Knisley, Lucy. Radiator Days.

Rhinebeck, NY: Epigraph Publishing, 2008.

Since discovering French Milk, her first graphic work, several years ago, I’ve become a solid fan of Lucy Knisley (pronounced “Nighsley,” silent “K”). She doesn’t do superheroes or abstract philosophy but concentrates almost entirely on retelling the events of her own life and experiences and what she’s learned from them. She’s had the sort of adventures any of us might have had, but she thinks a lot harder about what they mean.

This volume, her second, is rather different. After high school (four schools in four years — the subject of an upcoming book), she went back to Chicago to the Art Institute for her BFA. She meant to study painting but ended up doing comics and these mostly short visual essays tell the story of her widely varied educational experiences, from “hourly journal” assignments to quirky ruminations on her friends and classmates, and also on the city itself. It’s an interesting read because she was just beginning to figure things out and so her style changes almost from one page to the next.

The longest piece, “Bookshop: Three Days to Closing,” is also possibly the best — and not autobiographical. (I don’t think.) Other highlights include “The Drama King,” about the only fight she was ever in — against a boy. (And she won, sort of.) Immediately after the Art Institute, she went off to do a graduate degree at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, a very small and isolated school, which led to cabin fever, which led to an expedition to the nearest outlet mall. “Un-Learning Curve” takes you through that adventure and has some good points to make. And then there’s the unnamed story about being stuck in an elevator with a nice boy and an impossible older sister on the way to have wedding photos made. Lovely stuff. And I especially like “Boys’ Dorm,” about a reverse panty raid in a co-ed private school.

This probably isn’t the best book to start with, but if you’re already familiar with Lucy’s award-winning work, it’s a great way to find out where she came from and how she got there. And it will bring back memories for anyone who has slogged through art school.


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