Life, or a Reasonably Hand-Drawn Facsimile: Journal Comics Explored (Part 2)
Les McClaine proudly proclaims himself an incurable egotist. James Kochalka says he's trying to delve into the mysteries of being human. Drew Weing draws them because he couldn't keep track of his life otherwise â€“ he has a pretty horrible memory. Whether you accept these answers, or ask any of the growing host of other journal comic artists out there why they draw their journal comics, you'll find that, just like so many other things in life, or life itself, there is no easy cookie-cutter answer.
Thirteen webtoonists with journal comics were contacted and asked to reply to a set series of questions. Nine responded, and some interesting â€“ as well as some surprising â€“ answers were offered. The names of those that were approached were taken from a list created by American Elf's James Kochalka â€“ an unofficial roll call he's been compiling on his own of those he sees as journal comic artists. He calls the meat of this growing list a burgeoning movement.
As far as I can tell, there was no "genre" of the daily diary strip before I started, but there definitely is one now. If other people find it a useful vehicle for their own work, I think that's great for them.
Of course, journal comics had to start somewhere, and it is in the mind of the Vermont music superstar and doodler that this form â€“ the diary strip proper â€“ was birthed. As he explains it, Kochalka thought up the daily journal comic format in response to two driving desires: the quest for both an Artist's and a Philosopher's Stone.
I've been looking for a hugely ambitious project that could be my "master work", and it seemed like a daily diary comic strip, carried on for long enough, could fulfill that goal.
I've felt for some time restricted by the graphic novel format. Real life doesn't fall neatly into the story format of beginning, middle, and end. The stories of real life never end, they just keep going. And there're thousands of subplots that keep twisting and writhing around each other.
The daily diary strip seemed a way to get at the rhythms of real life in a way that the graphic novel never could.
JOURNAL COMIC INSPIRATIONS
Through both his print and online diary work, Kochalka has proved the major catalyst in the recent webcartoonist trend to take up pen and paper, and bleed out sequential slices of life. Joel Stokes, when asked why he started his own journal comic, replies simply that "Kochalka's strips inspired me to do my own." Kenn Minter cites Kochalka, as well as "common man" poets Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac, as his main inspirations. Todd Webb goes in greater detail:
I started writing one-page comics about my day when working at the grocery store in 1998. This wasn't daily, it was just practice for me to draw and get better with a brush, plus my job seemed to provide stories. I liked the story that was evolving, so I redrew these and turned them into my mini-comic "The Stockboy". I drew very few journal-type comics back then, but that's what they were.
Then in '99 or 2000, James Kochalka printed some of his diary strips, and I thought it was cool that he had done one EVERY day. So I figured, that's a good idea, and I need the practice, so I resumed my journal on a daily basis. I mainly started it to practice improving my art and storytelling skills.
Webb isn't the only one who feels that journal comics are a great exercise; in fact, most artists claim this as another prime reason for starting up their own diary comic. As Drew Weing exclaims, he draws them "mostly as a way to get myself drawing every day!" Kean Soo also adds that the form serves as a catharsis, a way to blow the steam generated by the never-ending stresses of life.
I was going through a rough patch in my life, and I needed an outlet to just vent every once in awhile. I tried doing this in my self-contained comics, but it wound up that the quality of the work suffered. So the journal comic was also an excellent form of therapy that let me get all the crap out of my life and allow me to focus my energies on the more serious, self-contained stories that I hope to get around to telling one day.
So, an artistic exercise, a way to keep oneself updating daily, the ability to vent, and Kochalka's influence all serve as fair reasons why journal comics keep creeping on-scene, spreading like a contagion of self-expression.
Journal comics are not only all of the above things, but they are also fairly easy to create â€“ or, at least, the creative material is already there, everywhere, waiting for you. Rather than have to try to think up a new joke or plot twist out of thin air every single day, or struggle with character creation, the journal comic can draw upon a wealth of resources available to each and every artist wannabe or adept â€“ their own self and surroundings. Webb sums it up nicely:
Because the material is available immediately, you don't have to "write". Plus, I was keeping a regular journal at the time and was bored with it. Stories are more fun with pictures.
