Emi Lenox’s EmiTown will win your heart with the power of whimsical doodles and cat armies. Needless to say, it is not your ordinary autobiographical comic, and Lenox is not your ordinary cartoonist. Many writers would be content to tell funny anecdotes, chronicle individual episodes in their lives, and tell linear stories, but Lenox has instead crafted a “sketch diary.” Each day, she draws a few doodles about how she’s feeling, fun or embarrassing things that happened to her, rent worries, grocery lists, and, yes, love — in an adorably off-kilter style. The diary is also a sort of testing ground for new drawing styles, metaphors, and alter egos, leading to an engrossing portrait of the artist-in-progress.
Lenox’s daily comics, which seem a bit thin as individual stories, instead build patterns, invite us into Emi’s life, and, taken together, present the strange world of “EmiTown,” where the optimistic white-heart and pessimistic black-heart Emi battle for control of her self-esteem, where coffee addiction becomes an increasingly manic state of mind, and where we get to know a funny, sensitive, and damn good cartoonist.
In this one-year cycle of comics (May of 2009 to April of 2010), Emi Lenox, age 26 and an intern at Top Shelf Comix, introduces the reader to her life in Portland, Oregon, and takes us through her workdays, weekends, drinking escapades, and her woes and joys in love (hinted at obliquely through army-cat metaphors and the recurring adventures of Emi’s alter ego, Ocean Girl). In her foreword, Lenox writes that the comic was initially just for herself; as a result, her writing can feel insular, or like an extended inside joke that the reader isn’t familiar with, but over time, we begin to understand Lenox better.
EmiTown is uncommon in the genre of autobiographical comics in that it tells Lenox’s story in drips and drabs, and that Lenox gives as much focus to her triumphs as her failures. Occasionally obscure but never dull, she hints at certain events while devoting considerable attention to the minutiae of life. Each daily comic really gives a sense of the ups and downs of each moment. On one day in July, she writes that her phone and iPod are broken, and she fears she might get replaced at work, followed by a smiling picture with the caption, “Do you ever have one of those days where you’re in the best mood for no reason? That’s today…it rules.”
Her writing is positive in a way that feels special and eminently readable, an impression aided by her exaggerated and anime-like Emi caricatures. On the same page, in the heart-on-her-sleeve army captain, Emi (usually associated with allusions to her love life) leads her cat soldiers into war, saying, “You only disappoint the ones who don’t believe. The war is not over, boys!!!” Love is a recurring theme, but relationship woes can’t keep Emi down; a month later, her breakup with her boyfriend is shown through her alter ego, where she ends Ocean Girl’s kiss-off to Octozoid hilariously with, “PS: Iron Man thinks you’re a douche bag.”
Lenox keeps the writing and art fresh by swinging through and trying out a variety of styles — artistic, cartoonish, always dramatic and dynamic — even going as far as experimentation with new pens or colors. Silly and sweet, changing and, dare I say, improving with each new comic/day, EmiTown feels like a work in progress, somewhat like the life of the twenty-something that it follows. It’s a fun place to spend some time and a rewarding journey through the life of a struggling and growing artist.