My problem with diary comics, I think, may be that I read them in the same way I do other comics, and then end up feeling guilty when I judge the central character — i.e., the person creating the actual comics — for decisions they’ve made or things they say. It’s not even as if they know that I’m thinking such things, but nevertheless, I find myself feeling bad for being so unsympathetic to such talented people.
The book that brought this guilt to the forefront of my mind is Gabrielle Bell’s The Voyeurs, which I read over the weekend. A collection of various autobiographical material, it was the section made up of diary strips from her website that left me most frustrated and unsatisfied as a reader; I got mad at Bell “the character” even as I enjoyed Bell the creator portraying everything that was maddening to me, and then tied myself up in knots about whether or not this was all intentional on Bell’s part — creating a persona or narrative that doesn’t tell the truth, but instead opts for a more coherent, relatable narrative that may cast her in a worse light than she deserves, as it were. Is she really that unaware of the contradictions and coincidences in her choices? Can anyone who mines her own life for such strong results lack the self-awareness that would take? And so on.
It’s a wonderful book, however, something that feels compelling due to its lack of artifice and embrace of mundanity even in the most extraordinary circumstances; reading about Bell doing things that have no connection to my life — press tours for movies in Japan, or making appearances at literary events, for example — but being able to recognize and empathize with her discomfort in those circumstances is a surprisingly rewarding experience, translating the alien into the familiar and creating something universal about the entire experience, even as you find yourself surprised and frustrated by what’s actually happening in her stories. The lack of authorial voice beyond reportage — the commentary that Eddie Campbell brings to his Alec stories for example — is something that ends up being weirdly inviting, removing a level for the reader to peel away as they read.
(That said, the part of the book I probably enjoyed the most is the part that is most clearly fictional; Bell’s failed attempt to adapt Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto, which gains most of its humor from its complete and obvious disconnect with reality, including appearances from Malcolm Gladwell and Oprah Winfrey.)
And yet, that lack of commentary left me adrift as I read, in a sense. Was this actually what Gabrielle Bell was like? I thought, as I read. Am I getting upset at a real person, or a fictional conceit? One feels alright, the other … Well, the other seems ungrateful, considering said real person was the person responsible for what I was reading in the first place. Clearly, I need to work on my guilt issues before going back for seconds.