Sunday, May 24, 2009

Idealist Abroad: French Milk

Rob reviews the travelogue comics of Lucy Knisley, FRENCH MILK (Touchstone).

FRENCH MILK is a travelogue about transitions and the way a dramatic change of ritual can make us understand our choices a bit more clearly. Lucy Knisley was a 22-year-old in this story on the precipice of starting her adult life and faced a fair bit of anxiety about the prospect. She went to Paris for a month with her mother, ostensibly to celebrate the latter's 50th birthday and spend extensive time with each other while they still could. Knisley also had to deal with being separated from her lover for a protracted period and the home she had made in Chicago. It's funny to see a travelogue as the first major project of a promising young artist like Knisley. This is the sort of comic one generally sees from older, more experienced cartoonists who have already established their narrative voices.

At its heart, the book was about the tensions between the joys and restrictions of childhood versus the freedom and responsibility of adulthood. The one bad move Knisley made was spelling out this conflict in her afterword, which hammered home rather clumsily all of the themes she had elegantly teased out in the rest of the book. This had the feel of a young cartoonist who wasn't quite confident enough to let her work speak for itself. This is unfortunate, because Knisley's narrative voice shifted from childlike glee over things like food and dresses to an almost world-weary cynicism, illustrating the nature of this tension. When Knisley early in the book alerts the reader that she always feels herself revert to childhood habits whenever she returns home, it feels like she then goes out of her way to talk about her sex life as "proof" of her adulthood. It's unstated (until the end) but clear that the trip was mostly about finding new ways to relate to her mother now that both of their lives were changing in ways both subtle and dramatic.

That sense of melancholy and uncertainty certainly doesn't pervade the book. Indeed, Knisley focuses on things like food, sightseeing and other everyday trivia as a means of getting her mind in the right space. The book also feels like a way of reifying a powerful event: getting it down in ink, photos and thoughts was a way of solidifying the ephemeral nature of experience, and more pointedly, memory. What makes the comic a delightful and breezy read is how much of an open book Knisley presents herself as, remaining upbeat and reveling in delight even as she faces down her anxieties. She opens with a little bit of context about her family and life, but not so much as to drown the reader in details. Knisley begins with the events of just a few days before her trip to France, given us some grounding in the life she's leaving behind for awhile, her sense of curiosity, her neuroses and what she wants out of life.

Keeping a diary of an event often changes the way we perceive the experience. Knisley was clearly going after a series of magic moments and found them in the simplest encounters with food, art and a very old & established culture. Her brushwork has an appealing weight to it and I liked the way she composed each page. Some pages were comics with panel-to-panel transitions while others were labeled illustrations of what she was eating, visiting or wearing. The cartoony nature of her line gave the whole book a certain whimsical quality, even when Knisley temporarily descended into melancholy over her future career as an artist and the concept of financial responsibility. The drawings remind me a bit of Hope Larson (a friend and peer) but also a bit of a Dupuy-Berberian cityscape.

Knisley's youthful enthusiasm pervaded the entire project, especially in moments when she visited the graves of writers she found inspiring (like Oscar Wilde) or connected the experiences of writers she admired to Paris (like Ernest Hemingway). Once again, Knisley did take quite noticably inform the reader that she was not an innocent, injecting frank talk about her sex life into the otherwise breezy travelogue entries. She confessed that her obsessiveness on the topic had much to do with being apart from her boyfriend while having so many tempting opportunities in front of her. While Knisley expressed her fears and worries, she managed to avoid whining and at least continue to draw something interesting, even if it had nothing to do with Paris.

What makes the book a success is that her autobiographical voice is such a pleasantly winning one. She's so plain-spoken and unpretentious that the reader can't help but wonder what witty observation she'll make next. Combine that voice with her cartooning chops, and it's no wonder why this book was green-lighted by a major publisher. The multi-media aspect of the book had to have been another draw, with the mix of photographs, text and cartoons. It's a choice that made sense for a book aimed at audiences who read books about travel, giving them a bit of a foundation they understand and something to connect to the cartoons in the book. This is the sort of book that by definition an artist can only do once: an autobiographical rite-of-passage travelogue. That said, it would be interesting to see her repeat the experience in another twenty or thirty years, this time from the perspective of her mother. Until that time, I'll be curious to see how she evolves as an artist. Subtlety is not her strong point at the moment, so it'll be interesting to see if she can turn that weakness into a strength.

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