Memoirs are sometimes too much for me to handle, but I can read autobiographical comics all day, every day. So what’s the difference? Ultimately, it’s a matter of scale. You have to suspend a whole lot of belief to cozy up to the idea that a human being’s life coheres exactly to something resembling a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end — especially when it’s got a pat little moral plugged into the core of the thing. Memoirs to me feel blobby and unwieldy, like a marshmallow being crammed into a coin slot.
But give me Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comics and I’ll be blissfully entertained for days. Pekar’s work transcended memoir because his stories were short, and they resisted classical narrative forms, and they were drawn by a variety of artists to suit different moods and styles of stories. Pekar’s strips read more like life as I understand it: sometimes, it’s boring. Sometimes it’s crazy, sometimes it’s dumb. But rather than one long story with a consistent protagonist and a challenge to overcome, his work is mostly an array of moments. When you put them all together, they build to a life.
Seattle cartoonist Tatiana Gill has been making autobiographical comics for, seemingly, as long as she’s been alive. Unlike Pekar, she illustrates her own strips. But like Pekar, she uses short anecdotes to great effect, parceling her existence into brief moments of comedy or tragedy or, most frequently, introspection. Gill is an alcoholic, and many of her comics are about drinking or, for the past five years or so, not drinking. Even in her most recent work, alcohol still figures strongly into the narrative. It’s the Godot, the figure just offscreen, the idea Gill can never really stop thinking about.
Last year, Gill published Blackoutings, a comic about how she went sober. Her candor is impressive; she doesn’t sell sobriety as a pleasant journey to a single, fixed location. Instead, when she first quit drinking she was riddled with eczema and her hair started falling out. She became uncomfortable whenever anyone drank in her presence. She thought selfish, unpleasant things a lot of the time. She struggled to find some accomplishment of value from the ten years that she was a heavy drinker and came up with nothing.
This sounds like somber stuff, but Gill seems completely at ease using her drunk self as the butt of her jokes. A series of panels in Blackoutings identify “Things I Woke Up In” after blacking out, including “a plate of BBQ sauce.” Another strip lists “Things I Found Out I Did” while in a blackout: “Announced to a crowded dive bar that I was one of the only attractive people there,” “Grinded on my friend’s couch for hours at a small house party.” This is not a triumphant story of battling one’s demons. It’s the life of a person who decided that she couldn’t keep drinking anymore, because drinking was killing her. Gill doesn’t cast herself as a hero or a victim. She’s a person, and this is what it’s like to be her.
Gill possesses a considerable natural cartooning talent. Her linework is naturally curvy and vibrant and appealing. Some of her pages are a perfect mix of two essential Seattle cartoonists: Roberta Gregory and Ellen Forney. From Gregory, Gill borrows the wordy, conversational style. But the figures in the panels — usually Gill herself, usually cramped into the bottom third of the panel by all the text — are delightfully cartoony.
Like Forney, Gill chooses only the most important lines to relate her characters, and those lines are gorgeous and fluid, like pop music on the page. In one panel, Gill stands, her hip cocked, with the confidence of a woman who has been sober for five months. The next page over she’s losing her temper, a mouth full of fangs, her fingers clenched into talons, as she barks, “NOBODY tells me what to do.” In both panels, Gill renders herself with a couple dozen lines. In one panel, the lines are sure and steady. In the other panel, they’re jagged and rough. But in both panels, they’re exactly the right lines.
Unlike Forney, Gill doesn’t use ink as a way to amplify the beauty of her line. In Gill’s art, the black and splotchy ink often does battle with the simplicity of her art. Some pages are doused in black ink, the darkness taking over the story as surely as negative thoughts are consuming her brain. Sometimes, as she’s feeling increasingly neurotic, the ink gets rougher, more frazzled on the edges. Figures meld together and details get obscured in the fat black lines. Gill’s lettering gets harder to read. The entire page illustrates her mental state.
Gill’s latest book, Omnibusted, collects short comics Gill created from 1999 to 2009, which is the decade she lost to alcoholism. On the cover, she’s sitting in a trash can, covered in garbage, drinking from a bottle of 151 proof rum, a band-aid on her knee and one shoe missing. The stories in Omnibusted each tend to focus on a single personality quirk of Gill’s: her love of bad classic rock, her awful childhood fashion sense. One story, “Whoa, Mexico,” tells the story of what happened when Gill took a trip to Mexico and overdid the readily available prescription drugs that can be found south of the border. (“It’s called fen-phen,” Gill’s brother explains to her. “It’s like crystal meth!” Gill replies, “sweeeet!”)
