I’m going to start this review by telling you something about myself: I don’t much care for autobiographical comics, he’ll I really don’t like anything that is too true to life. By its very nature storytelling is an act that allows us to go outside the confines of our real world and into someplace much, much more exciting, so why should we ever spend that time telling tales of the minute and mundane? Certainly stories should reflect our reality and have a message that is relevant to it, but I hate to see their content constricted by ’authenticity’ whatever it is that means. Between Gears, the cleverly titled college comic collage – collecting as it does daily works from the authors final year at university – spins its story out of severely standard, everyday events – such as cooking, cleaning and caring for your hair – but manages to lend them a magic that Miyazaki would be proud of ( and actually attempted to make in Arrietty).
What struck me most when reading this book were the times that Tally ( or Natalie Nourigat to strangers like you and me) turned herself on to something new or unexpected and utterly enjoyed it; I guess these scenes spoke to me because here I was, loving being told a life story. The majority of the praise for this could of course go to Natalie, because the book is entirely of her construction, but I think that an equal amount should be shared with circumstance; for it just so happens that I myself am currently “in between gears” as it were. So these tertiary tales spoke to me directly in some ways, but in others there was also a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy to them; for my college years were never like this, thanks both to the differing lifestyles of our countries and my own Dougie-Howser-esque freakitude. So while the story is solidly non-fiction I found a way to also make it work in a more fulfilling manner. But that’s enough about me ( I think this Autobiographical bug is catching)…
Like all good non-fiction the impact of the story is so dependent on the strength of the character at its core; so though her story isn’t the most interesting or inspirational out there – she wasn’t once in a cool band, crippling accident, civil rights movement or holocaust – it doesn’t matter, because what really sells this book is just how much of a joy Natalie herself is to be around while these events go down. When the book isn’t making you feel as if you are her friend – and thus able to call her Tally – it’s making you wish that you were. Her irreverence, imperfection, taste, humor and unabating optimism are all made obvious within the opening pages and are only fleshed out further from there; she isn’t the most well-defined character in comics history, but the deepest characters are always the hardest to give a single definition too. That there are two misprinted pages that made it into the book – alongside some other typos – would normally be nothing but a bad thing, but here I almost enjoyed discovering them because I could instantly imagine Natalie’s reaction to them; the regret, the gnawing frustration and the ultimate inaction.
Another added bonus for me personally is the way that the book gives a good look inside the indie comics industry; charting Natalie’s many Con appearances and coffee shop comic club meetings alongside her college classes. It is also interesting to get an inside glance at the pop-culture consumption of an similarly obsessed individual; for me having her television, book, movie and music intake splayed out in front of me is much like tea leaves for a tarot reader or stomach contents for a coroner. You can tell a lot about a person from their programming, plus having so many references to shows and stories that I too know of made the story feel more authentic and the conversations more personal. The most important art to the book though is obviously that of Natalie herself and as someone who also wants to be a creator – though through language instead of line work – having an insight into Her process and specifically her problems, was both entertaining, enlightening and dare I say it a little inspirational. I only wish that the story was intercut with examples of what she was working on, though I guess this way I now have to go and buy those too!
Natalie’s style here though is terrific, her art is direct and yet loosely hand-drawn, which suits the subject, but it also has a veneer of obtuseness hanging over it. Sure the content of the comic is simple, but at times Natalie attempts to hide certain elements through ambiguity or more bluntly behind literal censorship bars and this is a little bit disconcerting. In a direct inverse of the usual self-aggrandizing style, which is to over dramatize the truth, here it is the lack of narrative structure and exposition in the work that holds back the authenticity; it is almost as if it is too real to feel real. Fortunately though when it works this frantic nature makes it feel as if this is a friend telling you about their day. Short, staccato punches shot through a self-involved prism are not the best way to tell a story, sure, but this style only serves to make the experience seem all the more intimate; this is how Natalie thinks not how she tells a story, we’re not getting the external performance piece but the thoughts as they flicker through her head.
Thus the “one page equals one day” format is a fascinating one but not something that I could ever imagine following live; for me it’s obvious that Between Gears works best in book form. The pages are too brief to satisfy on their own but together their ADD-addled panels stack to form something more substantial. It’s obvious that this is a very personal piece of work for Natalie, one that she has written much more for herself than for any outside reader – to her each and every panel must play before her eyes like a movie, recalling to mind an entire event; that aforementioned ambiguity seemingly a mystery – but that doesn’t also deny us strangers the possibility of entering ourselves into her story and enjoying its insights for ourselves. There’s nothing that people like better than themselves and so an autobiographical comic that allows them to hear a story similar to their own is perfect, but even if that weren’t the case the almost certain crush they would develop on Tally would have them tearing through the book at a breakneck pace regardless. I’d say that she’s well and truly found her speed.