Keep Out, Or Else: Girls’ Diaries in Comics

Comics and the diaries of teenage girls don’t at first glance have that much to do with one another. After all, the latter tend to invoke the pastel ink of pens used to ...

Comics and the diaries of teenage girls don’t at first glance have that much to do with one another. After all, the latter tend to invoke the pastel ink of pens used to dot i’s with hearts in vomit pink suburban bedrooms, while visions of sweaty, basement-dwelling fanboys still (somehow) cling to the former. But the diary has long been an unexamined analog of and visible interlocutor to the comics form. And, as Emil Ferris’s recent graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters attests, comics that take on the diary form owe a great debt to the original users of the diary: teenage girls like Ferris’s protagonist Karen Reyes, who have long transformed diary pages into handmade archives that collate their obsessions, manifestos, and monsters into serial entries.

In fact, diary pages have in many cases formed the material spine of the graphic novels and memoirs we consider exemplary in the tradition of comics arts and letters. Alison Bechdel, for instance, draws and redraws her preteen and teenage diaries in Fun Home (2006). Her diary not only showcases her early penchant for pairing text, image, and icon, but also embodies her struggles with a burgeoning case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Lynda Barry and Phoebe Gloeckner have each produced texts that meld comics, illustration, and prose in the register of diary writing, with the not-quite-novel, not-quite-memoirs Cruddy (1999) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002), respectively. And readers of Maus (1980–91) won’t soon forget that it is the immolated pages of Art Spiegelman’s mother’s diary that she kept as a young adult in Nazi-occupied Poland that haunts his pioneering graphic memoir, causing his cartoon mouse interloper to declare his father, Vladek, a “murderer” at the close of the memoir’s first act.

What’s more, diaries, far from being just reference material for comics memoirists, are the preferred form for a range of comics writers. It’s the mode adopted in the low-fi work of long-running webcomics-turned-comic-books like James Kochalka’s American Elf series (2004–12), Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half (2013), and Emi Lenox’s EmiTown (2011). The even-longer-running mini-comics effort, King Cat Comix, penned and published for 77 issues over nearly three decades by John Porcellino, too, quietly inscribes magic into daily, dated entries.1

Leslie Stein’s insomnia-induced diary, Bright-Eyed at Midnight (2015), earned her an interview in the Paris Review Daily, and you can still catch her churning out slice-of-life entries over at Vice. Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library gives readers a glimpse into his daily sketchbooks, which, though not diaries proper, often capture the goings-on around him. Ware also served as one of the letterers for the English translation of 365 Days, by Julie Doucet (2007), which presents hundreds of pages of her “journal in black and white” (as the work is identified in its front material). As Hillary Chute writes in her study of women’s life writing in comics, the comics form itself is “diaristic; there’s an intimacy to reading handwritten marks on the printed page, an intimacy that works in tandem with the sometimes-visceral effects of presenting “private” images” to a public audience.

In my own research about the history of the intersections between diaries and comics, I spend a lot of time digging through archive drawers for diaries left behind, lost, and locked away in the past. And I’ve noticed that something strange happens to the slice-of-life comics diary when it comes home to the hands of those original users: girls who know the secret combination to the diary lock, who stuff unruly archives between their mattresses, and maybe whine at you to “Keep Out” of their private worlds, “Or Else.” The following examples of comics diaries by teenage girls—one oft-forgotten, the other recent and celebrated—aren’t testimonials of teen angst, but, to paraphrase Spiegelman, introduce new vernaculars into the language of comics.

Ariel Schrag’s comics chronicles of high school—Awkward and Definition for freshman and sophomore years, Potential for junior, and Likewise for senior—document the author’s real-time artistic development, conveying her developing line-and-storytelling capabilities through slice-of-high-school stories. Cartoonist Carta Monir recently tweeted that “horny teenage Ariel Schrag” is her R. Crumb, and, indeed, one of the central pleasures of reading Awkward and Defintion, along with the rest of Schrag’s “High School Comic Chronicles,” is witnessing her deliciously, disruptively cruddy earliest efforts. Originally self-published by Schrag as two separate installments in 1995 and 1996 before it was collected and published as one volume by Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone in 2008, Awkward and Definition provides no straight lines through growing up.

Unlike most graphic memoirs, which are typically written and drawn well after the events they depict take place, Schrag’s comics are diaristic: composed at the moment of conception. As such, they keep a valuable visual record of just how queer comics can be. While Schrag’s drawn line organically matures over the course of her stories, she also embraces a willful amateurism that challenges the ways in which comics lovers, readers, and critics often uphold draftsmanship as the key indicator of substance for a comics story.

