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Dancing Naked For You in Go-Go Cage Panels - journal comics explored

Curious to know what's going on inside your favorite creator's head, but haven't found any of them willing to lay on your operating table for a quick scalpel job and brain yoink? Tired of having to call up your local phone psychic to find out what Joe Cartoonist had for dinner last night? Well, don't despair: an interesting alternative has crept onto the webcomics scene, one that may prove to satisfy all your needs for (voyeuristic?) curiosity – without the need for spiritual guidance at 9.99 a minute, or an abduction by burlap sack followed by water-torture interrogation.

Nowadays, more and more cartoonists are letting their privates hang out for all to see, thought-wise, by offering up pictographic confessions of their deepest thoughts and feelings. Yep, you guessed it – we’re talking about comic strip diaries. In the last year alone, a few dozen 'journal comics' have popped up on the web, many of them inspired by James Kochalka and Drew Weing's own forays into sequential self-exposure. Each one updates anywhere from daily to weekly (to sporadically), and they all offer up a moment, thought, dialogic exchange, or experience that marked the creator at that time.

Of course, this is not a new idea.

BACKGROUND AND BITS OF HISTORY

Literature of the self – and by that, we mean published literature, not stuff one does and hides under their mattress – is as old as communication. Ever since Ugg the Caveman was able to string together a series of grunts and gutturals, we humans have liked nothing more than to express our own state of being to others. Some would argue that it's part of our survival mechanism.

To be a tad less overgeneralizing, though, we can trace the routes of literature of the self all the way back to the 1700s, when Germans coined a term to reflect a new trend in written works of the day: the Bildungsroman. Loosely translated as "a novel of education", "a novel of formation", or "a novel of self-evolution", the term is still used today to depict any (fictional) novel or longform work that charts the growing pains of a person's life.

Interestingly enough, the Germans also coined a term for works which dealt with the life and growing pains of an artist or writer – the Kunstlerroman. The usual ("easy") example offered by academics and literature buffs is Joyce's Portrait of A Young Man. Ever since the 1700s, and following a huge boom in the Victorian age, both genres have become very much ingrained in literature. Nowadays, autobiographical literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, is everywhere. It should come as no surprise, then, that the comics medium would be infected by the autobiographical bug, too.

Underground Comix artists like Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb (along with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb) began publishing comic collections that depicted a gritty, unpolished, frank version of their own lives, as well as life around them, in the late 60s and 70s.

Then along came the autobiographical revolution of the 80s and 90s, with a host of indie comics creators publishing similarly raw accounts of personal life experiences. Chester Brown (I Never Liked You, The Playboy, etc.), Joe Matt (Peep Show), Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte), and a legion of other comic artists were baring their souls and their dirty laundry to the world (check out Paul McIlvenney's wonderful online comics research/resource site for a nice extensive compilation of both bios and biblios!).

Public reception of this kind of autobiographical literature was mixed – at first, acclaim seemed the norm; 'Comics for Kids' were suddenly showing a daring new side, a deeply personal side, a REAL side. After a while, however, some critics grew weary of comic autobiography. Too much airing of one's unmentionables was becoming tiring; "it's been done" was a phrase often used when referring to a new autobiographical work. In a sense, the shock value was wearing off, and this period of overstimulation had resulted in a general numbness to the form. While the autobiographical comic is far from dead, it's not as popular a genre anymore, at least not in print comics.

This critical stumbling block did not completely quell cartoonist exhibitionism – in 1998, James Kochalka began compiling a daily diary in comic strip form. Three volumes of these strips have already been published in print (the third one in stores last week, in fact!), and in May of 2002, the self-dubbed 'Superstar' launched www.americanelf.com, a subscription-only website that hosts his current ongoing sketchbook diary entries.

In an odd twist, Kochalka's 'journal comic' was NOT the first one to nest on the web. This distinction belongs to Drew Weing, whose The Journal Comic first appeared on March 5, 2002. However, Weing will be the first to tell you that the primary inspiration for his journal comic was Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries (he mentions Kochalka's second volume as well as his reaction to it here, for example). As mentioned at the onset of this article, a number of webcartoonists have now followed suit.

ADVANTAGES

The advantages of presenting an autobiographical comic online rather than in print are obvious: rather than wait until one has enough material to compile in a bound edition (publishing one-page comics would not only seem silly, but incredibly costly over the long run), an artist can publish his material online as often as they want, with little expense beyond having to acquire the necessary core hardware (a one-time purchase). This not only offers instant satisfaction to any readers or fans out there, but also serves to maintain the effect (or illusion) of charting one's daily life in a diary format.

