Visual diary comics

20120423-163825.jpgIn the last week I’ve read two travel diary comics: French Milk by Lucy Kinsley and Carnet De Voyage by Craig Thompson.

To be fair to Kinsley, who wrote hers as a 23 year-old student on a holiday in Paris with her Mum, I am not going to put her up against Thompson, who wrote his on a Moroccan holiday and French /Spanish book tour of his award winning masterpiece Blankets.

But both of them really made me think about the genre of comic diary making, how it’s done and what makes it successful.

Mostly it made me think about what we reveal of ourselves in autobiographical comics.

You see, there is a line I think I’ve walked a million times on the internet with my personal life – how much do I really want the world to know about me anyway?

In Carnet De Voyage Thompson devotes one page to his diarrhea and multiple pages to a romantic encounter in Barcelona, all the while constantly referring to a mysterious breakup before the tour that you never really find out much about.

In French Milk Kinsley devotes a page to missing having sex with her boyfriend, but also mysteriously avoids any mention of their reunion at the end of the book or a real discussion about her elusive references to arguments with her mother.

What were they about anyway?

Now I know from personal experience that putting your life in the public sphere is fraught: you stand a big risk of upsetting your more private family and friends by telling more than they thought you would, could or should – or worse, showing a side of them they do not like or a side of you they do not like.

Actually no, the worst is showing them something awful they didn’t know happened or something they think didn’t happened and you are a terrible rotten liar I’m never speaking to you ever again.

When teaching online journalism at The University of Canberra I used to say to my students ‘if you wouldn’t show it to your Nana, don’t put it on the internet’, but I’m confused about whether that applies to comics when the most compelling stories are often the most controversial.

This makes the comic diary making – read any autobiographical work – kind of hard.

Does success = no friends?

Because while reading both Kinsley and Thompson, I noted my curiosity rising for absent elements of their stories I know I too would have omitted.


  • What I argue with my Mum about (which, aside from slouching, poor grammar, swearing and choice in footwear, I really don’t want to go into detail about in any pubic way)
  • The names of participants in and gory details of my last horrible break-up
  • A detailed Freudian analysis of why travel, particularly travel with my family, makes me immediately revert to behaviour a five year-old would be ashamed to display.

I think the crux of the dilemma can be described by that great journalistic device taught to me by Maree Curtis – don’t make promises you can’t keep.

If I’m reading your illustrated travel diary with the understanding this is all going to be a great reveal of a mother/daughter relationship – or that I will learn of your latest romantic tragedy – when you have no intention of delivering this to me, I, the reader, will not be happy with the end product.

Flagging tidbits along the way won’t satisfy me at the end when I’m left wondering what really happened, although as diaries it’s hard to shove the frames into a comprehensive easily digested story structure.

Perhaps when I grow up and write graphic novels I’ll steer away from travel diaries lest I be tempted to spill my guts or walk the line of not enough story to suck the reader in, or so much story my love ones feel their private lives violated?

2 thoughts on “Visual diary comics

  1. Hey Eleri,

    Your post made me think of a couple of things.

    For starters, I want to say that French Milk was hard to read for me, given how uninteresting the subject matter was. I grimaced all the way through reading it. While it’s a great accomplishment on Lucy’s part that she created something that was aimed for publication while she travelled, the “artifact” that she created is crummy.

    And, while this could be argued to be a question of taste, the case of French Milk goes past that. Sure, I didn’t like it, but that’s not why I think it’s crummy. I thought the work was crummy because of the lack of guts it showed, despite the documented apprehension and malaise on Knisley’s part.

    Her anecdotes were boring and only seemed to engage with Parisian culture only superficially.

    I think that this is an issue of me not liking the character portrayed (and therefore the author). I have a particularly strong distaste for the safe bourgeois yet bland life-style depicted in Lucy’s story’s. Given Lucy is a CCSer, it might be rude of me to say this, but the honest truth is that I don’t feel it’s very fit for reproduction outside of her sketchbooks. I don’t think she was ready to put out a book. That might seem weird in an publishing environment where small press publishing can allow for any kind of story to see print, but I believe in a kind of sanctity of book-dom. IF something sees ink hit paper through fancy printing presses, the story has got to be worth putting on a shelf and reading 20 years down the line. Perhaps that’s an antiquated, overly romantic sense of what it means for something to be a book, but it’s a belief I cling towards strongly.

    In French Milk, you don’t see much of a vibrance of the human spirit and that’s what bummed me out.
    When you talk about the crux of travel diaries, what level of artifice do you think is involved in documenting events? What effect does the omission of events have on the reader’s experience. How much of what actually happened do you have to include in a story for it to be considered true? How does a writer make a promise to the reader? (This is in reponse to Maree Curtis’ idea that you propose) Is the mere discussion of a topic the introduction of a new promise that it will be touched upon again? Is it safe to say that good journals have ideas that come full circle? If so, it seems to be really hard to make a “true” documentation of an experience that does this, given how erratic and tangential most of our life experiences can seem.

    To this extent, I feel that there are two general ways in which travel diaries can be read. The first is as roughly hewn sequential narratives that use the travel experience as the source material and the second is as disjointed bits of mental flotsam and jetsam that have made their way onto the printed page in no particular chronological or hierachical order. In the latter approach, the reader doesn’t look for a big arc or for a punchline, rather they read and experience the stories as if they were panhandling for gold, sifting through a writers memories looking for disconnected gold and gems.

    I think that the spilling of guts is essential and that an artist has to negotiate how that spillage happens. If it doesn’t happen, you get a bland story like French Milk. (I admit, everyone’s barometer for the intensity of how personal something is will vary, but Lucy’s seemed too tame). I would argue that for travel journals like those of Knisley and Thompson to be successful reading experiences, the facts about the events don’t have to be true but the feeling of the events does.

    A form of travel diaries that makes more sense to me is that of Argentinian cartoonist Liniers:

    Liniers puts together a collection of comics and sketches from his several travel diaries, which are very rough at the edges full of unfinished sketches, over-inked doodles, wrinkled comics and overly personal self-analysis. He distills his many experiences. A “worldwide” reading audience wasn’t considered while making the comics and the journals, as such he had a great deal of freedom in terms of what to document. The journals could then function as lenses into his physical and mental states, while the publishing process simply refined and decided what particular anecdotes were acceptable for public display.

    The end result is a series of satisfying unrelated episodic sequences, each of which have their own build up and release of tension.

    As a sidenote, I’m a total Craig “Cry-Baby” Thompson fan boy. I took Carnet de voyage with me when I travelled to spain and when I needed inspiration for my own documentation, I cracked open to any random page.

    1. Hey wow! Thanks for your thoughts Juan!

      I reckon they key might be in your comparison between a travel diary written to be published and a travel diary meant for personal record. If you’re writing something for yourself, you aren’t self censoring so it makes the pieces and anecdotes you include more free flowing? The diary I think then would tend to touch on much more of the same themes and be more direct about what you are thinking and who you are thinking about. The risk with having a public audience in mind is that you omit the details that make human stories interesting.

      With regard to promises, I think when events or characters are touched upon and not engaged with further it can go two ways – make you ponder the human condition or frustrate the hell out of you.

      But yes, guts spilling probably does assist the chances of your diary working – but like I said, would you show it to your Nana?

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