Tuesday, December 27, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Kristen Shull

Daily diary comics are an excellent practice, especially for young cartoonists who need opportunities to put techniques into action. They're also ideal for cartoonists who tend to be perfectionists to such a degree that it takes them ages to complete a page--and even then, they're not satisfied. You can't be too fussy with your line when you're doing a diary strip; you simply need to keep your pencil moving. The practice of working every day establishes good working habits and can help unlock cartoonists struggling with blocks. Lynda Barry recommends it as a practice for these and other reasons. I'd add that for someone specializing in memoir, it's an excellent way of crafting narratives out of personal events. 


One thing I tell my Rent-A-Critic clients is that it is almost inevitable that doing a diary strip will lead to diminishing returns. Not just for the audience, but for the artist as well. Barry recommends doing consecutive diary strips for no more than a year. I recommend no more than three months. When an artist starts falling behind, starts doing strips about having nothing to say, strips about how they're too busy to do a diary strip, or strips about the burden of doing these strips, then it's past time to stop doing them. 

As Kristen Shull notes in her final volume of her daily collection Ego Gala, keeping up with the strip takes on a life of its own. Her diary strips were fresh and fun when she started them, as her bright, upbeat, and mischievous attitude toward life gave her comics an infectious energy. The realities of working, the pandemic, and having too many projects to work on at once started creeping in as early as late 2019. The COVID quarantine gave her a different perspective in 2020, but as things got busier, that same feeling of "Why am I doing this?" started to return. As a reader, reading several strips in a row and then seeing Shull (correctly) talk about how dull those strips were in the next strip did not encourage one to want to read every page. 

This is especially true because there were a number of strips that crackled with her usual energy and enthusiasm. When Shull goes on a trip, or an adventure, or digs deeply into her feelings and tries to understand why she feels the way she does about things, her strips have enough story to distill into a fluid narrative. I think the reason this dissatisfaction with her daily strips resonated with Shull is that at heart, she is an artist interested in narrative above all else. It's why her fantasy stories are so fun; her characters are varied and intriguing, but they all have clearly-defined motivations. Or if a motivation is unclear, it's because it's a deliberate plot point. Shull excels at finding that balance in her genre work as she slowly blends character and plot and provides a fascinating world for them to explore. 

Memoir, especially long-form genre, is just as much a genre as anything else. Even the most urgent diary comic torn straight from one's experience is still mediated by one's point of view, memory, and particular storytelling decisions. The diary strips where Shull is spinning her wheels reflects an inherent sense of having no story to tell, just anecdotes. Quotidian details can certainly be spun into compelling narratives (Harvey Pekar remains the master), but anecdotes on their own are "just a bunch of stuff that happened," to quote Homer Simpson. 

The other problem with a daily diary strip is that the daily practice can be conflated with a daily mandate. There's a sense that if you don't cover every single day, you are somehow failing the practice. For an artist who posts every day on Instagram or their own website, it can be hard to see the bigger picture when they're so constantly in the moment. Of course, Shull's boyfriend Alex mentions the stress that the diary strips cause and asks her to cut back. Shull herself frequently wonders why she's doing this and no other comics work. That compulsion is hard to shake, until Shull does some fun fantasy stickers for a convention, is delighted with what she does, and starts to really question why she doesn't do this all the time.

Shull gets into some interesting meta territory here: what is an artist's identity? When does a specific work define an artist? Shull reveals that the sheer quantity of her practice means a great deal to her, even as she knows that there are plenty of clunkers in there. There's also plenty to be proud of as well; she writes a lot of interesting stuff about relationships, communication, and an honest appraisal of one's own insecurities. She then hits upon the fundamental issue with diary comics: no one should ever feel compelled to do one every day. That's why I recommend no more than three consecutive months in the practice, but I also tell clients that they should return to diary comics when they have something interesting and specific they want to explore. Shull comes to this conclusion before the end of the year, quitting in November. She's since done the occasional (usually weekly) diary strip that is built around specific ideas (her recent discussion of AI was interesting). Hopefully, she can focus on what she does best: fantasy stories, like the kind she does in her Fantology anthology. The one she's been cooking up is dying to be collected as a graphic novel; I hope her schedule allows her to do this in 2023. 

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