Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self
By Liana Finck
The short explanation is that Liana Finck’s new collection of cartoons Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self is a pretty massive one featuring dispatches from her personal experiences.
The slightly expanded explanation is that Excuse Me is divided into several sections that place the cartoons by theme. Chapters like “Love & Dating” and “Gender Politics and Politics in General” are likely to get certain men wanting to offer Finck their advice and commentary and women seeing their own experiences in Finck’s, while “Animals” is probably more of a safe zone. “Humanity” is a less-gendered expression that might infuriate certain men, as is “Time, Space, and How to Navigate Them,” but “Strangeness Shyness Sadness” and “Notes to Self” get incredibly personal while also doing the work of linking the more universal observations of the earlier chapters with how they manifest in Finck’s life.
But here comes the longer explanation. I think the reason Finck initially turned heads with her cartoon work and then amassed the devoted following that she has is pretty well contained in Excuse Me. Whether she’s depicting the code language of relationships or charting the behavior society demands of women, the short term intention is to amuse, but the lingering result is indicative of Finck’s own approach to life and her work. She’s just searching for what many intelligent, creative people do in their work. She’s reflecting. She’s trying to make sense of it. She’s simultaneously tracing out the patterns and noticing the randomness. She’s putting down on paper how the threads of our society work, how they extend around the men she encounters and the women she encounters and herself and figuring out whether these are threads of intentionality or chaos
I’ve said it before and I’ll stress it here — Finck is a deep thinker, one of the deepest in comics, but her talent is for translating that into simple presentations that speak of her ideas and conclusions in accessible ways. In her typical presentation, you encounter her work one Instagram post at a time and you don’t always see the larger construct that’s building up around you. Her excellent graphic memoir Passing For Human did the job of mapping her process out and revealing that the whole of it is probably more important than the bits of it because the bits of it are arguments building to a larger thesis — that is, the whole of it. You can take in one of her cartoons or look at one of her behavior charts or read one of her hand-written lists and enjoy it and agree with the point of it, but it’s all these things accrued that make the actual statement. It’s as if Finck uses cartooning to compile evidence for a carefully rendered argument in a debate she’s holding with the universe itself, and the collection of all her evidence, in cartoon form, is the total sum of what she has been stressing to the universe.
And as much as she might point a finger at other people — say, strangers in a coffee shop who ask her if they can borrow a chair at her table, or men there might be a relationship possibility who want to suck all her attention and emotion into their empty vacuumous soul — she’s just as likely to direct that finger at herself. Finck’s work is self-deprecating, but not without seeking context — even as she turns on herself, she’s also working to document where, culturally and personally, that behavior comes from. It’s not enough for Finck to depict moments of low self-esteem, she wants to know about its manifestation.
And in her presentation, she sees clearly that we are all victims of the cultural and familial material that constructs who we are and who everyone else is, but at the same time, we also hold some responsibility for not giving in to the fate that these materials push us toward. We can question, we can alter.
The people who really love Finck’s comics, the people she is speaking to and in some ways for, are her scores of followers on Instagram, a group that seems made up largely of women, probably nearer Finck’s age. Many of Finck’s cartoons, stripped to their essence, are very, very personal observations culled from her own experiences, but it’s apparent that a lot of other women recognize them as either similar to their own experiences or putting their experiences into a form that they themselves have not previously encountered. The relationship between Finck and her audience is a special one.
But you don’t have to be in that demographic to appreciate Finck’s work, to be enlightened by it, or even to identify with aspects of it. While so much of Finck’s cartoons do speak to gender, there are significant sections that speak to feeling and being different, to not belonging, to — as her chapter title puts it — the “Strangeness Shyness Sadness” that can define this state of quiet alienation. For me, this is the aspect that speaks strongest on a personal level, but the entire sphere of what Finck puts down on paper is enlightening and gracious in its honesty, and it begs the reader to absorb and ruminate over those parts that may not be personal concerns.
This world overflows with shallow work that never asks the unexpected questions, and certainly never questions itself. That’s why Finck’s work is engaging and important, often revelatory and definitely makes a number of people feel less alone in the universe, and that’s why it has come to mean so much to so many.