Diary comics can be a tricky thing to review simply because they’re at sort of a “middle stage” in their overall development these days — originally designed purely as an eyes-only exercise to keep cartoonists “sharp” either between, or alongside, “real”projects intended for public consumption, at some point a handful of artists, most notably Gabrielle Bell, began to take them and mold them into something like cohesive overall narratives, and in that sense it’s probably fair to say that they just might represent the next logical evolution of autobiographical comics as a whole.
And yet, by and large, more often than not a cartoonist’s raw sketchbook diary pages are usually just posted as premiums for their Patreon subscribers (see Bell again, as well as Tillie Walden, and who-knows-who-else by now) or collected as print-on-demand jobs (see Gabby Schulz’ recent A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations). To that end, then, cohesive narrative “through-lines” are either pretty damn oblique or absent altogether; off-the-wall drawing styles and story ideas are quickly adopted and just as quickly disposed of; pesky details that would provide some context to certain pages/incidents (who is this person talking? Where did they come from? Why should I care about them?) are frequently omitted because the person the pages are made for — the cartoonist him of herself — already knows all that shit.
All of which makes Brian Canini’s new 406-page collection, The Big Year, something of an outlier in that the diary pages they present (covering January 2015 to March 2016) definitely seem to have been constructed with an “end user” (shit, remember when we just said reader or audience?) in mind, and possibly (probably?) even to be collected in book form — and now, thanks to Kickstarter funding and Drunken Cat Comics, they have been.
Okay, yeah, it does sound like something of a vanity project, sure, and maybe it is, but conceptually it still works — it takes a good 30 pages or so to really ease into the idea of what Canini’s doing given that it’s not exactly the norm for what we’re used to from diary comics, but you come to realize before too long that even the “one-off” pages fit fairly seamlessly into the trajectory of what’s happening here, and that the period in question is a very “big year” indeed given that Canini moves to the Columbus,Ohio area (where approximately 25% of all “up and coming” cartoonists seem to hail from) to be with his lady-love, marries her, and they have a baby. That’s about as busy as life gets right there.
Certainly the characters (Canini, fiancee/wife Amy, elder daughter Kayla, new baby Isabella/”Izzy”) are engaging — probably because they’re not “characters” at all, but actual flesh and blood human beings — but given that any diary exercise is going to be a first-person narrative by default, you already know you’re going to get to know one of them a lot better than all the others. That being said, Canini isn’t stingy about sharing his “screen time” in the least, it’s just a point of fact that we only “get inside” his own head — which is actually a sunnier and rosier place than one might expect, given all that’s going on.
Maybe it says more about us than it does Canini, but getting married stressed both my wife and I the fuck out, and we tied the knot in front of a goddamn judge with two people in attendance. Brian and Amy’s plans are far more complex (not to mention expensive), and while things get frazzled to be sure, pretty much every strip ends with a smile (or close to it), and this amazingly peppy attitude carries right on over into pregnancy, as well, which the anti-natalist in me simply can’t conceive of as being anything other than a train-wreck of fraught and frayed nerves.
Again, not that it isn’t shown to be such here at times, but really only in limited doses. By and large the outlook of The Big Year is almost relentlessly sunny, and while I don’t know how much of that is Canini trying to make himself and his family look good to readers and how much is completely genuine, it probably doesn’t even matter all that much given that it all reads well, flows naturally, and feels like a seamless relaying of a natural enough progression of events. And besides, to quote Todd Solondz’ Storytelling screenplay, “once you write it down, it all becomes fiction.”
A little bit more jarring are the varying art styles Canini plays around with — although, again, that’s to be expected from a cartoonist’s journal. Canini’s styles are all economic but evocative, and all belie a pretty heavy Jon Lewis influence, with the back half (-ish) of the book settling into a look very reminiscent of True Swamp volume two. I like it all, true, but I’d be lying if I said it looked terribly original.
Then again, hey, what is these days? It’s probably not even fair to expect anything overly polished — or even necessarily all that thought-through — from pages that the author spent maybe 15-20 minutes per day working on. Am I judging this by a “loose” and less rigorous critical standard than I would a more deliberate, “polished” work, then? Sure I am — but the point is that it works for what is is, which is something that stakes out its own ground somewhere halfway between a “real” comic and sketchbook made for an audience of one.
At the end of the day, then, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed The Big Year. For a book that’s got a more upbeat “POV” than a) most of what I read, not to mention b) what I have myself, it’s only occasionally cloying and more often than not genuinely heartwarming. Besides, once in awhile even a confirmed cynic like myself needs to be exposed to how “normal” people think and feel, and Canini, to his credit, manages to pinpoint and accentuate the joys and quiet triumphs of everyday life in a manner that feels (mostly) unforced and maybe even a bit charming. Taken as a whole it might be a little bit rough around the edges and a little bit less than completely forthcoming — but then, so are most of the stories that we tell others about our own lives.