’s great. They know I took a lot of risks to make this happen and they are glad that I didn’t end up homeless as a result. However, my dad has expressed concern that “the Google will be able to find me.”
I asked my mom if it was okay to make fun of her and she was like “Sure! I’m excited to read what you have to say!” I’m pretty sure my dad is okay with it too… but he doesn’t really read my blog because he doesn’t ever go on the computer. He waits for my mom to get home to turn it on. They are really good parents, though, so there isn’t much that I could say that would be offensive. My traumatic stories are mostly just unfortunate circumstances that they happened to be involved in.
Many of these stories seem perfect for a book–any plans for that? If so, where would you choose to place such a book in the bookstore (other than the window and by the register)?
I would love to write/illustrate a book! I’ve been taking steps to make that happen, but I’m not the most on-task person in the world, so it may be awhile before it happens.
If I ever get around to finishing a book, it would probably fit best in the humor section or the miscellaneous section. I’ve also always fancied writing some sort of humorous how-to book, but we’ll see about that.
Children’s books are another possibility.
I guess I want to write a lot of different books. That’s the thing with ADHD – you can’t ever just pick one thing you want to do. Sometimes that ends in disaster and sometimes it actually ends up making you extremely prolific. I hope I wind up as the latter.