The Ariel we meet in the “Awkward” summer of 1995 is wrapped up in her own obsessions—L7, Juliette Lewis, biology class, a boy named Michael, and, of course, making comics. But what really drives this comics series is the eponymous verbal tic that seems to worm its way into every conversation: Awkward! “Now that I look back on it, it was definitely the most trials and tribulations packed year,” Schrag writes, “and if I had to sum it all up in one word it would be the word I used in practically every other sentence that year—AWKWARD.”

Shrag’s bubbly, big-eyed, and baggy-jeaned cartoon avatars are precursors of the kind of Web 2.0 chibi-style manga fan art that would come to dominate DeviantArt in the early 2000s. As she makes her way through text-heavy panels of first kisses, concerts, and spray-painted tags, Schrag brilliantly captures the tongue-numbing elements of teen-girl speak, the likes, awkwards, as ifs, and whatevers that are so frequently picked up and passed around friend groups. Her drawing may be immature, but it has the capacity to capture vibrating throngs of bodies at punk parties and enough raw energy to stop time for a kiss copped from Natural Born Killers.

By the time Definition begins in the summer of 1996, before her sophomore year of high school, Schrag has figured out how to create depth and texture (definition—get it?) in her panels, and it becomes clear that her word-of-the-year titles are a theme. “Definition” is used to emphasize something’s true nature: so when Ariel says she’s “definition sixteen,” the age which she turns in chapter three, she highlights the fleeting feeling of being the “definition” or ideal of being sixteen; the teacher for her favorite class, chemistry, is “definition God,” and Gwen Stefani, the lead singer of her new favorite band, is “definition angel.” Definition is reclamation. It’s not just a filler, throwaway piece of language, but a chance for Schrag to redefine all the “expectations, excitations, lacerations, aspiration, adorations, complications … all those definition[s]” that teenage girls are often forced to carry around.

So when the first page of Definition opens on a girl pointing out of the panel and proclaiming, “YOU’RE A DYKE,” during a chemistry study session, it’s “definition awkward” for Ariel, even though she admits that it’s also “definition perfection” to lock lips with her pretty and pierced girlfriend, Rosary. “It was as if suddenly everything about kissing made sense,” she writes. “I treasured every second taking in everything, every move of her tongue, every clank of her tongue pierce against my teeth, every press of her fingertips against my neck.” Her sexuality, she comes to learn, is a messy thing, one often without real definition—just as her panels begin to develop a dynamic stylistic register that slides from cartoony to surreal to realist in a single kiss (or acid trip or bad bus ride to a No Doubt concert in San Jose).

The diaristic record of her shifting, maturing style, then, serves as a material analog of how any “definition” is made, unmade, and remade. “Definition” in Schrag’s coming-of-age cartoon diary becomes as circular and queer as the coming-of-age process she captures. In Definition’s final sequence, Ariel wakes as an outline defined only by Ben-Day dots—sometimes white on black, sometimes black on white. Her best friend, Julia, recognizable only by her blond ponytail, is asleep on the floor as Ariel ponders the year and “this unresolved clinging, like something wasn’t complete.”

Ariel’s surroundings—girlhood bedroom walls filled with scribbles, a No Doubt flag, and drawers overflowing with clothes—come into focus even as Ariel herself remains a vaguely defined set of dots remembering that “Exactly a year ago [she]’d gone berry picking” with her best friend Julia. Pulled back to that moment exactly one year ago, her features begin to become legible as she and Julia clasp hands, letting “the blood red” berry juice run down their wrists, an unspoken oath of their friendship. “That’s what really makes me happy,” she writes, her figure on the page shaking off the last of the effacing Ben-Day dots she has carried through previous panels. “Through everything and all of it to still end up in the car with Julia … the definition usual.”

In her diaristic approach to comics, Schrag inscribes a certain degree of resistance against stable definitions. The taxonomy of straight, bisexual, or lesbian that makes sexual identity appear straightforward to her classmates feels inauthentic and forced to Schrag, just as the “definition usual” she enjoyed with her best friend a year ago now seems strained by a new, nebulous “unresolved clinging.” In the letters column that ran in the back pages of Potential, the next installment of Schrag’s high school comics, serialized by Slave Labor Graphics throughout 1997, many readers who wrote in played off her title to highlight how far Schrag’s art has come (and hint at how far it might go). These letters, like most comics back matter, were eventually excised when Potential was collected and reprinted, but their praise reveals the pressures Schrag underwent as the definition of a young cartoonist.

