As we all know, being a teenager can really suck. In addition to managing traumatic hormonal and body changes, teens have to balance growing adult responsibilities with their ongoing dependence on parents, teachers, and other authority figures. (Teens crave perfect freedom and autonomy until they don’t.) And then there’s their imperishable belief – fueled by pop culture – in the power of True Love to make everything better, which we all know is a recipe for disillusionment. It’s a fraught existence.
Esther Pearl Watson’s comic strip Unlovable, which has been running for over a decade in Bust magazine, is based on an actual diary Watson found, apropos, in a gas station bathroom. It follows the travails of Tammy Pierce, an overweight, generally unlovely high school sophomore in a small Texas town, circa 1988-1989. Though Watson illustrates Tammy’s life in excruciating, embarrassing detail to often-hilarious effect, her clear affection and empathy for her subject shines through. She universalizes Tammy’s experiences, taking us back to relive our own tortured, giddy, deadly serious, horny, boring, and horribly self-conscious teenage years. Tammy is like the heroine of a John Hughes flick, minus the forced happy ending or the perfect Prince Charming (Tammy’s prince calls her “Puke Face,” among other things).
This third volume of Unlovable opens at the start of summer vacation. Tammy’s adventures are presented in vignettes, touching on both the big events and quotidian details of teenaged life. In between laying out in the front yard for 40-minute sessions and visits to Collin Creek Mall, Tammy goes to summer school (bummer!), and hangs out with her skanky, big-haired friend Kim, whose boyfriend Erick Tammy eternally pines after (and he’s by no means her only heartthrob). Tammy is the third wheel of the group, but she remains undaunted: “Sometimes Erick tries to get me to do degrading things. But I would still go out with him.” Despite the pain of her unrequited crush, Tammy manages to have some fun times with Kim and Erick, especially making mischief, like when Erick shaving-cream-bombs a car full of screeching girls, or when they toilet-paper the yard of mean girl Courtney Brown on the night of her big party (to which they pointedly weren’t invited).
A typical diary entry called “Wishing for a Wish” captures perfectly the longing and banality of what writer Cintra Wilson called teenage “Love’s Baby Soft-scented dreams.” Tammy writes: “I hope I find love soon. I need LOVE and the truth is that I love LOVE so much! I want my true love to write me or perhaps to call me if he cannot find a pencil, paper, or a stamp. Who ever is out there for me, let him THINK really hard about FINDING Love. Just don’t let him fall in Love with anyone ELSE.” Aside from Erick, the other major object of Tammy’s (unreturned) affections is the fabulously named Tim Starry. He’s mostly pals with Tammy’s kid brother and nemesis Willis, but he hangs out with Tammy occasionally, usually to practice his wrestling moves on her. Once, he gets her in a “combination sleeper hold and head lock” and Tammy thinks/hopes he may have either “kissed or sniffed” her hair while doing so. The incident pleasantly haunts Tammy’s dreams—but, naturally, comes to nothing.
In addition to her oblivious crush objects, frenemies at school, and creepy younger brother, Tammy also has a continuous cash problem—mainly, she hasn’t got any. When her moneymaking schemes continually fail to produce much lucre and her mother gets tired of her pilfering money from her purse, Tammy is pushed into getting a dish-washing job at Hog’s Family Diner, which she quits after just three hours (“It smelled like hot wet barf,” she writes). It’s pretty clear that she’s not going to be world-beater.
Watson’s inky, jagged, primitivist line is perfect for rendering the everyday grotesque gaucherie of Tammy’s life, with her big poodle hair and acid-washed jeans. Just how closely the material is based on the actual diary is anyone’s guess, but Watson clearly plays up the awkward in her drawings for laughs, as in a sequence where Tammy — in her quest to make money without actually having to really do much work — gives an older woman a makeover. The results are a misshapen mess (Watson regularly renders the results of female primping and the application of makeup as gruesomely unattractive).
The production of all three Unlovable volumes is brilliant: under six inches across, they mimic the size of an actual diary, and the sparkles applied to the covers add to the teen girl vibe. Not so much recording Tammy as channeling her, Watson takes all the awkward, sweaty angst of Tammy’s life and makes it sing. As summer winds down and fall 1989 classes loom, Tammy writes, “I can’t explain why I’m ready for school to start. I’m heading into new directions, a new future! I just heard in my head: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK. I know it will be.” She has the eternal optimism of youth going for her, if not much else. It’s quite endearing. I can’t help wondering if the real Tammy ever found out about these books and if she did, what she thinks of them. And whatever happened to her, anyway? Is she still in touch with Kim and Erick? What about Tim Starry? We’ll probably never know. These books capture the suburban teen girl experience vividly, with great humor and insight, etched in a nostalgic 1980s Pepto-Bismol-pink.