Lucy Knisley on Her Upcoming Fantagraphics Travelogues ‘An Age of License’ and ‘Displacement’ [Interview]
In mid-September of 2011, cartoonist Lucy Knisley and her friend Jane, who worked in the wine business in France, were at a tasting after-party when their host observed they both had unconventional careers. He put this down to the fact that they were in their “age of license,” that time in your life when you’re young and free enough to experiment.
Knisley took the phrase for the title of her next book, one of the two travelogues that Fantagraphics will be publishing. An Age of License, due this fall, chronicles a 2011 trip to attend a Norwegian comics convention, which Knisley uses to visit friends and family in Europe, and spend an extremely intense time with Henrik, a Swedish boy she had just met in New York. The second book, Displacement, is scheduled for summer of next year, and tells the story of a 2012 cruise with her elderly grandparents.
Both trips took place between the time she had completed Relish, her acclaimed, three-years-in-the-making memoir about food and growing up, but before First Second had published it in 2013, which seemingly catapulted the young, not-yet-thirty artist into a whole new level of cartooning success than she had been able to achieve with her previous work, like the 2008 travelogue French Milk and her mini-comics and anthology contributions.
The two new travelogues obviously aren’t due in comics shops any time soon, but that doesn’t mean the announcement didn’t get a lot of folks excited, us included. We took the opportunity to talk to Knisley about the books, how they compare to her previously published work and what we can look forward to from them.
ComicsAlliance: The first of your two Fantagraphics books is set during 2011 and you said that you had created it that same year. That seems like a really strikingly quick turnaround for turning such a set of experiences into a completed work. Are you able to make them so quickly because you’re working on them while traveling?
Lucy Knisley: Yes, I made them in the moment—I want my travelogues to capture something about how I perceived an experience at the time of that experience, so I always try to get as much on paper as I can during the trip. I often don’t finish the books at the end of the experience, but I’ll usually at least have notes and sketches about what to depict on the pages.
I’ve been travelogueing for years now, and I’ve gotten the hang of challenging myself to work quickly and to try to draw a thread of connection between the experiences I’m trying to share.
CA: The second book, Displacement, isn’t due until next year. Is that work also completely completed? When did the events depicted in it occur?
LK: Age of License took place during September 2011 and Displacement was the following February, 2012, so I suppose Displacement was technically made the following year. It was a big year of travel for me. I cashed in a bunch of miles and took every travel job that came my way, just trying to take advantage of the fact that my big graphic novel, Relish, had just finished work, and I was single and untethered to home.
CA: Obviously Fantagraphics is a great partner for a cartoonist to work with, and you’ve said you’re excited to be working with the publisher and have admired it for a while, but given that Relish was published through First Second, I was wondering if there are anything about these particular books that, in your mind, make them more Fantagraphics books than First Second books?
LK: Relish, and my next book with First Second (New Kid, in the process) have both been heavily planned and scripted, with a great deal of revision and editing. Most of my work is autobiographical, but my work with First Second tends to be classified more as “memoir,” which tells stories in the context of later life.
Age of License and Displacement are travelogue, which are much more immediate and totally unscripted, but tell their own story in the moment of experiencing something life-changing. The difference between these two forms of autobiographical storytelling fascinates me—I’m so glad I get to do both.
First Second is a great publisher for memoir, because their books tend to tell stories with scripted beginnings and ends, and the books can be accessible to younger audiences, which fits well with Relish, as it concerns my younger years. Fantagraphics has always seemed like a place where the story can be more open-ended, more immediate and raw, and told for adult audiences. These travelogues are set squarely in that sot of goulash of your twenties, when adulthood is still a very oddly fitting garment, which would be hard to share with younger audiences.
CA: You just touched on this, and I imagine it’s a generalization that neither publisher might like given the exceptions to it, but First Second has a reputation for being geared toward YA readers, while Fantagrphics toward adult readers. Would you consider these books significantly more adult than Relish was?
LK: Yes. Both of these new books deal with conflicting elements of adulthood—freedom (Age of License) and responsibility (Displacement). While of course I think younger audiences deal with these aspects of life, these two books come at them from the perspective of being a young woman in my twenties, feeling my way through family, career and sex in a way you don’t really experience until you’re a bit older than most younger audiences.
