Emanata: Draw What You Know

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Jesse Reklaw is probably best known for “Slow Wave,” the weekly strip he’s been drawing for 15 years, in which he adapts his readers’ dreams into comics (and has more recently been connecting those dreams into an odd kind of extended story). In mid-September 2008, as he prepared to head off on a tour to promote the Slow Wave collection The Night Of Your Life, he started a second strip: a daily four-panel diary cartoon that he resolved to draw every day for a year. A few months into it, he added a little diagram at the bottom of each page, mapping his mood, his energy level, his various kinds of chronic pain, and how many alcoholic or caffeinated drinks he consumed that day.

Reklaw did indeed complete the year’s worth of daily strips, incorporating a few format experiments–a five-day stretch of “24-hour diary comics” (with 24 tiny panels, one per hour), as well as a few weeks’ worth of “guest comics,” in which other cartoonists from the small-press scene used Reklaw’s format to examine what they’d been up to that day. The result was initially published as a six-issue minicomic, and now the whole thing’s been compiled as a self-published collection, Ten Thousand Things to Do (you can buy it through Reklaw’s site). It’s a splendid little chunk of a book, a collection of tiny, trivial autobiographical cartoons that are often very similar to one another but add up to something that’s surprisingly entertaining.

Mostly, it’s a detailed portrait of American bohemian life in the late ’00s–the day-to-day existence of an artist who’s just getting by on his art, playing in a couple of bands, hanging out with his many friends, traveling a little bit, and usually sleeping from early morning to early afternoon. It’ll be a priceless historical document a few decades from now, even though Reklaw’s thorough attention to quotidian details often means that not a lot happens on any given page. (One caption: “I decided to eat leftovers and sleep, but then we started watching The Matrix Reloaded, which was really long. Then I picked dead skin off my foot while Andrice played video games.”)

“Things happening” isn’t quite the point of TTTTD, though. In his introduction, Reklaw mentions that the strip was “a great way to keep my drawing muscle in shape”; it was also a way of observing what was going on in his life, however small, and turning it into art. And, as intensely low-key as most of the book is, it’s pretty hard to put down. For one thing, Reklaw’s drawing is consistently fun to look at–“Ten Thousand Things” is obviously dashed off a lot more quickly than “Slow Wave” or Reklaw’s other projects, but he manages to capture a sense of place and lighting as well as people’s appearances and expressions, even in these quick pen doodles. (It’s particularly fortunate for the book that he and his girlfriend own some cats; every time they turn up on panel, it’s a treat.)

Reklaw’s not the only cartoonist who keeps a daily diary for other people to read; the Samuel Pepys of comics is James Kochalka, who’s been drawing American Elf since 1998. But a lot of artists who’ve worked with the format, including Kochalka, tend to focus each strip on a single incident or interaction. TTTTD usually covers an entire day, hopping from one scene to another, and Reklaw often finds a way to include the most visually interesting thing that happened to him each day: digging up some grass, sledding with a dog, holding a “Mr. Mongoose” toy at a pet store, meeting “a duck-billed cousin of the magical Jeep who barfed up a power pill as a gift.” Wait, that last one’s a dream. As you might expect, when we do get a flash of the parts of Reklaw’s dream life that go into his own diary, it’s pretty spectacular: one night, his sleeping self gets into a fight on the street with George Bush, “but I willed it into a psychedelic cartoon morphing battle. Bush was sad.”

What’s most interesting about Ten Thousand Things to Do, though, is its broader project: Reklaw trying to figure out how his own mind works, and identify the patterns in his life by recording the incidents that make them up. He often draws himself in three-quarter view from behind: the viewer’s consciousness isn’t quite in his head, but following him closely. The specter haunting TTTTD is depression, and the ways Reklaw fights it through companionship, activity, and most of all creativity. (The introduction mentions that the project is named after K.D. Schmitz’s ‘zine Ten Thousand Things, in which Reklaw saw a mirror of the depression he realized he suffered from too.) No matter what else he did each day he documented here, he’d drawn a page of comics by the end, and that’s always some kind of victory against the void.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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