Updating daily (or whenever one wishes) also helps to remove the ever-hindering editorial process from diluting the rawness and not-so-perfect goings-on of a life. Think about it: if you were to keep compiling your strips for a large volume, wouldn’t you be tempted to change or redo the "crappy" strips upon revision? Publishing on the spot helps to prevent this from happening, and allows the reader to get the full, uncensored impact of a single update, whether it be a stellar piece or no. Sometimes bad drawings or bad scripts will plop out, but it could be argued that these also serve to ENHANCE the effect, as they are usually reflective of a creator's state of mind or mood on that particular day. Essentially, journal comics are one of the genres in which polish and revision are detrimental to the purer artistic goal.

Journal comics also do not seem to require a punchline, a payoff, or humor; as a takeoff from Impressionistic philosophy, the artist usually only wants to offer a glimpse, a picture, a moment of a day, and not the entire day charted out in detail. This approach will more often than not result in a short series of panels that offer up small tidbits, such as a reaction to an event or experience of the day, a (short) dialogic exchange, a mood or state of mind they're feeling, a reenactment of an event or action around them (with or without their reaction), or a depiction of the one moment that best defined the entire day. Sometimes, it's just something you have to read to believe.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and the occasional 'long' strip will crop up. Since life can’t really be measured as a constant, it's no surprise that some journal comics change panel counts, size, shape or pacing to reflect their own ever-changing lives. The journal comic needs to be as flexible as the organic being that pens them.

With all these things going in favor of the genre, are there any disadvantages to journal comics? Well, let's put it this way: life isn’t perfect, so why should a reflection of life be?

DISADVANTAGES

On the creator side of things, there are a few specific problem or danger areas: confessional writing, self-censorship, and over-editing are but three examples.

Some creators may find themselves taking the confessional style to the extreme, particularly those who tend toward excessive self-deprecation and self-defeatism in their writings. While there is nothing wrong with introspection, and certainly nothing wrong with having and expressing the feeling of 'bad days' when they occur, publishing a journal comic that does nothing but gush out in peals of "why me?" and "my life sucks" and "oh, I'm a such loser" to an ad nauseum degree will likely only turn off readers (and it certainly won’t help the creator's despairing disposition much, either). Monotony is reader repellent.

Of course, if creators always excise crappy feelings and experiences from their journal comics because they're afraid that the readers will think badly or less of them, then the comic becomes something other, and certainly not an accurate reflection of their real life. Eliminating all sad days and/or bad feelings is a form of self-censorship, and destroys the authenticity of a journal comic.

This is not to say that confessional-style writings make for bad literature, either. A good confessional writer knows how to transmit his feelings not only by being introspective, but by also letting the landscape/environment around them reflect what they're feeling inside. To put it another way, a good confessional writer NEVER repeats the same thing twice, no matter if they feel the 'same' crappiness day in day out – they find a new way to express it each time, since they know that no feeling is exactly the same from one moment to the next.

Then there is always the big question: "is 'my' life BORING?" This is a very volatile and tricky question, as life, just like beauty, is always dependent on the eye of the reader… When a creator decides to publish a journal comic, he must make certain that he doesn't embellish or change little details of his life to make it more "interesting" or appealing for a readership.

Such self-editing is just like self-censorship: it skews the reality of the creator's life, and presents instead a fiction only loosely based on said reality. When one decides to let their dirty laundry hang out, they can't be cleaning it up first. Think of the old joke with the mom who clips, cleans, polishes, and files her own nails before each appointment to see the manicurist, because she doesn't want the manicurist or other clients there to think she doesn’t always have perfect nails. Or think of every time you've cleaned up your dorm or apartment before a parent or a hot date comes to visit. A noble effort to make people think you're a good kid and all, true, but NOT your real self.

On the reader's side, the problem is much simpler – it's all a matter of taste, really. Either the reader will like journal comics or they won't. If they *like* journal comics, that still doesn’t mean that they will like all of them… what seems exciting to one will seem boring to the other.

FULL CIRCLE

Autobiography is a big part of the world now. Introspective art and literature is only a century and some old, and the "new toy" mentality of being able to peek into another human being's life may be a large contributing factor as to why autobiography is so appealing to society as a whole. The same logic applies to journal comics – they are new, and ideally, they allow people to compare their own life and life processes to those of another.

Still, not all those who read journal comics do so because of a thirst for knowledge or a compare and contrast self-exploration. Some read them because they find a person's life interesting, amusing, or entertaining. Each journal comic is unique, and each journal comic cartoonist paints his life picture differently.

Next week, we will take a look at some of these journal comic creators' own thoughts on the form… do they feel like exhibitionists? Do they think journal comics are marketable? Why do they create journal comics? Some of their responses may surprise you.

Damonk is the Editor in Chief and the Executive Editor for Reviews. More Details.