For the longest time, autobiographical comics have never been a genre of the medium I have actively sought out to read. That doesn’t mean I don't see the inherent artistic merits of the genre, but for whatever reason finding out the personal aspects of certain artists has never held much appeal for me. However my literary prejudices tend to get stripped away when I’ve been awake for nearly forty-eight hours in a strange city while stumbling into a comic store and inevitably buying a ton of books. One of those books just happened to be the first volume of EmiTown, and within forty pages whatever prejudices I had went right out the window. I just ended up being completely and utterly charmed by EmiTown and its de-facto mayor Emi Lenox. Originally starting life as an online sketch diary, each page of EmiTown examines a day of Lenox’s life and, in particular, her first real forays into working as a comics professional. Over the course of the two books we follow Lenox as she experiences the ups and downs of working a day job, learning about being a comics professional, and just generally living her life in Portland, Oregon*.
I’m writing about both volumes one and two of EmiTown because I think its incredibly important that you see where she started compared to where she ended up, partly from a personal standpoint but mostly from an artistic standpoint. When the first book starts, Lenox’s style is incredibly sketchy (it is a SKETCH diary so I suppose it would have to) but as the book progresses you see her style improve in incredibly dynamic ways. For example Lenox eventually abandons a traditional panel structure in these strips for a style more reminiscent of collage. And as you see her progress in her improving artistic style you get the added bonus of finding how she improved by learning people like the folks at Periscope Studio and a plethora of other artists along with her own determination to better herself. The best part of seeing her art mature though comes from about halfway through the first book where in instead of a regular rundown of her day she busts out a full page portrait of such skill that it shows the full range of her artistic strength which she was only hinting at earlier on. The juxtaposition of these illustrations alongside her regular diary entries and the individual strengths of each is just jaw dropping
I’ll admit the stories within the books don’t exactly tread new ground as far as autobiographical comics go, and the writing can sometimes come off as a bit clunky, but Lenox presents herself as an incredibly likable protagonist with hopes and fears that everyone can relate to. This goes hand in hand with the repeating themes of self-doubt, both on a personal and professional level, and ultimately how to overcome it. It's not an uncommon emotional arc in autobiographical works, but Lenox comes at it in such a way that it uses those fears in relation to her artwork to great effect with a sense of humor that keeps the whole thing light even when things start to look dark.
For those of you who may be more acquainted with the autobiographical genre, and therefore expect certain things, it should be pointed out that Lenox never reveals as much as say Chester Brown or a Robert Crumb. Although she wears her heart on her sleeve she still plays some things close to the vest. This is especially apparent when chronicling the end of a relationship where she’s more introspective towards the relationship and the various emotional stages a couple can go through before breaking up, sometimes for reasons that leave both parties dissatisfied, than just out and out bashing the guy. I’m sure she could have, and even thought of going further with those pages, but by showing restraint she ultimately begins delving into more emotional honesty which brings a very unique voice to her storytelling and humor from places other artists would have never thought to mine.
Ultimately its that’s humor at the intersection of her writing and her art that make these books and the whole concept of EmiTown a worthwhile read. You never really notice how much time has passed, both while reading and in terms of the timeline of books themselves. Her emotive cartooning shows Lenox’s enthusiasm for the medium. She doesn’t reveal every last detail of her life but she reveals just enough about herself where she becomes and actual human being. At the end of the day, the autobiographical genre of comics are supposed to give you a glimpse into the life of an artist and ultimately what drives them, and with EmiTown you most definitely get that. Because of that I'm now seriously thinking about dipping my toe into other autobiographical works, and if this book can do that for someone as stubborn as me just imagine what these can do for the rest of you if you give them a shot.
*Note: Do you think Portland will ever decide to become an independent city state that’s main export is just awesome comics? Because the sheer amount of comics professional living in Portland borders on parody so I think they could pull it off if they tried.
TL;DR: Emitown Vols 1 & 2 eschew the traditional autobiographical format but do so in a way that is utterly charming and allows you to see the constant improvement of a young artist worth watching.
EmiTown is written and illustrated by Emi Lenox. Two volumes of her collected pages have been published through Image Comics. Ask for them at your local comic book shop, or, support Spandexless by buying them through our Amazon web store.