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Review time! with Between Gears and Emitown

Yes, it’s two books for the price of one! They’re very similar, so I figured I would review them together!

I bought both of these books at the Emerald City convention from the creators themselves, which is always fun. Between Gears is by Natalie Nourigat and cost $19.99, while Emitown is by Emi Lenox (see what she did there?) and cost $24.99 (it’s a bit longer). Both of them are published by Image, because Image is awesome.

Both of these comics are autobiographical, and so I must offer my standard autobiographical comics disclaimer: I AM RATHER AMBIVALENT TOWARD AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS, AS I BELIEVE MOST PEOPLE (INCLUDING ME) DON’T HAVE EXCITING ENOUGH LIVES FOR THEM. HOWEVER, I AM ALWAYS WILLING TO GIVE THEM A CHANCE. WHEN I REVIEW AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS, I AM NOT “PICKING ON” THE PERSON PORTRAYED WITHIN IF I DON’T LIKE THE COMIC. PEOPLE WHO DO AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS MAKE THEMSELVES CHARACTERS IN THEIR STORIES, SO THEY BECOME SUBJECT TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND NARRATIVE ARCS LIKE ANY OTHER CHARACTER. THAT’S THE WAY IT IS. AS FOR CLAIMING THAT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS ARE A WAY FOR PEOPLE TO WORK OUT THEIR ISSUES (AS THESE TWO YOUNG LADIES DO IN THEIR BOOKS) AND THAT I SHOULD JUST SUPPORT THEM AND CHEER THEM ON, ONCE THEY CHARGE ME MONEY FOR THEIR COMICS, IT IS NO LONGER MY RESPONSIBILITY TO SUPPORT THEM JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE WORKING THROUGH ISSUES, AND I THINK IT WOULD BE INSULTING TO THEM TO DO THAT. AS A REVIEWER, IT’S MY JOB TO LET READERS KNOW ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF THESE BOOKS AND WHAT I THINK OF THEM. THAT’S ALL. IF THAT MAKES ME A HORRIBLE PERSON, SO BE IT. Phew. That was a bit longer that I thought it would be, but that’s because I can never shut up, right? It holds true, though – both Ms. Nourigat and Ms. Lenox were nothing but nice when I spoke to them, and as human beings, they seem like very cool people with whom I wouldn’t mind sharing a beer. I hate when I like creators, because it makes it hard to review their comics objectively, but I try.

That’s not to say I don’t like Between Gears and Emitown, just that people get a bit wonky when it comes to autobiographical comics, as if we’re not allowed to say some things don’t work because “they really happened.” Well, yes, but I try very hard to treat the characters in autobiographical comics as fictional constructs, because they are – Nourigat and Lenox are filtering “Tally” and “Emi” through their own lens, editing and tweaking, leaving some events out and emphasizing others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the truth. So, with that all out of the way, what about the actual, you know, comics?

Both of these comics are diaries, and in both, the creators use the “page-a-day” technique. They’re friends with each other (Lenox shows up occasionally in Between Gears, and Nourigat shows up every so often in Emitown – see that panel on the left below), so I don’t know if Nourigat decided to do hers in the same way as Lenox, as she started hers after the events of Emitown volume 1. Nourigat’s covers her senior year at the University of Oregon, so it begins on 17 September 2009 and ends on 14 June 2010. Lenox, meanwhile, simply does an entire year, which begins on the first of May 2010 and ends on the last day of April 2011 (which is why, of course, that her book is longer). Lenox was born in 1983 and Nourigat in 1987, they both live in Portland, and they’re both cartoonists. It’s not terribly surprising that their books are similar.

Between Gears has a slightly more visible narrative arc than Emitown, as Nourigat is working on her senior thesis and trying to graduate, which forces her work into a more traditional narrative. She writes about the issues she’s having at school, her attempts to fit everything in, her trials as she figures out what to do with her life after she graduates. Throughout the book, she’s worried about getting into a program that will send her to Japan for a year after graduation (one of her majors is in Japanese, although she shifts its focus during the year) through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (which we shouldn’t trust because they spell “programme” with too many letters – come on, British/Canadian/Australian people!). One of the annoying parts of the book is that Nourigat never tells us what J.E.T. means – from the context, we know it’s a program that sends people to Japan, but we don’t know it’s about teaching there. She also has to draw a comic for her thesis, so of course, that’s a focus of the book as well. In between all of this, she’s trying to do actual work in comics, attending conventions (ECCC and Stumptown) and, of course, dating a guy. There is, of course, a lot of drinking with friends, because she’s a college senior! Her relationship falls apart, but she moves on.

