An Age of License by Lucy Knisley: Food for Thought

Despite the improvisatory stream-of-comicness, lack of paneled styling, and curious traveler’s heart, An Age of License is a tethered book. Lucy Knisley makes this obvious from the half-title, shackling her floating body to the cursive “e” at the end of “License” like a ball-and-chain. We are warned, with this premonition, to recognize the limits of freedom, even when faced with a remarkable opportunity to momentarily cast aside our “normal” lives. Things that go up, must come down.

An Age of License: A Travelogue is the story of going up, but coming down never leaves its mind. For every idyllic moment author Lucy Knisley spends on Norway’s decadent cuisine or her Nordic lover’s chiseled face, there’s a sobering soliloquy on careers, marriage, or privilege. These doses of reality work greatly to the book’s advantage, lending weight–even profundity–to an already vivid and amusing tale of flights, sights, and romance. A trifle, this ain’t.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics

Plus, the cover is REALLY fun to touch. It’s got, like, three textures. (An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics)

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Tomboy by Liz Prince: Deconstructing the Girl

A quick disclaimer, before I begin. I do not know Liz Prince, but this blog owes its existence to her. I can give you several very good reasons why, but the biggest one is also the most obvious: Prince’s many minicomics were my gateway into the wonderful world of zines. I have, of course, my best friend and cartoonist (and YHF silent partner) Izzy to thank for pointing me in Prince’s direction, but let’s be real for a second. Prince did all the heavy lifting.

I Swallowed The Key To My Heart, a trilogy of sexual misadventure comics (the objectively best genre of art), were the first comic zines I ever read. I was lucky enough to pick up all three issues at once at Lorem Ipsum Books in Inman Square, Cambridge. Maybe it was because we, as I discovered, lived probably a couple dozen furlongs from each other in the Boston semi-suburbs, or maybe it was the way Prince developed entire ecosystems of friendship and romance with so few, clean pencil strokes, but reading those comics gave me the delicious chills.  She made the creation of great, honest art seem effortless, powerful, and universal. As a writer and artist, Liz Prince wasn’t just up my alley; she kicked me out of the alley and into the sprawling, gorgeous city itself.

To put it in terms a young Liz Prince, fifth grade Tomboy and Aladdin fanatic, would understand, I was seeing a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. Reading Tomboy, Prince’s new graphic memoir, gave me magic carpet feelings all over again. In her debut feature-length book, Prince documents her journey through the world of well-meaning grandmothers, cruel primary schoolers, and Santa Fe’s offbeat elite in a battle for acceptance as an outsider in a severely gendered world. Each page captures the poignancy and dry humor of her shorter works, while the compelling central theme of gender identity keeps the engine from losing steam.

Wait, no, that last sentence undersold it.

Tomboy cover, (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy’s exploration of growing up outside the gender binary is textbook awesome. And I mean “textbook” literally! People ought to start assigning this in schools. Tomboy tackles society’s demand for girls to be “girly” in clear and digestible terms, making an expansive political statement that lingers and grows in power the more I think about it. In one particularly elegant metaphor, Prince condenses the innocent violence of children, who absorbed their knowledge and notions from parents, media, whathaveyou, into barfing gingerbread-man sponges. The visual is goofy yet menacing, like a tiny dog baring its teeth, and after retracing it ten times, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

The politics of Tomboy are relatable enough to fit anyone who has had to struggle with stigmas and stereotypes, but the heart of the memoir lies in the little details of Prince’s personal struggle. Really, when it comes to resonating moments, Tomboy is beyond rich. In a comedic highlight, Caleb, “sixth grade dreamboat” and object of Prince’s desire, demonstrates his handsomeness by slicking his hair back with a wedge of snow. The very next page takes that high point even higher, as young Prince mimics his action, transitioning from amazement to affected suaveness to lovestruck embarrassment in four panels and four sublimely simple facial expressions. On first read, it’s an adorable moment. On the second pass, the nuance blushes, the perfect distillation of tweenage infatuation at its inception.

These details add up to a revealing origin story (the cathartic finale feels like Peter Parker putting on his red spandex for the first time) that functions whether you are familiar with Prince’s oeuvre or not. There are still so many more individual moments I want to explore in depth, but to avoid rambling myself into a coma, I will have to save those discussions for later posts. Just know this: it all adds up to an incredible whole, one of the most subtly self-assured, honest, touching, hilarious, occasionally rage-inducing (without spoiling too much, I definitely yelled “WHAT THE FUCK PHYLLIS” at least twice, in a public space) debuts this year. Tomboy is a transformative experience for boys, girls, and everyone-in-betweens-and-outsides of all ages.

 

(Ask your bookstore to stock Tomboy if they don’t have it, or pick it up at Liz’s website Liz Prince Power, which has a bunch of her old booklets and zines too. In case you can’t tell, I’m a fan of those as well)