Jane Mai isn’t merely self-deprecating. That phrase doesn’t capture her at all. Actually, I don’t know what to call it instead, but it comes out in the form of See You Next Tuesday, her comics diary from Koyama Press that mixes self-loathing with sweetness, as well as a lot of going to the bathroom and farting and vomiting.
It’s the intimacy of what Mai covers that makes her work so accessible. A lot of the details are Mai-specific, but she is so giving with those details that a reader is able to think of their own versions, if there’s nothing exactly identical going on. So you may not cry on the toilet like Mai, but you may have some other secret ritual that belongs to you, exhibiting for your own disapproval a fleeting glimpse of your inescapable sadness.
And it’s all in Mai’s scrawling style of cartooning, that sometimes looks like she dug a marker into her sketch book with full force, creating an authenticity to her presentation. Her visuals lack manners, just like her words, and there’s power to this honest presentation.
Autobiography in comics is on overflow currently, and the form is begging for work that is more than just jotting down what happens. As a diary, See You Next Tuesday might come off that way, but really these are slices, sometimes abstract, though other times mysterious or warm or silly, that add up to the kind of whole that you have to decide on your own. Despite the honesty, Jane Mai has not spelled out Jane Mai to you, but presented herself as a puzzle to be put together. You figure Jane Mai out. She’s too busy giving you the tools to do so to help you, but never a complete picture.
Mai casually says something about the most personal parts of her life – her mother hitting her, her father wishing he had a son, her ex-boyfriend calling her fat after having sex — and these give you glimpses of the core, but she doesn’t really explore any of these at depth. But in recounting an experience with hordes of ants in a bathroom, and she will give you a blow-by-blow account of what transpired.
Is she spending time on the things that really concern her? Or are these things she focuses on to divert her from the hard stuff, the stuff that actually hurts and creates the gloom? That’s something that only comes into question after reading all this work compiled — no one page is going to make anyone ask these questions — but I appreciate Mai for laying it out there in such a way that the questions can be asked.
Oh, and for making it uniquely funny and compelling while she does that.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book author living in Western Massachusetts who has written about comics for a number of publications over the years. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven. John will be contributing regular comics reviews to The Beat on Tuesdays at 5PM. To welcome him to the fold, this week we’ll be posting his reviews on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.