Comics Time: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

PhotobucketThe Diary of a Teenage Girl
Phoebe Gloeckner, writer/artist
Frog, Ltd., 2002
312 pages
$22.95
Buy it from Random House
Buy it from Amazon.com

Originally posted at The Savage Critics on April 27, 2009.

Heartbreak and rage: that’s what I feel when I read this book. It’s the story of one Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl growing up in ’70s San Francisco, doing so in large part by having sex with her alcoholic mother’s adult boyfriend and, as time goes by, through various other increasingly drug-fueled sexual encounters. There are a couple of tricks to the book.

The first is that “Minnie Goetze” is Phoebe Gloeckner. Gloeckner doesn’t so much deny that the book is autobiographical as question the validity of the very notion of autobiography, but I mean, that’s a photo of teenage Phoebe Gloeckner on the cover, what can I say. Does it matter, more than in just a lurid/tabloid way? I think it does a bit, in that you can then see the book not just as a novelistic chronicle of a precocious teenager’s troubled adolescence but as a product of that adolescence, and of the subsequent lived experience of its author. It also goes a long way toward explaining how perfectly Gloeckner is so able to capture teenagedom’s unique combination of acute self-awareness and total cluelessness, its passion for physical pleasure and mental/emotional inability to process that pleasure’s ramifications: Presumably, a lot of this is lifted from an actual diary of an actual teenage girl.

The second trick is that the book is a hybrid, “An Account in Words and Pictures” as the subtitle puts it. The bulk of the book is prose, a series of entries from the titular diary. That material is the voice of 15-year-old Minnie, pure and simple. Though she frequently addresses an imaginary audience in those entries, they really have an audience of one, Minnie herself, and they’re where you get her unfiltered in-the-moment understanding of what is going on in her life. Then there are doodles and full-fledged, underground-style comics created by 15-year-old Minnie (actually 15-year-old Phoebe) interspersed throughout, revealing how Minnie is processing her experiences into art, just like any artist would. (At 15 she could already draw the pants off a lot of underground cartoonists, by the way).

Next there are illustrations by the grown-up Gloeckner (we never have a sense of the presence of a grown-up “Minnie”), sometimes presented as spot illos, other times receiving a full Victorian-style page with a caption beneath it. Here is where the current, adult author inserts herself, crafting psychologically subjective images of whatever is going in the narrative. Sometimes they’re just impeccably drawn portraits of the characters (“Ricky Ricky Ricky Wasserman, that exquisitely handsome boy”) or doodles of the minutiae and marginalia of Minnie’s life and mental environment (“the image of the dinosaur that is travelling through space right now”). Other times they’re stylized for effect, highlighting the venality and ridiculousness of Minnie’s situation with satirical savagery. A favorite weapon in Gloeckner’s artistic arsenal is to exaggerate the size of Minnie and her teenage friends’ heads in proportion to their body, or exaggerating the size and fleshiness of Monroe, Minnie’s adult lover, in proportion to Minnie–emphasizing the fact that for all her intelligence and sexual experience, Minnie is a child, often with a child’s way of relating to the world. (It’s easy to understand the implication of her near-constant crying before and after liaisons with Monroe, or while there’s just as much of a thematic connection between her sexual and pharmacological voraciousness with her sweet-tooth as there is with the alcoholism and drug use of her mother and Monroe himself.)

