A good collection of daily diary and autobiographical comics not only offers up revealing glimpses into day-to-day life, but also places quotidian events in context of past experiences, present and future hopes, dreams, and fears. Properly balanced, the collection will organically coalesce into an immersive, cohesive whole. Otherwise, it can end up a string of trivialities—or, paraphrasing critic Robert Clough—a work that reveals little more than “on Wednesday I had oatmeal for breakfast.”
Summer Pierre, a cartoonist and illustrator based in upstate New York, gets the balance just right and her Paper Pencil Life series is honest and entertaining, presenting her sometimes bemused, sometimes frazzled, but always warm-hearted worldview with homespun grace and charm.
Pierre opens this fifth issue with the five-page “Dappled Light,” one of the best things I’ve seen from her yet. In it, she describes her latest habit of re-watching old ’50s and ’60s sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver on YouTube while drawing, fascinated by their depictions of airlessly perfect, homogenous white-bread middle-class family life. Though these programs are at best harmless escapist entertainment and at worst examples of what Pauline Kael called “sugarcoated lies for the masses,” Pierre zeroes in on the effect watching them had on her impressionable youth. “It was a place filled with dappled light,” she says. “Uncluttered by secrets or rage. […] if I could have climbed into that world, I would have.” The depiction of young Pierre magically using the television to crawl into the Leave it to Beaver household, escaping to its fantasy world from the verbal abuse from her father, is poignant and all-too relatable (for me, The Brady Bunch was always the ideal fantasy sitcom home life, mostly because of the Brady’s groovy split-level ranch-style house). Pierre’s search for simple peace and happiness in a complicated, often painful world, reverberates through the rest of the stories. “Dappled Light” is the perfect opener.
Pierre’s comics and drawings have a distinct look and feel. Her method of placing caption text in white ink against black backgrounds works well to anchor her heavily crosshatched, nostalgic looking drawings, keeping them visually fluid. In addition to the comics in this issue, Pierre includes several lovely interstitial full-page drawings, often of women or girls from other eras (explicitly drawn from old photos), and studies of buildings and street scenes.
The lasting impact of the past continues to thread in and out of Pierre’s work. In entries like “From Angelface to Puddin’” and “Some of My Favorite Toys,” old objects trigger fond memories; in other stories like “Radio Radio” and “Thurber Country,” Pierre pays tribute to the inspiration she gets from radio announcers and DJs, and artist-heroes like James Thurber. Pierre regularly takes stock of the people, places and things in her life that spark and feed her creative impulses. I particularly like the two episodes here about spending one-on-one time with her young son, Gus. In “On the Town” the pair kill some time in what passes for the downtown of their small Hudson Valley village while waiting to get their car repaired, and in “The Scavenger Hunt” she describes their day trip to New York’s Museum of Natural History. Gus comes across as a sweet-natured kid, more than amenable to doing drawing exercises with his mom on field trips–which I assume would make any cartoonist parent happy.
As in “Dappled Light,” Pierre uses magical realism and flights of fancy elsewhere to good effect. “The Morning After” is about dealing with the results of the November 2016 elections. Pierre and her husband wake up to the traumatic news of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Later, Pierre imagines Clinton joining her on a walk, helping Pierre make sense of it all. Clinton quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “It isn’t enough to talk… one must believe… and it isn’t enough to believe… one must work.” In “16 Hours”, another strip from that fateful November, Pierre rises above her angst and spends a good, productive day with creative friends, but in the evening goes online for just a few moments—which effectively destroys her newfound sense of energy and hope and reduces her to a flaming skeleton (we’ve all been there). Although the tone of her work is overall positive, Pierre doesn’t shy away from pain, loneliness, and turmoil. It is implicit in her work that by confronting and, hopefully, overcoming the bad stuff the sweet stuff is made all the sweeter.
Pierre captures the moments and days of her life with honesty, guilelessness and humor–and above all, a sense of appreciation. She celebrates the little things in life, enabling them to add up to something greater. More than ever, the little things count for so much.