I chose the journal comic format simply because there's no pressure to make up an interesting story every day -- it's just a matter of taking parts of your daily life and slapping it down on the page.
A GAME OF TRUTH OR FLAIR?
It may be surprising to hear that not all artists feel that they have to remain faithful to the reality from which they draw their material. The respondents were split almost down the middle on this subject â€“ purists vs. distillers, so to speak.
From the purists:
JEFF LEVINE: When I've drawn autobiographical, event-based comics, I try not to self-edit. The "more true", the more interesting the strip is to draw. I'm always trying to get towards the truth. That's the whole point and challenge of creating art.
KEAN SOO: Since I use the journal comic as a form of therapy, I find that it helps to be as brutally honest as possible, even if it portrays me as a less-than-likeable person. This usually leads to some (I feel) unreadable strips, but for some reason, some of my readers tend to connect most with those strips.
TODD WEBB: It's pretty much as-is. It's a journal, so what happens, and what I feel, it all gets in there somehow. I'm pretty optimistic most of the time, so most of my comics tend to be "peppy", but sad things get in too, like when my girlfriend broke up with me and when my dog passed away.
From the distillers:
DREW WEING: I try not to be boring, so I cut a lot of the tedious bits out. I also try not to write anything about other people that could be private or sensitive. I don't purposefully censor myself, but I don't have a lot of interest in depicting my masturbatory practices or the like. It's been done!
JOEL STOKES: I try not to make fun of people or get anyone in trouble.
JEREMY DENNIS: Editing it down to the grid is part of the distillation process for me, a way of cutting into what makes the moment I'm writing about. I'm also not in the business of upsetting other people, and have delayed publication or even abandoned strips for that. I also (given that the strips are set half-inside my head) try to edit for comprehensibility, though I think I often fail.
LES MCCLAINE: I keep in mind that my Mom reads the strip, so I don't go too far with anything, but I try not to let that impede me too much.
It is interesting to note that one of the biggest reasons for self-editing is not for the artist to hide their own imperfections, but rather to avoid hurting others around them by pointing out their less endearing traits. Journal comic creators apparently arenâ€™t trying to make enemies out of anyone.
While the urge to self-edit may be a 50-50 split among our respondents, sticking to the truth of their lives seems to be an important matter to all but one of the artists. Jeremy Dennis goes against the journal comic creator grain, stating:
I'll change facts if it'll make it funnier or more interesting or more true or make the point better, or just if I feel like it, really. All of it starts in my life, but after that? It makes its own way in the world.
It must be noted that while he says he doesn't force himself to stick to the facts, the core material Dennis starts with is still based on his life.
Even if the remaining artists replied saying otherwise, they do, however, admit that they either embellish or alter the perception of certain moments when needed to help better convey their point, or to present their reality in a more interesting fashion. Kochalka may have defended this choice to take such "artistic liberties" best:
Sometimes I decide that what I thought was more important than what I said or did, so I may draw myself saying or doing something that I actually only thought. However, as far as I'm concerned, the real of the imagination is just as real as the physical world. "Just as real" as in "just as important an influence in our lives". For practical purposes, you should consider everything in the diaries as "real". My friend Jason would tell you that I always misrepresent him, but I don't think that counts as fiction. Let's just say that I'm always true to myself.
WHO'S PUNCHLINE IS IT, ANYWAY?
Another thing that just about all journal comic artists agree on is that jokes are NOT a necessity, nor are punchlines â€“ Kochalka's response to this question was a very concise "absolutely not", for example. Some others do point out that they like to offer a sense of resolution, a point, or a payoff, though. As Weing says, "I think each strip has to have a point. There's a lot of things in life that I find amusing, so I guess most of the strips turn out that way. At least in my opinion." Soo is even more specific:
If by "punchline" you mean some sort of payoff or resolution to each strip, then yes. I feel that pretty much any story needs to have a beginning and an end in order to make it at least interesting for myself. Life may not have a punchline, but any kind of story becomes more readable if there is some sort of payoff at the end.
