Friday, August 7, 2015

Sam Spina's Diary Training Ground

If Dustin Harbin's diary comics were a form of personal obfuscation in the form of a lark, then Sam Spina's diary comics are a lark that wound up having unexpected and personally beneficial side-effects for the artist. After claiming to be done with diary comics after the third volume (not to mention the fourth volume), Spina kept coming back to this exercise. Fortunately for the reader, Spina no longer felt the need to do a strip every day (something that resulted in a lot of bad entries), nor did he abide by the classic James Kochalka/American Elf model of a four-panel strip. In the fourth volume of Spinadoodles (I'm Zonin) and the fifth and supposedly final volume (Know Me Now), Spina balances gags, observations regarding his daily life as an artist and as a waiter, life with his fiancee and later wife Samantha as he slowly transforms a strip that began as quotidian work into something with greater depth and resonance.

Spina did this in a manner more akin to Jesse Reklaw's classic diary strip Ten Thousand Things To Do as opposed to Harbin's strips. That is, unlike Harbin's tendency to suddenly turn on a dime and become suddenly introspective and meta after weeks of the usual gags, he instead slowly lets his deeper concerns and fears become part of the background. Reklaw's strip was really about the artist's attempt to deal with fatigue, pain and depression while constantly keeping himself busy. Similarly, the jocular Spina's record of his life really becomes about his lack of self-confidence as an artist, even when he starts to get significant opportunities from Nickelodeon. One of the most memorable sequences in the book comes when he does an interview with a newspaper about his animation job, one in which he not only put himself down, he also was fairly negative about the process itself. That drew the ire of the network and caused some soul-searching as to why he did these things.

Such revelations came in bits and pieces as he slowly started to grow up, but he never pushed these themes on the reader in an obvious fashion, instead trusting the reader to tease this out. What he does as a memoirist is focus on the details of his relationships with others, especially Samantha. About half of the strips in the book touch on the amusing nature of their relationship, but it also touches on arguments, stubbornness, emotional breakdowns and their differences as people while revealing a deep and abiding mutual sense of love and respect. Spina doesn't merely tell us that Samantha and his friends are important; instead, he shows us the specifics of how and why they're important. That's conveyed so effectively that it's entirely unnecessary to know anything about the history or context of these relationships.

One of the keys to the success of these volumes is that Spina's visual approach is lively and eye-catching. There's a lot of ink, clutter and detail in nearly every panel, but Spina keeps his storytelling clear with simple and expressive figures. His bug-eyed characters, pointy noses and fluid lines, as I've noted before, remind me a bit of Kate Beaton. The eye simply wants to look at these figures. It's not a surprise to know that Spina is a graphic designer and has experience in animation, but the slickness that often afflicts cartoonists with those backgrounds is nowhere to be seen. The grit on each page keeps the images immediate, sharpening the punchlines or emotions Spina is featuring. In his final strip, Spina notes that comics gave him, a perennial shy kid, a voice and a way to express himself. That expression may not be especially profound (in one strip, he talks about his paintings always sucking because he has nothing to say), but it's honest, funny and earnest. .

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