CA: When you were and, I imagine, are traveling, are you actively pre-making comics about the experiences in your head as you’re having them? And do you ever worry that making comics out of such experiences keeps you from enjoying those experiences to the fullest, from being fully present during them, or is perhaps the opposite true, that it forces you to pay greater attention and be more receptive?
LK: I’ve been making travelogues for almost ten years now, so I’ve gotten a good system going. I work as much as possible to get things captured as I go, completely finishing some pages, and leaving others with a vague sketch and a few words to come back to later. When working on a travelogue trip, I try to never let making a travelogue hinder the actual experiences I’m trying to portray, so I take notes and photos when I’m on the go, and make time during the day (usually before or after meals or bed) to write or sketch.
It’s tough, especially when you’re not traveling alone, to carve out space in your head to create work from experiences, but I’ve gotten better with practice. It helps to travel alone, which I was doing for both of these trips (for the most part). The solitude allows time to think and draw or write while you’re riding a train or eating breakfast, that you can’t accomplish on a family trip.
Displacement was especially isolating, oddly enough, because I had to hide my distress at my grandparents’ frailty, my own horror at cruise ships, and my panic at the crowds from my grandparents, so I would go to my little windowless cabin and draw frantically for hours after a long day, just to calm myself down and straighten everything out in my head.
I worried, when I was younger, that doing this removed me from the moment of experience, but I’ve found that you learn to navigate this balance the same way you learn to be comfortable in social situations while still being aware of self—it’s another one of those things you feel around for in early adulthood.
CA: It sounds like both Age of License and Displacement are going to be similar to Relish in that they are about one thing on the surface—travel, rather than food—but use that thing as a gateway to discuss other, broader, less tangible subjects. Is that a fair assessment?
LK: Sure! It would get awfully boring if I told stories about my experiences that were just “I did this. Then this.” Stories, no matter who or what the subject is, are best in context. This, I think, is the distinction between autobiographical comics and “diary comics.”
Diary comics generally show a reader this everyday life—what you did, thought, ate or experience—without a broader context or thematic trait. Autobiographical comics depict personal stories in the context of what the experience meant in a broader context.
Travelogues can be both—diary and autobio—which is why I really only publish the ones that wind up being about more than just the experience itself. I’ve done plenty of travel pieces about Africa or Korea that were great trips, but not life-changing in a way that reaches beyond a fun adventure. Age of License and Displacement were both trips in which some alteration occurred for me—some weird totter towards adulthood that can be seen during the course of the trip.
CA: These books seem a lot more like French Milk than Relish. Do you think you’ve changed a great deal as a cartoonist, as an artist and as a story teller since making French Milk?
LK: Well, I hope so! It’s been almost 10 years since I made French Milk—My art and writing have developed, I think, but these new books are a definite reconnect with that French Milk style of storytelling. I’ve not stopped making travelogues since French Milk, but most of the ones I’ve done since are unpublished.
These two new books are sort of like sequels to French Milk—the same sort of story, about finding your place in the navigation of adult concepts (For French Milk, it was graduating college and facing the daunting prospect of a career in the arts). A lot of my work, in illustraiton and Relish, is much more slick and polished than French Milk, but I think with Age of License and Displacement, for sheer immediacy of getting the work on paper, and also due to allowing myself a quicker style in order to make the work on the go, you can see a lot more of the French Milk style come through.
CA: Where do you feel your career is right now as compared to where it was on the other side of Relish? Did your life or sense of where you are in the comics world or the world in general change as a result of the book’s release, reception and your promotion for it? The Lucy we meet in License, for example, is rather anxious about the work of being a comics artist, and whether she’s making the right decisions in her life.
LK: I was, as I often am, pleasantly surprised at the reception for Relish. I worried it would be dismissed as a frivolous tale of food and childhood, but I didn’t anticipate that food and childhood is something that everyone has in common.
It was a great book tour, and I was honored and amazed to meet so many readers who enjoyed my work. Cartoonists tend to work in a bubble, alone with their work, and it can be hard to remember that there are people out there who consume that work.
Both of these new books take place in the year before Relish was released, in between when I finished it and when it came out. There’s a lot of anxiety (for its release) and relief (for finishing it after three years of work) that probably comes through in these travelogues. It also explains what I was doing, sort of floating around the world, catching my breath for the big publication of Relish.
