There’s nothing revolutionary, or even especially innovative, going on with Elise Dietrich’s recent (as of this November 2019 writing) self-published mini Key West Diary — and, frankly, that’s one of the best things about it.
Over the years, autobio comics have undergone something of an evolution into memoir on the one hand, fist-person journalism/reportage on the other, but along the way something important’s been lost : something more personal, more isolated, more immediate. Which isn’t me bad-mouthing memoir or comics journalism in the least — quite the contrary, both are exciting “substrata” of the overall comic arts “foundation” — but the slice-of-life sans additional imperative, whether it comes in the form of a vignette or a longer-form story, sometimes feels as if it would be getting lost in the shuffle if it weren’t for the likes of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, Jenny Zervakis, Keiler Roberts, et. al. keeping the torch burning — and it pleases me greatly to be able to add Dietich’s name to that list of luminaries.
The set-up in this one is delightfully simple and infinitely complex in the way that only real life can be : Dietrich and her daughter trek from their home in New Hampshire down to the Florida Keys so mom can catch up with some old college friends, thus ushering in a delicate balance between youthful reminiscences against — or maybe that should be in conjunction with — present-day parental responsibilities and worries about the future as our protagonist/author struggles with her father’s advancing dementia. What her life was, what is is now, and what might be next, then, are all present and accounted for.
The diary format lends itself well to a quick, “one-take” interpretation of events, and as a result the tone of the proceedings here is refreshingly frank and without pretense — partially because, thank heavens, there simply isn’t the time to add it in — and the same is true of the art : Dietrich has an amazingly acute eye for what matters most in an image, and builds her illustrations around that, whether those subjects of import be large or small, and her pure cartooning “chops” are so finely-honed that she’s able to tease out just the right amount of whatever emotional response she’s going for in any given panel while also serving up a nice variety of people, places, and things to catch your attention as a reader while keeping hers as an artist, her love for drawing bodies and the natural world in particular coming through loud and clear. It’s such a pleasure to read a comic by somebody who you just know had a great time making it, and there’s no mistaking this one as a prime example of precisely that. Having settled on the tried-and-true of “just get it on the page in the most honest way you know how,” Dietrich goes a step further by putting in the extra effort (there’s some deceptively – and explicitly – detailed rendering happening herein) to make the whole enterprise worth both her time and ours.
Trains of thought come and go throughout in this book, but the overall tone remains reassuringly constant, a kind of gratitude mixed with nostalgia mixed with trepidation that you won’t find any word for in the dictionary, but will find expressed with entirely unforced fluidity here. Dietrich isn’t laboring to demonstrate for us how the various facets of her life are inextricably connected, she’s just going about the business of relating them and trusting — quite correctly, as it turns out — that the proof they are obviously so is in the pudding. That means she trusts her intuition, sure — but it also means she trusts her readership, and if that’s not enough to put a smile on your face and leave you looking forward to seeing more work from her, well, I don’t know what else it’s gonna take.
Honestly, this is just a gem of a comic, the kind that puts a smile on your face even when the subject matters gets a little tough at times, and it’s a polished and sparkling one thanks to Dietrich’s superb narrative and visual choices. She doesn’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel or anything. but she doesn’t need to : in her more-than-capable hands, the “ordinary” stands revealed as what we all, in our heart of hearts, know it is, to wit : anything but. Ditto for this comic.
Key West Diary is available for $8.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro (the site I also poached a couple of the images reproduced in this review from) at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/key-west-diary-by-elise-dietrich/
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