In terms of financial payoff, the artists are fairly optimistic. Most see journal comics as a marketable genre (Levine wryly points out: "Shit, everything is marketable."), as autobiography is a big seller this century. Everyone loves autobiography, as it's a way for people to see that they are not alone in this world. Minter explains, "If they [people] see something in a person's strip they can relate to... they may find it easier to live within their own skin. Who doesn't wanna feel better?"
Weing is a little more cautious, but still positive:
Sure, in moderation. Journal comics are a subsection of autobio comics, which are a subsection of nonfiction, which are a subsection of comics as a whole. There are plenty of prose books published that consist of someone's journal, but they're still a small percentage of the total amount of books published.
PEEKABOO, I SEE YOU!
When one thinks about it, the desire or enjoyment that one gets from reading such personal peeks into one's life border on voyeurism, and on the converse, the artists who expose themselves daily can be argued as exhibitionists. Some, like McClaine, gladly admit to it. When asked on the subject, he eagerly replied, "Oh yeah, big time. That's half the fun." Others are less apt to see themselves in such a light, being of the mind that journal comic creators aren't showing all of their cards at any one time. Minter admits that he only reveals "so much," and Dennis points out the 'blur' that exists between truth and story:
I don't vastly differentiate between online modern non-genre fiction (like Derek Kirk Kim's stuff) and online journals. Life and fiction inform each other, and can be equally revealing (or concealing) about the artist. Many online journals (both written and drawn) are intense performances, which hide far more than they reveal.
Few can deny the voyeuristic feel to the journal comic, tho, even if they donâ€™t admit to it openly. Webb confesses that, "when reading other's journal comics I do get a strange sense of 'knowing' the person and their friends, even if I don't." Levine also feels the same:
I don't feel like an exhibitionist, maybe because I like writing and drawing, but I never really let the idea of an audience cross my mind. I don't care if people see what I'm doing, I just want to do it. Don't know if that makes sense. But yes - I definitely feel like a voyeur when reading other's autobiographical comics or blogs or books or whatever. I like peeking into other peoples' lives and thoughts...
JOURNAL COMICS ARE IN THE PANEL OF THE CREATOR
In the end, while it can be seen that there are some points on which the creators may agree upon, overall, each artist, sees the journal comic differently, both in terms of approach and objective â€“ just like they see each other's own lives. Some artists, like Kenn Minter, don't even see their work as a journal comic at all, at least not in the way described here: " I don't call what I do a journal comic. I call it an autobiographical comic strip. This ain't my diary."
Moreover, there are a number of comics out there that draw heavily on the life of the artist, but that stop short of being a "journal comic" by not offering up their material in a purely "diary" form. Such comics, like Jennie Breedan's The Devil's Panties, Ian Jones-Quarterly's Ian Comix, Peter Conrad's Stymied, or even Derek Kirk Kim's various short stories on his Small Stories site are but a few examples of comics that are both journal comic and something else, sometimes straying into complete fabrication, sometimes just being silly for silly's sake, sometimes offering pure evocative fiction drawn from elements of one's own real life experiences. They focus primarily on entertainment first, but still manage to make the reader feel like they are peeking into at least a fraction of the creator's sequential boudoir.
Finally, it should be noted that not all of the artists approached for this feature acknowledge that there is a journal comics movement. Some artists, like Soo, believe that it's too soon to make such a call on the genre.
Is it really a movement? No one has ever pointed to all the blogs on the 'net and said "look, it's a blog movement!" Yes, there's been a sudden upsurge in journal comics, but you can tie that directly with the steadily growing number of livejournal.com and blogger sites. With the nature of the Internet, the appearance of all these journal comics seems to be a natural progression from all the blogs out on the web. I think it's highly egotistical to say "look at us, we're part of a movement!" That sort of thing is best left up to the historians as they look back after a decade or six.
Weing echoes these sentiments, suggesting a bit of caution while once again remaining a tad optimistic:
I think journal strips are an interesting parallel to the "blogging" phenomenon, and maybe a little faddish right now. But they've got a pretty good foundation of support. I've seen a bit of backlash, but for the most part the response has been overwhelmingly positive - especially considering the fashionable disdain most people had for autobio comics after the epidemic of them during the 90s. Which is good, because they're often just as compelling (if not more so) than the cartoonist's "actual work." Only time will tell how they're ultimately received.