I just finished reading a book called “French Milk” by Lucy Knisley. It’s a diary comic about her six week stay in Paris, France in 2006 during the winter in which she turns 22. For those of you unfamiliar with diary comics they are just what you’d think they are. A diary done in comic book/strip form. There aren’t very many of them but I’ve always found the form to be interesting.

A diary comic is different than an autobiographical comic (another rather small genre). An autobiographical comic takes parts of the cartoonist’s life and tells a story out of them. The story may be small and contain trivial events but there is a definite attempt at some sort of normal storytelling structure. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Autobiographical comics ask the question, “How do I make my life into a story?”.

A diary comic has less structure, much like an actual diary. It accounts the events of the day and records details that are not important to any overall story structure. It records the things of everyday life that quickly fade into memory. Where and what you had to eat, what the weather was like, what things you bought, what people you met, and any stray feelings that might go through you. Knisley added the overall story structure of going to Paris to “French Milk” but that wasn’t really the point of the book.

I’ve always found the point of diary comics to be about making something out of nothing. I see that on two levels. First, making a diary comic is about trying to make the cartoonist’s life into something. Her life may not be interesting and she may not even be trying to present it as interesting but in writing it down and making a comic out of it she is trying to make it into something. Not even necessarily something specific (well, besides a comic) but just something. Diary comics ask the question, “How do I make my life into something?”.

The second level of something out of nothing is a little more literal. Comics are very hard to make and to make them in your spare time, as most diary comic cartoonists do, is even harder. It’s hard to come up with something to make a comic about so a diary comic cartoonist comes to the conclusion that she’ll make a comic about her life. That’s how it can start. A cartoonist just wants to make a comic. To make something out of nothing, without thinking up some dumb commercial story that she won’t be able to sell commercially anyway. She says, “I’ll make it about me and my life. That will get me started”. And get her started it does. But diary comics are deceptively hard to do.

The writing of a diary comic isn’t particularly tough. I think that’s why cartoonists choose to do diary comics. It seems easy at first. Examine your life for little incidents and try to make something out of them. Usually the writing is straight forward and descriptive. There are no characters, plots, and motivations to invent. No vast amount of time doing character design. It all seems straight forward and generally is.

The deceptively hard to do part comes with the drawing. Drawing comics is always more time consuming and, I’d argue, harder than writing them. But diary comics are harder to draw for a different reason. They are harder to draw because they are not going to be an artist’s best drawing. The point of a diary comic is to do them and not to make them beautiful.

An cartoonist making a diary comic is not going to labor over a page in her spare time for two weeks like she might with some fictional story because the nature of writing about her everyday life is that it keeps on going. An artist has to accept that she has to get some drawing done about the day and move on to the next day. And the next. And the next. There is no time to get the drawing perfect. They just have to be gotten done. That’s tough to do. Most artists would prefer to present their very best, prettiest drawing which diary comics will never be. They’re a compromise from line one.

All comics done on a deadline are a compromise to some extent but diary comics are a little different. They are mostly done without pay and the subject is the everyday mundane. That tends to make the drawing utilitarian and it usually takes spontaneity to make it all work. It’s that spontaneity balanced with wanting your best drawing that’s so hard. You have to suppress the desire to redraw until it’s perfect because getting it done is far more important. It’s about making something out of nothing.

Most of “French Milk” is drawn in this off the cuff diary comic kind of way but on occasion Knisley shows us a few sketches she made during any given day and those sketches are generally nicer than the rest of her drawing in this book. That’s the nature of diary comics. They will never be the artist’s best drawing. That’s tough to accept. One of the reasons I’ve never made a diary comic.

Anyway, I did like “French Milk”. It was a nice attempt to make something out of nothing.