CA: French Milk was entirely black and white, while Relish was fully-colored. Age of License is mostly black and white with some color, and you said Displacement will be fully hand water-colored. How important is color to your work, do you think? Did Relish demand color in the way that, say, Age of License did not?
LK: For these books, I had a matter of weeks to capture and depict everything I wanted to include. For Relish, I had three years. Relish is a collection of stories relating to food about my coming of age, and I think color helps tell a visceral part of that story—whether it’s due to the presence of food (always important to me) or the fact that it’s a story about childhood, strong colors were an important part of the process for me.
Color in travelogue is a really nice addition—I have this little travel watercolor set with a reservoir water brush that allows me to paint on the go—but it’s more about a challenge to better depict what I want to show.
CA: In Age, there’s an interesting scene in which you and Henrik, or perhaps I should say Lucy and Herik, have a conversation about how comfortable he will be appearing in a travelogue comic. As someone who makes comics out of their real life experiences, I imagine you must face this sort of dilemma somewhat regularly—Who to include, how much to include, and so on. How do you wrestle with that? Is it different for everyone?
LK: I’m very lucky that most of the people in my life are very supportive and enthusiastic to be part of my comic world. That said, I’m usually careful about what I include. I try to never use comics as a weapon in a disagreement, because it’s impossible not to show argument as one-sided. I do my best to capture the smart and thoughtful things that people say, and I usually ask permission.
I was very clear that I was making this piece of work during that trip, and did my best to talk to Henrik about what I wanted to include before I drew it. That said, our relationship during that trip was passionate and intense, and that doesn’t always lend itself well to measured storytelling. I hope he’ll see that his appearances in the book are meant to honor and record the strong connection we shared. I try to be honest about how I depict myself, as well as others, so I don’t always come out smelling like a rose. If he’d like to make a story about it from his perspective, I hope I’d be big enough to be okay with everything he depicted.
CA: I feel a little weird even asking about the Henrik segment of the book, because it feels like it’s none of my business, but, at the same time, I as a reader just experience parts of that relationship (And, I have to confess, that final hug goodbye almost made me cry). Is the real Lucy still in contact with the real Henrik? Has he seen any version of the book yet? If not, are you concerned or worried about how he will receive it? The thank you to him at the end seems to have a hint of an apology to it as well.
LK: Er, not to give too much away, but it ended as many intense, long-distance relationships end; with long and painful letters. I have all good and grateful feelings for Henrik for what we shared, but I’m not certain he’s similarly sanguine about all of it.
For me, that trip was about freedom and independence, and our love affair was part of that. Intensity like that can’t easily sustain over months and several continents of distance. I’m hoping that, if he reads this book, he remembers how lovely it all was, and not how sad it was that it ended.
CA: You’re only a few years away from your “age of license, ” that time in your life that the book is named after. Do you feel like you’re still in your age of license, or have you progressed to another age?
LK: I think a new age is dawning for me. It’s weird how that happens unexpectedly. I thought I’d be surfing the wave of independent, ridiculous youth for a while yet, but an old love and longtime friend can just show up one day on an infrequent visit and change a lot of expectations with the offer of a new age of cohabitation, legal partnership and planning for a Shared Future. But that’s another book in the works.
CA: In announcing the books, Fantagraphics compared your work to the HBO series Girls and called Age of License “the Eat, Pray, Love for the ‘social media’ generation.” Agree or disagree? And who plays Lucy Knisley in the film adaptation?
LK: Ask an author what they think of a comparison if you wanna see them cringe, but I’ve learned to live with it.
Lena Dunham is not only my age, but of my origin—we’re both from the same neighborhood in Manhattan, and, from what I’ve been told, we went to the same preschool, so I suppose the comparison doesn’t come out of nowhere! I think she’s smart and interesting, and tells true-ringing stories about that tottering early adulthood along the same lines as my work attempts to do.
I’m similarly impressed with the eloquence and smarts of Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s sad that both Eat, Pray, Love and Girls are sometimes relegated to this kind of “women’s media” that is so easily dismissed, when they both say incredibly interesting things about being in the modern world.
So it depends on who’s making the comparison—Fantagraphics, I’m sure, meant that our works share traits of honesty and realism that can create a connection to readers or viewers through shared experience and empathy, especially women, travelers and people who have ever been young.