Friday, June 5, 2009

The Honest Diarist

So, I'm quasi-returned, following a cross-country move with few stops and even less Internet access. I'll resume reviews in the next couple of days with a comic I've been sitting on for some time, but I wanted to bring your attention to the latest installment of Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms (previously reviewed here).

Diary comics are harder than they look, precisely because they require a degree of honesty that most of us are simply not able to offer up; either because we hesitate to stare our true selves in the face or out of respect for our lovely but flawed loved ones. James Kolchalka's American Elf, which I often hold up as the template for successful diary comicking, is often astounding in its honesty. Forget the idle speculation on what it would be like to pet his cat with his penis, it's far more shocking when he chronicles his wife's miscarriage or his now-renowned temper.

There has long been a ghost of a narrative running through Ellerbisms, a story beneath Anna and Marc's relationship. Though we've never gotten a clear picture of what that story is, there have been hints that Marc and Anna have a genuine romance -- which is to say messy and plagued by depression and the occasional existential crisis, but anchored to an unclouded affection. But with this latest installment, Ellerby has led us deeper into their relationship with an incident that is shocking, sad, and strangely intimate when Marc comes home to find that Anna has harmed herself.

It's a difficult scene for a number of reasons. One -- and this speaks to Ellerby's talents as a storyteller -- it could have easily been exploitative. But there is no fetishization here; Ellerby does not show the injury (in fact, he shows us as little as possible to explain what's occurred) and when we see Anna's face, her pain is not larger than life; it is pure, ordinary sadness, the kind that contains confusion and regret, and we understand that anyone could have done what's she's done. Instead, the metaphorical camera is -- as it should be in an autobiographical work -- on Marc, on the rush of blood into the ears on discovering that someone you love has done something terrible, the way our visual information gets chopped up as our brains try not to see what's happened, and that the only actions that make sense are the smallest ones, a hand clasped over a knife and holding someone until the sobbing subsides.

Two, it's remarkable that Ellerby has shared this at all. Presumably Anna signed off on this, and it's bold that she did, not for the sake of art (though I certainly consider Ellerbisms, and the other comics I review, art) and not because it might help someone in a similar situation (though it might), but because what Ellerby is attempting is an exercise in honesty, and though honesty doesn't require a throwing open of all our secrets, including something like this makes it more honest. Because it's not shameful; it's not something that titillates our more voyeuristic nerves; it's just one of those things that happens, and it happened to them.

It will be interesting to see how Ellerbisms handles the fallout of all this, but I'm not expecting any sort of exposition. Marc and Anna will continue on with their lives, and this incident will just be one part of that.



Marc Ellerby said...

Wow. Thank you, Elle.

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