The earlier pieces in Omnibusted look more like traditional comics, with ornate backgrounds and frequent changes in perspective. But as the book progresses, the strips look more like those in Blackoutings. One strip, titled “Four Days Forever,” tells the story of an abortion. Each page is made up of one simple drawing, with narration floating above it. It’s an early draft of what will become Gill’s signature style.
That signature style runs throughout Living in the Now, an enormous collection of 500 of Gill’s daily journal comics. Every page is its own day, and almost every page is laid out in a grid of six panels. The illustrations in each panel are very small, surrounded as they are with narration. Her handwriting is all over this book—500 pages of it. It’s like receiving a profusely illustrated handwritten letter the size of a phone book.
The key to Living in the Now is to not expect a narrative. Instead, it’s more like an exercise in repetitive poetry. The first panel of most of the strips begins with Gill waking up, getting coffee, and going on the internet. She plays a lot of Farmville. (In one first panel, her boyfriend, Steve, remarks, “This premium chicken coop is a game changer!” Gill replies, “finally I can get more cows!”) She lists almost every meal she eats.
Almost nothing happens, in the conventional sense. Gill spends her days on and around Capitol Hill. She messes around way too much on Facebook, plays video games, and eats a lot of Pagliacci Pizza with Steve. She attends AA meetings and therapy sessions. She meets with friends and draws comics in beams of sunlight. She applies for jobs and meets with career professionals who help her get her resume in order. She doesn’t go on vacation, or travel much at all. Fans of memoirs with overdramatized narrative arcs will probably be very unhappy by the thirtieth day of the comic.
But once you allow yourself to be hypnotized by the panels, the real story of Living in the Now becomes apparent. The story tracks Gill’s emotional state on a granular level. We watch her moods improve and decline over days and weeks. We see the direct consequences of her actions play out over months. When Gill spends a lot of time on Facebook — she gets into a lot of confrontations there; at one point, she refers to her time on social media as “fighting on Facebook” — she begins to feel worse, and her art gets darker and moodier. When she exercises and reads more, her art gets slicker and airier. When she watches a lot of TV and plays video games, everything falls apart.
The daily victories that Gill exults in sometimes only last for a few hours. In the last panel on January 13, 2013, Gill remarks:
I started to fight on [Facebook]…then just deleted the whole thread. I felt so in charge of my own destiny! I wrote a manifesto defining my boundaries. I’d like to perform it spoken-word style. My barista said she found a cool spoken-word night.
The next morning, in the first panel, Gill is blow-drying her hair and saying to herself, “Ugh I am so sad!”
This is the continuing story of Gill trying to enjoy life without alcohol. In many ways, she’s succeeded — she feels happy in her relationship, and she doesn’t seem at all tempted to drink. But she’s still learning how to feel like a human without the crutch of alcohol and drugs. Gill frequently bursts into tears. She imagines herself to be useless for days at a time. She spends months trying to climb the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and to use cognitive therapy to overcome her bad ways of thinking. “Ugh…this isn’t working! I’m not doing this right,” she says as she tries to fill out a psychological worksheet. An arrow points at her thought balloon, identifying it as “dysfunctional thought—over-generalizations.”
The strips function in both a micro and a macro way as a form of therapy. On a day-to-day basis, you get the sense that they’re occasionally the only thing that keeps Gill going, and when they’re all put in between two covers like this, larger patterns are revealed. You won’t see striking change by the end of Living in the Now, but you will see incremental change. In other words, the kind of change that really matters.
Another book published by Gill this year — yes, she’s been busy — is Plus, a collection of “body positive drawings.” It’s a series of illustrations, mostly full-page, of confident, beautiful women with different body shapes than we normally see in comics. Gill creates alternative versions of feminine icons (Jem, She-Ra, Imperator Furiosa) who have fuller figures, to offset the total lack of pop-cultural representation for normal women.
Unlike the other books, Plus is full-color, and Gill has really taken her time to make all the lines look as beautiful as possible. The neuroses and the encroaching inky blacks of the other books are nowhere to be found here. With Plus, Gill is working in fantasy, and optimism, and idealism. It’s a refreshing change of pace, but as I looked through Plus, I found myself missing the way Gill portrays the negativity, the difficulty, and the disappointment of life. You know, the real stuff.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant