An Age of License: A Travelogue

Lucy Knisley is one of my favorite comic artists. I haven’t read a book of hers I didn’t like, which means each new title comes with greater expectations. An Age of License is the first of two travel memoirs by her coming from Fantagraphics, and I’m pleased that it’s as good as I hoped.

It’s set in 2011, when Lucy went to a Norwegian comic festival. Along the way, she went to France to visit her mother, who was vacationing there, and to Stockholm to connect with a man she’d met at a party in New York City. They’d only had a couple of days together then, but Lucy feels there could be more, and she wants to find out.

Unlike previous, earlier books (such as French Milk), in this one, Lucy is more straightforward in presenting context for her thoughts. Instead of simply showing where she went and what she did (or ate) there, she adds pages on why she values travel, for example, the possibilities of change, and how she’s feeling about life in general. Her explanation at a presentation of how valuable journal comics are was particularly insightful, when she says, “Sometimes it’s good to work without a real plan. It can loosen you up, free you of inhibitions, force you to integrate your work into life’s chaos…. when I set out to record an experience, I’m so inspired and swept up in it, the pages flow quickly with little difficulty, even if it’s not refined.”

An Age of License: A Travelogue cover

The mostly black-and-white book is punctuated with occasional color illustrations with more detail about her apartment or friends or sights she’s seen on her journey. Her linework is skilled, and although at first glance her panel-less pages appear to be populated with doodles, they’re examples of how it takes more experience and awareness to draw less. Her sense of movement is graceful and animated, and her lettering is amazing, easy to read and full of personality.

I found the early section on attending a comic show in a foreign country interesting for what’s similar to our festivals and what’s different. I appreciate the way Lucy makes time to see some of the country, providing more examples of what it might be like to visit (although most of us won’t have dinner with Howard Chaykin or Mike Collins).

After that third of the book comes the trip to meet Henrik, the Swedish boy. She spends time with him in his hometown, then takes him with her to visit friends in Berlin. She moves on to France on her own, where a friend who works for a winery shows her a lot about that field.

Now, the section that focused on romance had two major qualms for me. The first is that it raised a lot of nostalgia, now that I’m an old married woman (15 years!), and my days of deeply felt, passionate but short-lived relationships are a long while ago. That’s ok. I love comics that show you what it’s like to have an experience far removed from your own, and the deeper it goes, the more skill it displays. This part of the book took me out of myself for a bit.

The second illustrates the risks of graphic memoir, as the hot term is now, or autobiographical comics, as we used to call them. Lucy still posts gorgeous webcomics about moments in her life, and one of her most recent, beautiful ones is this, about her engagement. So I knew going in that whatever romance was promised, it wasn’t going to be a lasting one, which perhaps influenced how I read about it. Then again, that makes it a lovely parallel to travel, where intense experiences are known to have an end date, when you return home (either physically or spiritually).

Like the best travelogues, An Age of License shows you what it would be like to visit a place while reminding you that you can never have the same experience. If you liked her last book, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, you should definitely check this out — there are some food mentions you’ll appreciate, but where Relish focused on past events, An Age of License gives more insight into the person Lucy Knisley is now.

Throughout the book, she ponders the freedom she has to do what she does: her privilege, the ability to travel, her youth, the chance to experiment, making art as a job, whether or not she can achieve wisdom. She’s wondering what it means to be an adult, as symbolized by the discussion that pops up every so often about possibly wanting kids, sometime in the unspecified future. This book is more thought-provoking than her other works, demonstrating growth and a challenge to readers to think about these things in their own lives.

An Age of License is due out in August through the direct market and can be ordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code JUN14 1213. There are preview pages at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided an advance review copy.)


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