When I started writing this profile, Lucy Knisley had not yet put up a comic that doubled as an engagement announcement, but that story — honest, confessional, well-organized, and carefully illustrated — represents exactly what is so engaging about Knisley’s comics.
Knisley writes and draws comics that spring from somewhere between the brain and the soul. In her books, Relish and French Milk, and her webcomic, Stop Paying Attention, Knisley pulls the threads of memory, yielding insights into her own life, and into experiences shared by many in the millennial generation. (Full disclosure: I’m a die-hard fan.)
No amount of sharing is too much sharing in the webcomic community, and a quick glance at Knisley’s topics of choice — family relationships, romantic tangles, and professional and existential fears — doesn’t immediately single her out from the crowd. (Other comics devoted to the struggles of millennial life include Erica Moen’s DAR and Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie.) What sets Knisley's work apart is the structure and polish of each comic. Her work takes the form of an illustrated essay in which she mines her embarrassing childhood situations and professional anxiety for layers of meaning.
For example, in a comic about the month of February, Knisley takes us through the objects and rituals that provide comfort to us as adults, finding merit in the joy people derive from their tools of solace. Using her own weaknesses (the internet, bad movies), Knisley gives us a window into a daily struggle between guilt over extravagances and the delicious feeling of doing what makes us feel good.
While people who make autobiographical work are often accused of self-indulgence, Knisley sidesteps such criticism by being honest about her motivations and accountable to her readers. Her online work fulfills her readers’ expectations of disclosure, if not always fully satisfying their curiosity. In her engagement comic, she admits to avoiding talking about dating because she didn’t feel up to being completely honest about her emotional commitments.
Of course, nothing is for everyone. Knisley’s comics lack the sitcom-style shenanigans and some of the levity that characterize many popular comics, attributes that some readers expect from sequential art. As such, some people might be tempted to ask why Knisley's stories need to be comics at all, rather than essays. The answer lies in Knisley’s mastery of the visual metaphor, and the succinct way in which her images embody her ideas. In Relish, Knisley wonders whether her food cravings come from her genetics or her upbringing; a drawing of her mother saying “Blue cheese would be good right now” hovers inside a silhouette of Knisley's own head, as she says, “Blue cheese!” The visuals add a depth and shape to the idea that would be different, if not less powerful, if the idea were communicated solely through words.
Whether she’s being stalked by unscrupulous baby mail, harassed by sexists at train stations, meeting roller derby heroes, working from a complicated breakup to an unexpected next step, or trying to tell the difference between being awkward and being in an awkward situation, Knisley takes the wounds and worries that most of us would conceal, and puts them in technicolor on the internet.