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Little moments add up in Lucy Knisley's 'An Age of License'

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It took me a while to figure out why I liked Lucy Knisley's An Age of License so much better than her last book, Relish, but eventually it came to me: Relish is a memoir, An Age of License is a diary comic.

Knisley was in her mid- to late 20s when she made Relish, and that is a bit young to be doing a memoir, even one that focuses on childhood. There's a certain fullness of perspective that comes with time and distance, and while Relish was technically a very accomplished book, it felt a bit thin.

An Age of License, on the other hand, has an immediacy to it that makes it much more compelling. It's more diary than memoir, a travelogue comic about Knisley's trip through Europe in 2011, when she was a guest at the Raptus Comic Fest in Norway. Her plan is to travel alone, but not entirely: A few weeks before she leaves, she meets a handsome Swedish guy, Henrik, and they hit it off. So she plans to head off to Stockholm after the comics fest, spend some time with Henrik, and then push on to Berlin and visit friends and family in France.

In Relish, Knisley was writing stories that were complete, that had a beginning, an end, and a point. They were polished and smooth, perhaps too much so. An Age of License is more immediate and sometimes feels like a sketchbook (although she worked on it quite a bit after her return). Much of the book consists of single-page diary comics that stand well on their own but also build into a larger narrative. She also drops in pages of stand-alone sketches, often of interesting details of the places she is visiting. And she's honest about what she's doing: When she gets to Stockholm, and things heat up with Henrik, she admits that drawing wasn't the first thing on her mind, so that section is a bit spotty. She also doesn't mind depicting times when things didn't go well, which makes for a fuller and more interesting story. The book is still polished, in terms of her art, but leaving in these rough edges serves it well.

That said, An Age of License is not just a series of dashed-off drawings. Knisley composes each page carefully, leading the eye through a series of little moments that add up to a real story. Each chapter begins with a drawing of her traveling to that place—alone on a plane, with Henrik on a plane, driving a rental car with her mother and her mother's friends dozing in the back—which helps to frame the story and keep the reader oriented. And on each stop along the way she gives us a mix of interesting touristy things—visits to the Hospices de Beaune, a behind-the-scenes visit to a vineyard—as well as her own reflections on where she is in her life and chats with her family and friends, who are interesting without being annoyingly fabulous. And of course, there are plenty of drawings of the different foods she encounters on her travels.

It is difficult to write unsparingly about a recent romantic relationship, especially when the other one is likely to be able to read the comic. Knisley does it anyway, and she paints an affectionate portrait of Henrik, making it clear what she saw in him while leaving the readers with no doubts as to why the relationship couldn't last.

Anyone who follows Knisley's webcomic, Stop Paying Attention, already knew that, because we know what the next chapter will be. Spoiler alert: She's engaged to someone else, and she's working on a graphic novel about her upcoming wedding. With that book, we reach the Lucy Knisley singularity, where the time between something happening to Lucy Knisley and Lucy Knisley writing a book about it shrinks to zero and flips over into the future (although the wedding will be over by the time she finishes the book). Who knows what the consequences of this will be? Knisley herself is aware of the pitfalls and paradoxes of making comics about her own life—she made a webcomic about it!—so my guess is that she will simply continue to mature as an artist and writer. An Age of License is already evidence of that.

There's a preview of the book at the Fantagraphics site.

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