Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Is Your Diary Comic About?

A few weeks ago, I finally got myself a good old fashioned library card and got to work abusing the interlibrary loan system. It's been a great opportunity to catch up on my print comics (an area where I'm woefully underdeveloped), and how Ariel Schrag has walked into my reading life.

Ariel Schrag is a famous (and I suppose, if you went to high school with her, infamous) writer of autobiographical comics. Following each year of high school, Schrag made a comic detailing her experiences: Awkward and Definition detail freshman and sophomore years, Potential junior year, and Likewise senior year. What's remarkable about the books isn't just their much-touted frankness about sex and drugs, but how cohesive each volume feels. These could have easily been a series of random adventures, but they're not. They feature arcs on Schrag's evolving sexual identity, her romantic and platonic relationships, her parents' crumbling marriage, her personal academic quests, and how the comic comes to dominate her thoughts and interactions. Sure, it sometimes goes in frustrating directions (a great deal of Ariel's high school life revolves around Sally, her obviously straight sometimes-girlfriend), but there's always the sense that you're skimming the cream off the top of someone's high school experience, drinking in the most emotionally potent moments of those years.

I've found myself reading a lot of autobiographical and diary comics lately. I am now an official devotee of Julia Wertz's The Fart Party, and finally read Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy, Lucy Knisley's French Milk, and Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage (I'm told I'm a little behind the times). In addition to my daily diet of American Elf and Ellerbisms, I've added Adam Cadwell's The Everyday (soon to be ended) and Shazzbaa Bennett's Today Nothing Happened. And, of course there's Jeffrey Rowland's Overcompensating, if you consider that autobiography and not unrestrained lunacy based on some distant fact. I still get a little choked up when I remember DAR! stopped running.

One of my favorite new entries in the autobio comics ring is Stop Paying Attention, a series of graphic essays by Lucy Knisley. If you missed French Milk, you might know Knisley from the Doctor Octopus story she did for Marvel's Girl Comics. Knisley has a remarkable talent for visual language, and Stop Paying Attention is a wonderful showcase (I especially love the piece on her imminent breakup).

I rather hope that Knisley takes some time to experiment with her content. Essay-writing can easily lend itself to gross abstraction and navel-gazing, and it's nice to see that Knisley's last few comics have been so grounded.

But so many autobiographical demand some sort of a narrative, or else they risk become a mere exercise, something that may be of great value to the artist, but won't really connect with a readership. Although I've long subscribed to The Everyday, it's more what I would consider a "portfolio comic." Adam Cadwell is obviously a gifted artist -- his drawings are precise, expressive, and awesomely detailed. But there's no story to it, no evolution of its protagonist/author. We don't even get much of a sense of Adam himself. Cadwell recently announced that he'll be ending The Everyday at strip #200 to work on longer form stories. I can't say I'm unhappy to see it go if we finally get to see Cadwell's pretty pictures in context.

But what gives a diary comic that sense of structure? Are writers obligated to find the plot in their own lives? The Everyday's companion comic (brother comic? best friend who buys you chocolate biscuits comic?) is Ellerbisms, a comic I've written about a couple of times. Ellerbisms began in more of a portfolio comic mode, but became more rooted as a relationship blossomed between creator Marc Ellerby and his girlfriend Anna. Not every comic is about Anna and Ellerby has never spelled out the progression of their relationship, but it gave the comic a sense of identity that it previously lacked.

On the other hand, an underlying theme isn't essential. James Kochalka has said that his quest in making American Elf is to capture the rhythm of life, something he attempts in the span of a single square each day. Remarkably, it works; through that series of colorful squares, we get a watercolory sense of Kochalka's daily life. We see his temper tantrums, his intimate moments. We're watching his kids grow up and his bursts of strange creative energy. Yes, we get flashes of big deal life stuff -- his wife's miscarriage, concern over a friend's drinking -- but they never form the backbone of the comic. Instead, reading American Elf, one gets the sense that they are being wrapped up in Kochalka's magical view of his own life.

The comic that got me thinking about this -- about whether diary comics need to be about something in particular -- is Shazzbaa Bennett's Today Nothing Happened. I read an ArtPatient review of TNH a while back, and it's been in my reader ever since. Shazzbaa is one of those infuriating people who makes energetic cartooning look effortless, an TNH has a lot to recommend it: a consistent aesthetic, a strong cast of characters, a solid sense of timing, and a set of recurring themes.

Shazzbaa was a sequential art major at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and she started TNH as a class assignment. It follows that much of TNH chronicles the events in the life of a SCAD student. Shazzbaa takes a game design class. She fights with the 3D rendering software. She pulls all-nighters to finish her thumbnailing assignment. To someone who never attended art school, it's pretty fascinating stuff. Of course, art school doesn't dominate every strip; there are plenty of D&D sessions and meals with friends. But "the adventures of a SCAD sequential art student" provided a nice anchor for the comic.

Then Shazzbaa graduated. TNH continued to be a very well-done comic of amusing individual pages. Shazzbaa learning how to drive. Shazzbaa going shopping with her mom. Shazzbaa visiting friends. Shazzbaa still playing the D&D. But for a while, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing. Here Shazzbaa had been this rocking art student -- so what happens next? Where does her career go from here? I was relieved to at long last see the latest TNH development: Shazzbaa looks for a day job. I just hope we'll get more peeks into her artistic job stuff as well. It may seem crass to reduce someone's life to plot arcs and narrative threads, but for a young cartoonist living at home in a down economy, day jobs and the career path ahead are a big part of life. It seems odd not to see them on the page.

But the best thing about the comics that work is how much they don't feel like performance art. For all of Shazzbaa's wonderful energy, you never get the sense that she's putting on a show. In The Fart Party, Julia Wertz creates a character around herself, but she isn't afraid to reveal her vulnerabilities and her dorkier private moments. And the love story we see in Ellerbisms seems to stem from nothing more than Ellerby's affection for Anna and his desire to share that portion of his life. Diary and autobio comics entertain and offer insight into the creators' lives, but it would be depressing if they depicted the adventures of a series of dancing monkeys.

Overcompensating, of course, gets a pass on that front.

1 comment:

James Stallings said...

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