One reader noted, “You also made some great leaps with your artwork this issue too. I think, by the end, you really developed a cool, clean line.” “If you keep going at this rate, you will be quite a force to be reckoned with in the future,” another wrote. But growing into that bright future of comics renown, embracing her “potential” to develop from teenage doodler into a darling of the contemporary comics scene, doesn’t seem to hold that much interest for Schrag, who in recent years has quietly put out a young adult novel, Adam (2015), and a comics anthology, Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age (2007).

Her real-time record of high school life, however, stands up brilliantly against the forces of organic maturation—“The Hormone Revolution,” as one reader cornily describes it—to at once showcase an artist in the process of honing her craft and a girl pushing back on all the awkwardly lobbed definitions she would be forced to inhabit to achieve her potential.

Self-styled werewolf detective Karen Reyes, the protagonist of Emil Ferris’s stunning comics debut, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, crosshatches the most marvelous monsters and terrifying humans into existence in her spiral-bound notebook.2 Early on in the story, Karen finds the casings of a silver bullet: evidence from the untimely death (murder? suicide?) of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who was “shot in the heart in her living room.” But, as Karen speculates, Anka “had dodged many many bullets” in her life, so “why would she choose to end her life by standing in the path of one?”

Karen’s notebook poses as a Harriet-the-Spy-style investigation into Anka’s death, but more often it records the prosaic tragedies of her home life with cancer-stricken Mama and the vampiric Deeze, a big brother whose dalliances with a rotating cast of women frequently confound Karen. Throughout it all, she can’t help letting her obsession with monsters become the lens that filters her world. She hands out bloody valentines to her classmates at school (“I would have given you my heart … but all I could spare was this ventricle”). She befriends the spectral Sandy, art buff and Frankenstein’s monster look-alike Franklin, and dreams of her ex-best-friend/crush Missy (“Do you think that a girl could become the bride of Dracula’s daughter?” she wonders). And as she tries to put together the pieces of Anka’s death, she secretly yearns for a real monster bite to save her mother’s life (monsters, after all, can live forever if they play it safe).

Instead of dating each new diary entry, Karen copies out covers from horror pulps to separate the installments of her notebook. The fictional 1960s magazine covers bear names like Dread, Spectral, and Ghastly and harken back to immensely popular horror comics that publishers like EC Comics put out in the 1940s and early 1950s, before the Comics Code Authority (CCA) put an end to such gruesome frights-for-kids. Indeed, the horror covers Karen copies out seem to blend those pre-Code horror comics with the sexy horror pulp magazines of the 1960s—magazines which were able to get around the CCA by publishing a handful of comic strips alongside short stories about damsels abducted, distressed, and, on the covers, frequently undressed.

Through Karen’s favorite covers, Ferris mutates comics history, transforming stock horror shocks into a lush imaginary world in which Karen works out her own ideas about her sexuality and the pressures of adulthood that seep into her life. As she writes, “Dear Notebook—I’ll tell you straight—in my opinion the best horror magazine covers are the one’s where the lady’s boobs aren’t spilling out as she’s getting attacked by a monster. Those covers give me something worse than the creeps.” As Ferris blends the imagery of horror ingrained in our pop culture imaginary with the dark recollections of Anka’s life during the Holocaust and death in 1960s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters brilliantly suspends itself between histories real and imagined.

Ferris’s archive of the macabre, universally celebrated and profoundly complicated, stays the hand that would throw out the yellowing horror pulps and comics or flip off the late-night static of the “old creepshow,” fearing the seduction of the innocent. The ever-present blue lines of three-hole-punched paper in Karen’s notebook do not make for a strict grid to organize Ferris’s panels. Instead, the diary is a flexible backdrop for doodles, dreamscapes, and diagrams: pages brimming with the evidence of a girl figuring herself out and reconfiguring the world around her.

Much like Schrag’s destabilization of coming-of-age-enforced great expectations, Karen distills her own personal category crisis into a panoply of monsters that rend the surface of those familiar monster skins and flood her notebook with poignant visions of private traumas. And when Karen’s monstrous vision of herself as a werewolf is in danger of shattering, as her brother demands she face the mirror and see “A girl! Not Larry Talbot three quarters the way to being the fucking wolfman!,” the first volume of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters proves that Karen’s scribblings in her spiral-bound diary are stronger than reality’s reflections. icon

  1. For a brilliant explication of how diary comics capture the mundane and ordinary, as well as an even more in-depth overview of the genre, see Isaac Cates’s “The Diary Comic,” in Graphic Subjects, edited by Michael Chaney (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), pp. 209–26.
  2. Last year former Public Books contributing editor Jared Gardner called My Favorite Thing Is Monsters “the most dazzling and original graphic novel debut in ages.”
Featured image: from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (2017).