Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Overboard: Lucy Knisley's Displacement

Lucy Knisley has cranked out four travelogue/food/memoir comics in addition to doing a number of other similar comics on her website. Her storytelling abilities, clarity and tasteful color sense are all undeniable. What is unfortunate, and in clear evidence in her most recent memoir comic Displacement, is that she continues to repeat herself from book to book and is bogged down by navel-gazing that borders on narcissism. That navel-gazing is aggravated by the clear lack of subtlety and restraint that literally sees her spell out her books' themes on the page itself. Indeed, Knisley looks back wistfully on a trip to Europe, saying "That trip was about INDEPENDENCE, SEX, YOUTH and ADVENTURE. This trip is about PATIENCE, CARE, MORTALITY, RESPECT, SYMPATHY and LOVE."

In this book, Knisley decides to accompany her elderly (both 90+ years old) grandparents on a Caribbean cruise they signed up for in their nursing home. While Knisley's affection for her grandparents is made clear, she also goes out of her way to wear martyr's stripes throughout much of the book--especially when comparing herself to the rest of the family, who worry about her grandparents but don't do much to help. Early in the book, she even wonders out loud what kind of narrative she'll end up with, ranging from "bonding time with my grands" to "a frustration fest". The most interesting part of the book is Knisley reprinting excerpts from a war autobiography that her grandfather wrote for his children as well as her. It's one of the few times in the book that any real insight into the character of her grandparents is revealed. Like most of her other comics, they are not so much about the subject at hand as they are about her feelings about the subject at hand. At a fundamental level, Knisley seems incapable of making any observations about the world surrounding her without going into great detail about her surface feelings about the matter. She teases at exploring her emotions in depth but generally tends to revert to her normally breezy style when things start to get heavy.

In other words, Displacement doesn't work as a travel/food memoir (which is how she bills herself, despite the fact that her descriptions of places rarely goes beyond surface details), nor does it work as a more personal work. Her greatest strength as a cartoonist--her ability to create a fluid, casual narrative--often is her greatest weakness, because her attempts at emotional honesty frequently come off as spoiled, bratty whining. She sneers at the other tourists on the ship (especially ones that are overweight). She complains about being on the ship and not being able to have any fun. When she's able to get out of her own head and actually report about the cruise itself, the book has moments both poignant and amusing. The absurdity of the on-ship entertainment is portrayed in funny detail, and the decline of her grandparents is at times heartbreaking. There are some delightful moments, when she encourages her grandparents to go swimming and discovers that her grandmother really takes to it. When her grandfather tells her at the end that he'd do it all again if she could come with them, it's a wonderful moment of warmth. There weren't quite enough of these moments, and I had the nagging sense that this book really should have been a 20 page short story rather than a 160-page book that had a lot of filler. Unfortunately for the reader, that filler mostly took the form of that whining about being on a luxury liner and navel-gazing. Contrasted to the sharper Relish, which had a strong editorial hand at First Second, and one can see that the greater freedom Knisley received in working with Fantagraphics wasn't necessarily a good thing.

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