The second of two recent self-published minis from the sublime mind and pencil (and pen, and brush, and —) of Angela Chen that we’ve had the pleasure to read in recent days (the first being The Review, the cover of which is shown near the bottom of this review and which I sincerely hope you, dear reader, have already availed yourself of the opportunity to order), Can’t Breathe Without Air may sound on paper like it treads pretty firmly in “been there, done that” territory — it is, after all, a 32-page ‘zine composed entirely of diary comics — but in the right hands, even the most over-worked of premises can still be interesting, no matter how absent the “fresh” and the “new” inherently are from the equation.
Besides — I still think diary comics serve an important function for cartoonists. There’s utility in just keeping yourself busy, honing your craft, working for the sake of working. And Chen’s diary comics definitely work.
Which is in no way me saying that they’re not fun — sure, Chen tackles the usual heavy topics in life, particularly those that loom large in the lives of those with a more introverted personal inclination — but there’s a playfulness of tone here, and a willingness to formally experiment within the self-imposed confines of her four-panels-per-strip format. Her illustrations range from the rapid-fire to the nearly-woodcut, her stylistic choices evoking everyone from Debbie Drechsler to Julie Doucet to Penny Moran Van Horn to — any random kid with a piece of notebook paper and a ballpoint, I suppose, and her judicious interjection of color from time to time turns out to “up” the evocative quotient in just the right strips. Again, Chen deserves accolades every bit as much for her smart choices as she does for her sheer talent.
Now, I realize that for those of you burned out on diary comics, no amount of superlatives I heap upon this collection is likely to change your mind, but it’s my solemn duty to at least try to convince you that Chen’s book is worth a shot. Not since Laura Lannes’ By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage has the diary “sub-genre” (if you will) felt imbued with a newfound sense of creativity, even urgency, like this. There’s a real sense that Chen isn’t just doing a rote series of exercises here, but communicating something of import to both herself and, crucially, readers.
And you know what? She is. The beating heart at the — errrmmm — beating heart of these strips is undeniable, their engaging approach to self-examination both refreshing and entirely welcome. This is serious stuff that knows precisely when to not take itself too seriously, and that’s a lesson any number of cartoonists would do well to pay attention to and, in a pinch, maybe even emulate.
With each release, Angela Chen establishes herself as a creative force to be reckoned with and a unique and distinct voice in the cartooning wilderness. In a year or two she’s going to be the person everyone else is talking about. You can say you’re a prescient genius if you do the smart thing and start following her work now.
Can’t Breathe Without Air is available for $5 from Austin English’s Domino Books at http://dominobooks.org/cantbreathe.html
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