Opening Between Gears served as an immediate time capsule for me. It’s been longer than I like to think since I went away to school, but even though I didn’t (for example) watch Twilight my first night back, I could identify with so many of the events — moving back into dorms, catching up with friends, experimenting with new looks, making your own decisions, trying to determine your future. When she gets sick, with no one around to take care of her, I remembered being in that situation and felt so sorry for her. (Later, she shows us family holiday time, reminding us that she’s not totally alone.)
One thing I couldn’t personally relate to was Natalie’s participation in a sorority, but seeing those activities gave me a new perspective on something I always looked at with caution and concern. She presents the positive elements well, demonstrating the sisterhood she got out of it, even though sometimes it’s another drain on her time or another responsibility to juggle.
One of the lessons I found is not to get so caught up in the minutia of someone else’s life (worrying about who a particular reference is, for example) that you miss the big picture. (Kind of weird, though, to get that from 300 pages of that person’s day-to-day existence.) The references she makes were important to her at the time, even if I don’t share all of her touchpoints in TV or reading or songs. The pop culture references change, but the patterns stay the same. There’s an early panel where she, as a senior, watches the incoming freshmen and thinks back on how she felt when she was younger and similarly clueless. It doesn’t take age to feel old, just experience.
But I didn’t spend the whole time feeling older; I learned from Natalie as well. Every so often, she’ll drop a nugget of wisdom, such as “no one ever got better by hiding from the things they weren’t good at.” Those are scattered in amongst her daily activities, but there’s also the rare reflection page, such as November 12.
I very much admire Natalie’s discipline, in keeping this visual journal in such dedicated fashion (even though, at times, she went back and filled in pages, so it wasn’t always daily), and more, her talent, in making what can be a static format so varied. Her strong lines and deep tones make for attractive, easy-to-read pages with expressive figures, putting us right there with her in all the key events of this formative year.
I am very jealous she got to take a “History of Superheroes” class. I mean, yeah, I taught that in college once, but it was only one lecture in a comparative media course. A whole class? Wow. That theme, of actually learning comics during college, kept popping up and pleasantly surprising me. It demonstrated to me how much difference there was between my and her school experiences in a more subtle way than the other references. Back then, it wasn’t until grad school that I could be open about reading and studying comics. But of course, I wasn’t an artist. Making the work is very different than just talking about it.
After the winter holidays, her life changes in some unexpected (to me) ways, as events revolve much more around making comics — for her thesis and for upcoming conventions. Perhaps that’s part of being a craftsperson I wasn’t aware of, that work comes early and takes the place of interviewing. Instead of you speaking, the art you make does it for you. I could still relate to her feelings of uncertainty, of wanting a settled future but it not being there yet. Still, she’s accomplishing a lot already.
Overall, this is the story of someone who’s on the cusp of starting “real life”, but reading (especially the last seasonal section of spring) shows us how much she’s already there. Natalie makes some big decisions, but as she points out, the difficultly comes when you have to choose between two good things. I can see this book becoming a perennial, an excellent gift for young people in similar situations (especially aspiring artists) to see how someone else coped.
The print collection has a bonus section in which Natalie shows us her preparation for this project, with some draft pages, as well as discussing her artistic process. She also includes a song list, additional short autobio comics, and some notes on what happened after she graduated. Note: My copy had a misprint, where November 5 was replaced by a duplicate October 26, so I have linked the correct one here. Also, May 11 was replaced by a duplicate May 21.