In Emitown, we get a different view of the world, because Lenox is older than Nourigat and is already working. She too frets about her future and her life in comics, she also hangs out with friends and drinks a lot, she also sets up at the Seattle and Portland conventions, she also starts dating a young man, which relationship also ends. As the diary isn’t leading toward anything, it ends on 30 April with no fanfare (Nourigat ends hers with some thoughts about leaving college and entering the “real world”). Lenox does create a sidekick called Army Cat, and on several days, she and the cat hang out on a fictional battlefield and steel themselves against the hurtful things in life (which often have to do with love and its emotional consequences). Lenox also loses her job during the course of the book, which leads to more anxiety for her. Both ladies experience plenty of high points, many of them having to do with getting their comics published or even just getting recognition for their comics (several comics creators show up in both comics, and Laura Hudson actually interviews both of them at different times).

There are issues with both comics, most of them because of the format. Creating a “comic diary” and using one page per day means that Nourigat and Lenox have to economize, and because it’s their actual lives, building a narrative arc is difficult. Nourigat’s succeeds a bit more in that regard because of the built-in arc of her senior year, but neither book has what we would call a story. That doesn’t necessarily matter, because I’ve loved comics with the thinnest of plots before. However, when the plot, such as it is, doesn’t exist because the creator is chronicling several “real” days in succession, other things have to be better. In this regard, characterization and interpersonal relationships become more important. I can overlook the lack of a plot in an autobiographical comic, because people’s lives don’t have a three-act structure. However, in both of these comics, we don’t get a very good sense of the characters, and that’s a shame. We get a fairly good sense of who Nourigat and Lenox are, but only them, and even then, it’s disjointed. This is important when it comes to their relationships. I haven’t read volume 1 of Emitown, and perhaps if I had, I’d have a better idea of who Lenox is, but when they get into these relationships, we don’t get a good sense of how they date and why the guys are special and why the romances fall apart. Nourigat kind of falls into a relationship with Nate, but we really don’t get any kind of sense of how they fit together. Suddenly they’re dating, and she’s happy. Just as suddenly, a few months later they’ve grown apart, and then they break up. We, as readers, have no stake in the relationship, because it’s so loosely defined and never given room in the book. Nourigat seems to get over it very quickly, which is fine, but that makes it more difficult to care about. In some places, that’s not a problem: There’s a gorgeous panel where Nourigat props herself up on her arm, her back to the reader, and looks down at Nate when they wake up. The narration reads “I loved waking up with you.” This is before the romance falls apart, and it’s a wonderful, poignant moment foreshadowing their break-up, but it also raises some questions. Nourigat is obviously naked or at least topless, yet in the next panel, she admits that she hasn’t had sex with Nate. This is never brought up again, and while I hope I don’t sound like a pervert when I write this, but it seems like she could have explored this a bit more. I’ll get back to that, though. The important thing is that we don’t really get to know Nate, so it’s hard to really become emotionally invested in their romance. A lot of the comic is like that – Nourigat’s trials are vaguely interesting to read about, but it’s very hard to look on this as any more than an intellectual exercise.

Emitown suffers from similar problems, although Lenox does incorporate her Army Cat to give us some insight into her state of mind. Unfortunately, we also don’t get a lot of character development of her friends, either, and when she starts dating Tim, it also feels a bit disjointed. They too kind of fall together, and although their relationship lasts slightly longer than Nourigat’s and Nate’s, it also comes apart slowly and awkwardly. The way the two romances unravel are the best parts of the books, because that’s often the way it happens – people just grow apart from each other. In Lenox’s case, though, she portrays herself as such a basket case that it’s surprising things didn’t go south a lot sooner. She alludes to fights she has with Tim but never goes into them, and as the relationship falls apart, she retreats more and more into herself. Again, that’s the way it happens quite often, but because we don’t really know Tim all that well (or even Lenox), it’s hard to understand why she’s falling apart. After the break-up, she spirals even further into depression, and it does get a bit much to take. Lenox seems like a person who flings herself headlong into everything, and that makes it harder to get out. There’s nothing wrong with that (in some ways, I’m like that), but it doesn’t make for compelling reading, especially because it’s difficult to judge how much she and Tim loved each other in the first place.

In both comics, there’s a lack of fearlessness that holds them back. I’ve read autobiographical comics that are extremely raw, and the emotions just hit the reader in the face, so the lack of an overall plot doesn’t matter. I’m not sure if Nourigat and Lenox were trying very hard to spare the feelings of their boyfriends or anyone else in the comics, but there’s a restraint in the writing that makes it harder to really love these comics. Perhaps it’s the format – when you’re doing one page for each day, it’s hard to devote a lot of time to any one event, and so the comics become a bit diffused and less effective. That problem would be easily rectified by telescoping events a bit more, but if the problem is that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or they didn’t allow you to print all the gory details … well, that’s more of an issue. If we return to Nourigat’s sex life or lack thereof, that’s an extremely personal situation that I, for one, wouldn’t really feel comfortable writing about, so I understand her reticence. But, again, she brought it up, and I can’t help wonder what effect it had on her relationship with Nate. We don’t know, and that’s too bad.

