Of Lucy Knisley's first travelogue/memoir, French Milk, I wrote: "This is the sort of book that by definition an artist can only do once: an autobiographical rite-of-passage travelogue." Knisley's next book, Relish, was an account of her life and her relationships with family through travel and food. Not quite a coming-of-age story, but she once again skirted the surface of important and potentially painful memories by breezily turning them into amusing anecdotes. With her third book (and first for Fantagraphics), Knisley is officially repeating herself with An Age Of License, a travelogue that's far less focused than her first two books and more teeth-grindingly irritating.
First, let me discuss Knisley's many virtues as a cartoonist. She has markedly improved since French Milk, a book that was hobbled by the occasional and unfortunate juxtaposition of drawings and photos. Relish saw her move into her mature style, though her line was occasionally overtaken by the First Second house coloring approach. The mix of color and crisp black & white in An Age of License makes this the first book of hers that truly showcases her abilities as a draftsman and a cartoonist. The control over her line that was crucial to developing her mature style is obvious, allowing her to become bolder and more experimental with the likes of page layouts, lettering and whimsical design decisions. Her understanding of gesture and body language using this cartoony style is spot-on; indeed, it's easy to understand what's going on in the book simply by flipping through it and without reading the words. Knisley arrived at this expertise by working like crazy; few cartoonists her age (27) have cranked out as many pages as she has. Her peers include the likes of Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, Erika Moen and Meredith Gran, all of whom use variations on this stripped-down, cartoony and easy to parse style. In terms of pure skill, she may have surpassed all of them.
Knisley's blessing and curse is her breezy, lightweight style. There's a relentless aimlessness that afflicts her comics, especially her attempts at long-form travelogues. At least in her first two books, she had a through-line that anchored that aimlessness. French Milk was about her relationship with her mother and her attempts at feeling like a grown-up, while Relish tried to connect all of her best memories with food. An Age Of License is about her feeling of aimlessness in her late twenties and trying to give it an excuse or at least a name, with the book's title (something she heard about in France) being the result. It is an exceedingly flimsy device to wrap a book around and in fact leads directly to one of the biggest problems I had with this book.
The comedian Harris Wittels is responsible for the term "humblebrag", which means to boast about something in the guise of either it somehow being a problem or a source of overpowering wonder. For an example, check out this Comics Journal diary strip by Knisley. To fellow cartoonists, or pretty much anyone, it's difficult to see her stress over having a film crew in her home as anything but disingenuous humility. On one of the first pages of her book, she relates having a conversation with her agent about whether she should go be a guest at a convention in Norway. On the next page, she finagles her way into staying with her mother in France. Two pages later, she relates her nervousness and jitters regarding this amazing bit of luck. While this is only human nature (and I always get the sense that her humblebrags are unintentional), it's tough for a reader to have much sympathy for Knisley when she's worried about some details regarding the trip and moans about how much she'll miss New York, and how she finds herself torn between stability and "romance, adventure, excitement". The fact that she can support herself as a cartoonist (unlike many, many of her peers), that she has opportunities for international travel, that she has an agent who helps her find some of her opportunities are unconvincing as dramatic devices or as "obstacles" to overcome. For a moment, Knisley humanizes herself when she talks about still being torn up about a romantic relationship, though she immediately tells the reader that she met a new boy she was going to see on the trip.
The book ranged between a standard cartoonist's post-convention travelogue that one can see on any number of tumblr pages to those humblebrag attempts at injecting some kind of conflict or drama into the proceedings. Ironically, Knisley's guilt about her privilege and luck comes built in with the worry that she may never achieve wisdom. That is, she worries that her breezy books about "food and art & travel" don't amount to much, but then she reassures herself that "there is meaning in it, if to no-one else but me". Then she worries herself again by wondering "Perhaps the definition of unwise?" Those feelings of guilt pretty much evaporate after that, though she does assure the reader "I'm grateful, I'm grateful!" Clearly, Knisley isn't a multimillionaire or in a position where she has privilege on a scale that's grossly disproportionate to her artistic peers. She just has a knack for making those privileges occasionally seem like a burden, or rather for blowing the inconveniences that come with those privileges way out of proportion. I think part of the problem comes from her need to intimately merge her travel experiences with her personal emotions. For some writers, this can reveal hidden depths and get at raw emotions. For Knisley, this has not been the case, and this is unfortunate because her eye for detail is excellent. Simply turning the focus away from her and more toward her environment would at least be a change in her travelogues, a change that would be beneficial because it's clear that she's repeating herself.