Monday, August 3, 2015

Writing In Recovery: Kevin Budnik

Kevin Budnik is yet another cartoonist whose work has focused on autobiographical diary comics. Unlike most of them however, Budnik's quotidian observations frequently have a great deal to do with his recovery from anorexia and anxiety. He's been a prolific cartoonist throughout his illness and recovery, and three recent minis show Budnik using a variety of approaches in presenting his story. In Flower Grow, he republishes a number of strips first seen elsewhere. In this comic, Budnik experiments with color, using what looks like colored pencil. A number of the strips veer between past and present, giving a glimpse of his life in the form of emotional conversations, witty observations, a road trip, and hard talk about how he and a friend were so very different. It's a sort of emotional narrative, especially in the way that Budnik strings strips together that don't necessarily have anything to do with each other in a conventional manner; he creates that connection by way of proximity. As a young twenty-something, Budnik frequently touches on the idea of being an adult and how far removed he feels from being grown-up. From things like buying suits to the weirdness of attending weddings, this comic depicts him as being betwixt and between identities and states of health.

In Old Gum Wrappers and Grocery Lists, Budnik collects a couple of years' worth of diary comics, presenting them in chronological order. These comics are most like his first collection, Our Ever-Expanding Living Room. There's a lot more attention paid to single-page/single-panel drawings and observations as well as more attention paid to his daily schedule. However, Budnik never feels obligated to stay leashed to the Kochalka-style four-panel daily diary (usually with a punchline or conclusion of some kind each day). Instead, these comics "sound" more like John Porcellino's work. It's less poetic than Porcellino's comics and generally more direct, but many of his musings are just that: free-form thoughts that, over the course of the book, cohere to form a separate, more interesting emotional narrative. There are occasional dates, there is work, there are walks and bike rides, and there are also several emotionally charged conversations with friends. Knowing the entire context of these encounters isn't what's import from Budnik's perspective, only that there is a lot at stake emotionally and that everyone speaks from the heart. If there's an occasional sense of tonal sameness and repetition at times in this collection, that flaw is mitigated by Budnik's unflinching honesty and willingness to admit that he frequently feels confused, depressed and without any steady sense of being moored. Recovery isn't discussed a lot in this collection, but it remains an underlying theme that pops up unexpectedly. That's especially true when Budnik struggles with his tendency to isolate himself, and much of this comic simply sees him using what's known as "opposite action" to combat this unhealthy behavior.

Hand Book #1 is a short mini that addresses his recovery head-on. Working in full color, Budnik looks back on old journals and comics he did while doing the work of recovery. From the slightly uncomfortable sensation of understanding that people were happy to see him at a party because he hadn't been out in public for months to detailing the many OCD rituals that at once gave him comfort and trapped him to revisiting the feelings of loss of control and body discomfort he faced when eating, Budnik treats each emotional piece with a sense of restraint and respect. There's a scene where he thinks about looking in a closet and finding a measuring tape with which he measured his waist, and the present-day sense of revulsion he now feels. Budnik struggles with the idea of relationships, his own self-worth and freaking out that he's no longer at the vanguard of youth culture ("It blows my mind that there are 19 year olds.") He ends on a scene where he recalls being confronted at his extreme skinniness, denying that there's a problem. Each page is a gut punch, but Budnik is careful to space out the harder blows with more amusing and benign observations. Each of these three comics is designed with different impacts and ends in mind, and Budnik stays true to his sense of authentic engagement in each one.

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