Eighth Grade is in theaters now. Get your tickets here!
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is arriving to a massive chorus of praise. Its star, Elsie Fisher (voice of Agnes in Despicable Me and its first sequel), has been heralded for her breakout turn as Kayla - a kid navigating the early days of her young adulthood while simultaneously grappling with loneliness, body image issues, a variety of fraught peer relationships, and the omnipresent, still poorly understood force of social media. Burnham, a well-regarded comic, musician and actor who got his start during the early days of YouTube, has been awarded laurels for crafting an empathetic portrait of a teenager that balances comedy with existential terror. Across the board, folks who’ve loved Eighth Grade have described its central strength as its honesty. Fisher, Burnham and the cast and crew they worked with set out to make a film about a teenage girl and a life change she’s about to face. Their goal was not a grand spectacle, a gauzy fantasy or a parade of misery, but an exploration of a person. That’s no mean feat to accomplish in a work of art, and based on the critical response thus far, Fisher, Burnham and company have succeeded admirably. With their success comes a moment of collective focus on coming-of-age stories. And with that focus comes an opportunity to shine a light on other artists who’ve done great work with the form. In this case? Comic artist and writer Lucy Knisley, whose autobiographical graphic novels are amongst the finest comics being published today.
To date, Knisley has published five autobiographies. Three are travelogues – French Milk, An Age of License and Displacement and two are built on Knisley’s relationship to a major part of contemporary Western culture – Relish (food) and Something New (marriage). A sixth, Kid Gloves, chronicling Knisley and her husband having a child, is due out in February 2019.
As an artist, Knisley’s work is built on clean, elegant lines and a masterful balance between realistic and cartoon imagery. Consider these pages from Relish chapter 8, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Cheese:”
Knisley draws cheese with care, laying out the many ways different cheeses can vary – rind, texture and age – through visual specificity. With well-placed lines, she makes each type of cheese she highlights distinct. And her cheeses don’t just look like separate varieties, they look and act like real food. This provides her readers with a reference for both the cheese categorization and production processes she’s describing in her writing and for any styles of cheese they may be moved to seek out after finishing Relish.
While Knisley renders cheese realistically, she moves towards cartooning in other parts of the pages. The animals whose milk is used to make cheese are drawn as icons, their shapes focused on invoking pre-existing images Knisley’s reader will have of say, a cow and a buffalo, then on recreating the exact image of either animal. This also provides space for character and humor, like the bird camping out on the buffalo’s head or the wild-eyed expression of the whatsit at the end of the animal bar (personally, I’m going with it being a warthog).
In between her cartoon animals and realistic cheeses are Knisley’s people. Across her body of work, she’s drawn a wide variety of bodies in all stages of life. Her expressions, both bold and subtle, are wonderful – take a look at the following panel (from Relish) and page (from Displacement):
One of the major pleasures of reading a Lucy Knisley comic is her structural playfulness. Each of her works contains experiments and surprises. Relish is both an exploration of Knisley’s lifelong passion for food and how that has connected her to the people she loves and a cookbook. Something New is as much a history and critique of marriage and weddings as social constructs as it is the story of Knisley and her husband John’s own relationship and eventual marriage. Displacement, which recounts a cruise on which Knisley joined her extremely elderly paternal grandparents, is intercut with excerpts from her grandfather’s memoirs of his service in World War II. Knisley’s comics each read differently, but simultaneously maintain a shared style and mission statement.
In terms of the pure craft of sequential art, Knisley’s text and her drawings complement each other, working in tandem to tell the whole of her current tale. Beyond her deft handling of sequential art’s most vital and precarious balance, as a writer, and more specifically as an autobiographer, Knisley is simply excellent. She’s clear-eyed, honest and she balances tone marvelously. She’s benefitted from unearned privileges conveyed on her by an unequal, often unjust society. She’s struggled, both personally and professionally. She’s loved and been loved in return. That love has been complicated, even fraught. It’s no easy task to examine your own life, to acknowledge and work to see beyond privilege, to chronicle who you have been and who you are becoming. Knisley does so with aplomb, and frequently while being all sorts of funny. Her humor, both visual and textual, runs the gamut from erudite observation – Something New has a recurring set of cutaways to the weirder parts of weddings in practice and history – to delightful imagery – see the panel above detailing the horrors of attempting croissants and a pragmatic solution to said horrors. I have laughed out loud at some of her jokes, and I’ve nodded with others that are meant to be nodded with.
To read Lucy Knisley’s comics is to accept an invitation into part of her world. It’s an opportunity to learn and share in what moves her, and how she has lived her life so far. Put simply, it’s a chance to experience some of the finest work being done in the medium.