By Lucy Knisley
“2011 was a year of travel! Through coincidence, work, and luck, I was offered opportunities to take trips. I took as many as possible. Recovering from heartbreak, I was determined to spend my travels having adventures and being a free agent.”
That’s Lucy Knisley on page 1 of this travelogue that starts with a comic festival in Norway and follows this young artist on a whirlwind adventure around Europe, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris and more. On the surface, it’s a sweet, lightweight tale, epitomised by the cover where Knisley, case in hand, strides forth, but behind that there’s more than a glimpse of Knisley’s (quite understandable) insecurities about travelling, just 2 months after relocating to New York where she’s still finding her feet, especially when she’s still struggling to cope with a relationship gone wrong. And all through it’s detailed by Knisley is a loose, yet confident style, her experience of journaling refined and honed until she can capture both experiences and emotion in a couple of panels:
Isn’t that fab? you get ever bit of the pre-trip jitters along with Knisley and every bit of the excitement as well. Simple cartooning, clean lines, unhurried, simple panel structure, all of it adds to the travelogue experience.
All to easy to simply write-off something as light as Knisley’s style as ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, because yes, it can be cute, and yes, it can be adorable at times. But that’s just the surface. Underneath that, there’s a fascinating author willing to show perhaps more of herself than is really healthy. Or perhaps that’s my closed-in English sensibilities talking?
Knisley’s travel is both enriched and complicated by romance, leaving behind her ex John in New York and meeting up with possible new beau Henrik in a stop-off in Stockholm. Trouble is she’s still not really over John (she wants children, he doesn’t, they parted amicably, they’re still friends, it’s painfully obvious she still loves him) and she only met Henrik recently at a fancy dress party in New York and has arranged, spur of the moment, one kiss later, to meet him on his home ground. Oh the passion and excitement of a holiday romance!
However, before the kissing starts, before a whirlwind tour of Europe to see honeymooning friends in Berlin, old friends in Paris, her mother in her French holiday home, even a spur of the moment detour to Angoulême, there’s a comic convention in Norway to get through, the reason for the trip and the financier of her grande adventure abroad.
An uncomfortable but eager to experience Knisley meets the locals but finds herself feeling shut out, getting over the distancing effect of being a foreigner in a foreign land so well, isolated, the world rushing past, jabbering away in a language she doesn’t understand. It’s an enjoyable trip, but there’s always that sense that the 20-something Knisley isn’t handling it as well as her 19-year old self did when she went travelling around Europe with a friend on no plan and no money.
Thus Knisley finds herself stymied by doubts and insecurities, partly about the travel, partly about herself, continually questioning things, questioning herself, understandable but infuriating to herself and to us, as by now we’ve taken this troubled traveller to heart. This means you worry with her and for her when the holiday thing/fling with Henrik in Stockholm turns into a shared journey to Berlin, things getting super-serious way too quickly as these oh so intense holiday things tend to.
The cleverness here is how swiftly Knisley communicates everything, whether it’s the listlessness of a 20-something, or the fish out of water foreign traveller surrounded by non-English speaking locals, or the immediacy of a convenient and super-romantic hoiday romance, or the complications of falling too quickly and too hard for said holiday romance. So much delivered so swiftly, so easily, Knisley’s chronicles always steering clear of both the sickeningly saccharin sweet and the angst-ridden. It nestles quite naturally in between, as light and as serious, as sad and as funny as real life often is.
A big part of the success of Age of License comes from Knisley’s lovely cartooning, a history of making these journals coming good here, her style light yet clear, so easy on the eye, whether it’s the confident solid lines of her black and white diaries or the full colour watercolour wash pages that serve as pleasant intermissions throughout.
She manages to sum up her style way better than I ever could in a moment on stage at Raptus, the Norweigan Comics Festival during her headline talk on graphic travelogues:
“A big part of why I love journaling is that sometimes it’s good to work without a real plan.
It can loosen you up, free you of inhibitions, force you to integrate your work into life’s chaos.
I’ve been working on a planned, scripted graphic novel for three years. It’s been hard going.
But when I set out to record an experience, I’m so inspired and swept up in it, the pages flow quickly with little difficulty, even if it’s not refined.”
Poor Lucy, one gets the distinct impression she’s ever so aware of the irony here… if only she could apply her journaling process to her life, things would be so less anxious and insecure. But that’s the point really, the big problem with life, for Knisley and for us… it’s never that easy, it’s always overly complicated, it’s the acceptance that life is complex, troublesome, difficult that counts, then one can move on. She begins to realise this at the conclusion of her journey, after meeting her friends, her mother, her Swedish lover once more for one last tryst in Paris. It all ties into the title, this mysterious Age of License.
It’s complicated, it might be a French phrase, one of those perfect French phrases to capture so much in so few words, it’s meaning one of permission to be young, to experiment, to fail without question, to do whatever you wish before it’s time to settle. It might be. Or it might be something made up along the way by a fellow traveller (perhaps even by Knisley herself, who knows). But the origin is immaterial, as it encapsulates and defines Knisley’s experience so well, her thinking about her life, what she thinks she’s meant to be doing, what others may think. In the end this ‘L’age licence’ is a stage that can last for however long you wish it to. Knisley’s travels allow her to see this, and seeing this, her travels may well have allowed her to move on, to enjoy her life on her own terms.
Speaking of which, her next travelogue, Displacement, will be published in early 2015.