Friday, July 9, 2021

Whit Taylor's Montana Diary

I've been following Whit Taylor's career for quite a long time. With Montana Diary (Silver Sprocket), she's published her finest work to date. Taylor has always been a thoughtful and intelligent writer, but there's a remarkable sense of confidence not just in the way she wrote about the frequently-horrific background of this memoir about a vacation to Montana with her husband, but in the way she drew it. It's exciting to see a cartoonist put it all together, and that's the case with this comic. 



In terms of format, it's not necessarily anything new. She's done this kind of historical/geographical exploration before. Whit's always been a thoughtful and restrained writer, offering perspective and wisdom with regard to her historical and cultural observations. She's also never been terribly didactic in her conclusions, allowing the reader to make up their own minds. While all of that was true here as well, there's a kind of funny swagger she displays, an almost unhinged and bizarre sense of humor that makes her the clear comedic focus of the comic. It pushes her husband as the straight man. However, even that narrative falls short of what's really going on. As a Black woman, it feels as though her presence in the whitest of states puts her into full-fledged survival mode, deferring to her husband and shrinking behind him in ways she never otherwise do. Taylor giddily engages with tourism even as she denounces the idea of not being American enough. She pointedly nails this narrative when her narrative caption calmly declares "I hate feeling like have to prove my Americanness. I'm descended from slaves, slave owners, and native peoples." The dialog she indignantly spouts off to her husband is "I am American as fuck."


Taylor goes in a lot of directions, but the main theme is how beauty and ugliness co-exist. Big Sky country was beautiful, but global warming is having an irrevocable impact on it, as one glacier will disappear in the next thirty years. A dive into the history of Lewis & Clark's expedition reveals exploitation and the virulently prevalent concept of Manifest Destiny. Even visiting the local native reservation reveals that the tribe was only left their land because the government didn't have any use for it. Taylor plays down her intellect and emphasizes how little she knows about history, which is a way of saying that few people in the country have a real sense of its history. Despite all of this, she acknowledges the hard truth that in America, the poison of its past and its persistence of its toxic structures is in direct opposition to its ideals, its beauty, and most importantly, its people. That said, this book isn't a screed; it's a vacation. It's funny time spent with her husband. It's hikes and meals and boat rides. Taylor balances all of these elements effortlessly.


Part of that is because her own persona here is so carefree and silly at times; in fact, there's almost an insistence on it despite her fear of white nationalists (and bears). There is no question that she was only able to sell this because her line was so expertly rendered. Taylor's line is clear and concise, as she leaned into her greatest skill: drawing expressions. Her tight talking-head focus was also a clever narrative technique, but she rewards the readers with a far greater range of expressions than usual in one of her autobio stories, with her husband a tight-lipped straight man. However, Taylor's clarity and skill in depicting her environment was absolutely essential in selling the rest of the story. Her line is not only clear, it's frequently beautiful in its simplicity in detailing forests, wildlife, and the people she meets. While her pages are full of detail, she avoids cluttering up her pages. In terms of layout, she used an open-page layout built on grid principles, providing both structure and freedom for her storytelling.  This story is in terms funny, personal, vulnerable, instructive, historical, and grim. Like John Porcellino, it's highly sophisticated and emotive storytelling that looks simplistic at first blush. However, there are hidden depths to be found in Montana Diary, rewarding multiple readings. 

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