Finally there are the comics, which is why I’m talking about this book on this site to begin with. This, again, is adult Gloeckner expressing herself, but this time with the dispassionate yet brutally condemnatory eye of reportage–a Joe Sacco of Polk Street, right down to the formidable chops. (Gloeckner worked as a medical illustrator, which helps explain images like these–”exceptionally unsafe for work,” as the site warns.) Using a couple of simple grid templates and relying on few illustrative tricks except exceptional craft, the comic sequences generally focus not on the truly disturbing moments in her life, the statutory rape and the heroin–for that, see Gloeckner’s first book, the collection A Child’s Life–nor on the girly teenage fun stuff that pops up in the illustrations and prose with just as much frequency as the sordid material. Rather they depict the run-of-the-mill not-right-ness of her everyday life. A mother who parties with a lawyer they’ve nicknamed “Michael Cocaine” in front of Minnie and her sister, though he’d never do so in front of his own kids. A married man Minnie’s friend Kimmie babysits for, getting them high and driving to a hotel to have sex with them. Various men, from family friends to upperclassmen, making comments about Minnie that are just this side of uncomfortable and inappropriate. Minnie’s mischievous antics around Monroe, Monroe’s dismissiveness and emotional unavailability and predation toward Minnie. There’s a bravura, wordless sequence where Monroe takes Minnie and Kimmie to the beach, and as we and Minnie watch, Monroe seduces her friend. Another knockout where Minnie and the girl she falls in love with, Tabatha, smoke a joint that Tabatha then tells Minnie was laced with angel dust, the neat grid of the comic giving way with a page-turn to a midnight-black splash page peppered with psychedelic non sequitur images (the dinosaur travelling through space makes a return appearance), evoking the mystery and terror of chemically blowing a mind that isn’t nearly finished growing on its own.

It’s not easy material, that’s for sure. But it’s warm and detail-driven and just so, so smart, even at its most potentially sensationalistic. And it’s rich, extraordinarily so. The main storyline is devastating, no doubt–this time around reading the book, I found myself getting physically nauseated when Minnie’s diary falls into the wrong hands, the same way I felt when I had a similar experience as a teenager; meanwhile my anger and disgust for Monroe and Minnie’s neglectful (or outwardly abusive, depending on how charitable you feel like being) mother were almost physical as well, as was my delight in reaching the book’s final illustration/caption combo (you’ll enjoy it when you get there, too). But you can just as easily spend a read-through focusing on, say, the contrasting qualities of the illustrated material like I did above. Or the development of Chuck and Pascal, the two characters who genuinely appear to have Minnie’s best interests at heart, and their fates as we learn whether or not that is in fact the case. Or the ’70s countercultural touchstones: David Bowie, Donna Summer, Pink Floyd, EST, Rocky Horror, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders. Or how fearlessly Gloeckner addresses teenage sexuality and sex in general. The raw pleasure, the hunger for it…

Oh God, you know, you can really feel it when they come inside of you.

I know Monroe would miss me if I wasn’t around. I know he’d think about me then because he doens’t know anyone else like me. I think of him all the time.

And that hot breath…dreamy.

And when they’re just as hard as rocks and they’re stabbing you and you could just scream you can hardly breathe it is so 78vghjftgj46z35uzsfyubyuib78cx5742q24xr68v680b790[79[v689pc568ozx3463455yw46uc46759v689pvyuiuilv679

…and the barely suppressed disgust at the physicality of it…

The sexual nature of Kimmie Minter is a viscous cervical mucus that always welcomes mating. She was slimy and wet even though she always says she doesn’t like Monroe and she says Marcus’ dick is much bigger and it’s too bad I didn’t see it.

…and the emotional trauma it can cause when people who should know better have made it so that’s all you see yourself as good for…

I hate men. I hate their sexuality unless they are gay or asexual or somehow different from the men I’ve known. I hate men but I fuck them hard hard hard and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much. At least when they’re fucking me, they’re not looking at me. At least I can close my eyes and just hate them. It’s so difficult to explain.

blockquote>The Diary of a Teenage Girl is, in that sense, the diary of a lot more than one teenage girl. It’s the intimate mind-life of a segment of society populated by men, so very very very many men throughout the book, who sense pain and hunger like that radiating off a 15-year-old and swoop in like moths around a flame, like vultures around a carcass. And for every extraordinarily strong and brilliant and talented Minnie who manages to emerge from the swarm intact enough to recount her experiences decades later, how many don’t? It’s a comic from the edge of the abyss, and I love it.

PS: In case you missed the link, here’s a lengthy interview I conducted with Gloeckner back in 2003. It’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done.