The books do have a lot to recommend about them, though. It’s very cool, from a fan’s perspective, to see new creators working on their craft and figuring things out, and obviously, I’m very keen on trying all kinds of new things. Both ladies are quite good artists, too, although they have different styles. Nourigat is a bit more detail-oriented, as she gives us a good sense of Eugene and its surroundings as she navigates her senior year. Her characters are more “realistic,” for lack of a better word, although she does shift quite often into a more abstract, expressive manga style that helps contrast those drawings with the more concrete style. Both she and Lenox cram a lot onto each page, and it’s fascinating to see how they lay out a page and what kind of panels they come up with. Nourigat incorporates a lot of pop culture into her book (Lenox does too, but not as much, I don’t think), and it’s fun to see her draw in different styles to fit the pop culture bit to which she’s referring. You can see her get more confident in the artwork as the year goes on – she comes up with more beautiful “moments” (like the one I mentioned above) and has a much bolder line. Plus, in the “bonus materials,” there are two pages that Nourigat drew after finishing this which are absolutely stunning, with a much more confident line, wonderful layouts, and a more varied tonal palette. I don’t know what it is, but if Nourigat does more of that comic, I will buy it in a heartbeat! (It appears that Steve Lieber is about to die in one panel, too, and that’s never a bad thing!) [Edit: If you read the comments, Nourigat stopped by to explain that the comic in the back was drawn by Ben Dewey, whose blog is here and whose web comic is here. I didn’t realize that Nourigat didn’t draw it, because it looks like it could conceivably have been her – it’s a different style, sure, but not so far away from her work in the comic, plus, it does star her, so there’s that.] Lenox, meanwhile, has a much more cartoony and manga style – her faces are much more exaggerated and abstract, which, given that Emitown is a bit more emotional than Between Gears, helps it work. Lenox also does some drawings of pop culture icons (she has a bit of a girl-crush on Dakota Fanning), in which she shows off some different styles. Her style is a bit more minimalistic than Nourigat’s, but she also uses metaphors a bit more, making her book a bit less realistic but also more primal. Lenox doesn’t use as formal a panel structure and she also uses more words (not that Nourigat’s book is all that sparse of verbiage), which often act as borders. Both comics could benefit from showing more and telling less, but they both incorporate the words they do have nicely into the artwork.

Both Between Gears and Emitown are frustrating comics, because you can see that both creators are growing into amazing talents, yet we only get glimpses of that on the page. I understand the temptation to write and draw diaries, because it’s a daily thing (although both ladies waited a while before sitting down to draw the books) that helps you focus, but there are pitfalls as well, and I think these two comics fall too often into them. The nice thing about them is that I’m excited to see what these two ladies can do when they’re not doing diaries, because they obviously have a lot of potential. These are both Mildly Recommended because I certainly didn’t hate them, and I think the pluses in the books slightly outweigh the negatives. But that’s just my opinion. Guess what? You can read these on-line and decide for yourselves: Between Gears is here and Emitown is right here. Even if you choose not to click over and read, you should keep your eye out for work from both Nourigat and Lenox. I know I will.

5 Comments

sandwich eater

April 24, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I’m not a big fan of autobiographical comics. I’d read one written or drawn by one of the legendary creators in the field like Stan Lee or Steve Ditko, but the cartoonists who choose to do autobiographical comics are largely unknown.

I agree that not everyone’s life is interesting enough for a comic (my own life is boring); so unless someone did something interesting like live through a war I’m not really interested in reading about it.

Thank you so much for the review, Greg! It was great talking with you in Seattle.

I have to point out one thing, and I’m afraid it’s my bad for not crediting it clearly enough in the book, but BEN DEWEY drew that awesome 2-page comic in the back of Between Gears. Please check out his work here: http://www.deweydraws.blogspot.com/ and his hilarious webcomic here: http://tragedyseries.tumblr.com/

Thanks for reviewing these, Greg. I own most everything Tally has done, and some Emitown mini-comics, and you’re right, these books just hint at what both of these talented young women have to offer in the future. You should check out Tally’s “Over the Surface” if you haven’t yet. Good stuff. I believe she also has a few books lined up that should be coming out over the next year or two.

Natalie: Thanks for the info about Ben. A friend of mine told me to meet him in Seattle, but I could never find him when I managed to get over to his table. Dang it!

Thanks for being gracious even though I had some critical things to write about Between Gears. I am looking forward to seeing more of your work.

PJ: I will do that, sir. I was curious about it, since she mentions it in Between Gears so often, so I’ll have to give it a look!

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