Friday, May 3, 2013

Diary Comics: Azzopardi, Budnik, Delporte

Our Ever-Improving Living Room, by Kevin Budnik. Budnik was a student of Ivan Brunetti's at Columbia College in Chicago, and there's a clear link in sensibilities between the two cartoonists. Budnik turned a one-week diary comic assignment into a thirteen-month odyssey that helped him refine his style and slowly unlock the parts of himself he really wanted to start talking about. The format is the classic James Kochalka four-panel structure--four beats, every day. Budnik's style couldn't be more different from Kochalka's, however. In terms of his character design and tone, Budnik is a cross between Jeffrey Brown and Charles Schulz, and I don't mean that lightly. There's an incredible sturdiness in each and every strip, as Budnik carefully thinks through certain events but creates the rhythm of a four-panel strip with a punchline. What's interesting is that he arrives to the project almost totally fully-formed as an artist. Sure, he refines his line and his storytelling over the course of thirteen months, but it's subtle things like using a slightly thinner line and perhaps different tools. He also chooses his background details more carefully, and the result is a more consistent-looking strip that leads the eye exactly where Budnik wants it.

His figures are slightly ragged like Brown's but immediately recognizable and even iconic, like Schulz's. More to the point, Budnik immediately creates his "There goes good ol' Charlie Brown/Oh, how I hate him" moment with his first strip. It starts almost as a parody of the tedium of diary comics, as he checks off the things he does when he has the apartment to himself: take out the trash, do the dishes, vacuum the rug...and "cope with horrible loneliness". It's a great joke, one that's reprised near the end of the book, and it's made even funnier by the way he draws himself in the "loneliness" panel-laying naked in his own filth on the bathroom floor. That's very much a Brunetti sort of moment, but Budnik is actually more reluctant to completely spill his feelings at all times. Having a daily diary comic, however, has a way of getting at information that's otherwise hard to express, and so it comes to pass that he lets slip that he really is seriously OCD. That occurs in a strip where he tries to downplay being called OCD, saying it's an overused and misused term...but that he really does think something bad will happen to his family if he doesn't do certain things.

Overall, this is an incredibly strong first work. Budnik gives voice to his loneliness, his wanting to connect but often feeling uncomfortable with others, nostalgia for a comforting childhood and difficulty accepting adulthood. Somehow, amazingly, he comes up with a punchline every day and a strip that's just a solidly-constructed read. His work ethic and how seriously he takes this project shows on every single page; there's never a sense that he's blown off a day or gotten lazy, even on days when he's not inspired or nothing of interest is happening in his life. He's self-deprecating without being pathetic, open without giving away too much of himself right away, and most of all possesses a sense of self-awareness that is both a blessing and a curse. This book was published by RJ Casey's Yeti Press, yet another small publishing concern that's releasing excellent work. I hope they will publish future volumes from Budnik, who continues to do autobio comics.

Journal, by Julie Delporte. This is a very different sort of diary comic, in that it starts right after a serious break-up. The mother of a friend of mine, when talking about break-ups, once said, "Don't ooze out, get out!"  Delporte is very much in "ooze" mode throughout this comic, seeing her ex-boyfriend regularly even as she no longer lives with him. She also tries something different with this comic; instead of using her usual black & white style, Journal is done entirely in colored pencil. One can even see the tape on the pages where they were originally shot, giving the whole book a sense that it was constructed as much as it was drawn. Unsurprisingly, Delporte does a lot of soul-searching throughout this volume, as she moves from Canada to take up a residency at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. If Budnik's book was about him grappling with loneliness but wanting to connect, Delporte's book is about her struggle with her desire for connection when she knows that relationship would never work, no matter how much she still loved her ex-boyfriend. She also struggles with the concept of adulthood and living a life without a particular structure or sense of rhythms.

The result is a series of incredibly beautiful pages, as her color sense with the colored pencils is bold and dynamic--almost like what a child might draw, only with a firmer grasp of structure and harmony on the page. Her looping cursive script is as beautiful to look at as her images, and it's done in the same colored pencil as her drawings. Journal is an account of a journey where she moves two steps back for every step forward emotionally, where a bad week follows a good day, often with an almost embarrassing amount of intimacy. It's also her attempt to understand the difference between sadness and depression and whether or not she needs therapy, an attempt that is ultimately left unresolved. She tries to work through her feelings and insecurities quite literally through work--drawing the journal. Unlike Budnik, her journal eventually starts to have diminishing returns and she returns to a more "hidden" life, to use her term. It's clear that in the epilogue, writing the journal had a powerful and positive effect on her, but it was time to let the actual contents into the world and then forget about them. As one would expect, a book published by Koyama Press looks great, as the key to its success is the brightness of the color contrasting with the sadness she feels while evoking childhood delight in drawing.

100 Days of Winter, Nine Months of Beige, and Eight Tablet Dream by Sean Azzopardi. Azzopardi is a bit older than the other two cartoonists discussed here, but he's still grappling with many of the same issues. In particular, the thorny notion of "growing up" haunts him in these accounts of stress, moving, diseased pets, medical issues and time spent with friends. Azzopardi discusses his battle with the skin disease psoriasis at length, detailing his mixed feelings about submitting to a drug regimen that cuts alcohol out of his life. At the same time, he notes how much worse his life could be in terms of health. Azzopardi is in his forties and is single with no children, which brings about those sorts of self-recriminations, the sort of thing that Tim Kreider refers to as "The Referendum". That's where we measure ourselves against the typical and expected societal goals like owning a house, being married, having children, etc vs the current reality. It's a question many artists have to ask themselves repeatedly throughout their lives, especially when they doubt their own abilities.

Nine Months of Beige is a more loosely-drawn journal that's less about specific dates than it is about places and spaces, and trying to come to terms with both as one's age advances and it's harder to be part of a scene. Azzopardi's drawing really takes center stage here and includes some funny drawings about having one's hands in the air at a party, having one's hands in the air on the tube, and improbably doing a "rave" at work. I love Azzopardi's square-headed, bespectacled self-caricature, complete with receding hairline. Eight Tablet Dream is about self-recriminations and the feeling that he is bad at everything: bad at being a friend, a worker, a brother. It ends with Azzopardi having grappled with all of these feelings (as well as loneliness) and coming out the other side intact with an artist's sense of wonder. His drawing is also quite excellent here, especially with regard to depicting exaggerated emotional states and outdoors scenes.Azzopardi's comics have a certain poetic quality on many of the pages as he's given to direct musing about his life in a manner that's different Budnik and Delporte.

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