The following post is based on a course assignment from a few years ago that offered me the opportunity to closely read and trace a few pages from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, one of my favorite autobiographical comics. My New York Diary is also an early contemporary feminist classic of graphic autobiography. I read the second printing of the softcover published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2011. The work chronicles Doucet’s six months living in New York, beginning as an idealistic 17-year-old artist after graduating from an all-girls’ school in Canada. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often relatable complications ensue, including boyfriend woes, addiction battles, physical and mental health struggles, and grave disillusionment with the art world.
I miss studying comics.
After rereading sections of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary I became aware that Doucet’s graphic narrative reminded me of the voyeuristic act of peering into a dollhouse. Typically, each page in My New York Diary is made of three rows of panels that parallel the levels of a dollhouse, the characters are doll-like with disproportionate and “cute” physical features, and the layout of the page exposes an open wall for the audience to gaze inside the scene. However, unlike a child’s dollhouse Doucet’s dollhouse engages with the grotesque, including: garbage—although she somehow makes garbage look cute, dirty and cracked walls, insects that corrupt each room, leaking body fluids, and objects that move eerily between panels. Doucet’s characters, which look like beat-up dolls with black eyes and bruises, also contribute to the uncanny dollhouse aesthetic. I felt unnerved reading many of Doucet’s brutally honest self-critical scenes. Maybe because they defamiliarize my childhood memories of playing with dollhouses while inventing more naïve, although perhaps not more strange, narratives.
Kidkraft’s 18″ Dollhouse
Page five of Julie Doucet’s story “My New York Diary” introduces several themes that reveal Doucet’s immaturity as a younger artist, exposing her idealistic fantasy of love and the creative life of an artist in New York. The cartoon Doucet on this page is naïve and optimistic. She is a marionette-like figure not yet able to critique her boyfriend or her decisions; she embraces her boyfriend in the chaos of the apartment and exclaims, “Oh Chéri, we will be so happy.” The author might write this with heavy cynicism, but the character in the panel seems genuinely happy. I chose to examine this page in contrast to page fifty-two because the character Julie changes drastically between these two pages, as does the story’s tone. Doucet’s character gains autonomy and the author finally speaks through her character instead of manipulating her like a puppeteer. On page five the cartoon Doucet is alienated from the narrator Doucet while on page fifty-two the narrator and the cartoon character merge and the character is self-aware (and aware of the audience).
In most panels on page five Doucet’s character smiles gleefully at her boyfriend’s messy apartment, and she stares entranced at her boyfriend. Both characters act ecstatic, excited about the space they believe will be conducive to creativity and romance. However, because the space is visually unstable, I read both characters’ optimism as unreliable. The space foreshadows conflict. Doucet’s uncanny dolls, such as the mouse with the superman cape, shift unsettlingly between panels and the walls and floors shift between panels as well.
Doucet draws her younger self and her boyfriend as oversized dolls with large heads and unblinking large manic eyes. They are also children playing dress up, acting out their roles among the toys and chaotic props of the world of the apartment. Doucet’s New York is a city of discarded objects where even garbage becomes “cute”, thrown like abandoned play toys into heaps along the sidewalks; the jagged edges of tin cans become more curved. Many of Doucet’s characters are overgrown children carelessly discarding their playthings and garbage, but they are also drawn to look like grotesque dolls and they are also often discarded. On page four of the same story the backwards-L-shaped bottom panel shows a cute girl wearing a backpack and polka dot dress. Her eyes appear to be hollow or gouged out and she looks lost and distressed and walks with her arms at her sides like an automaton. She looks like a discarded doll.
In the top left corner of page five Doucet’s boyfriend twists his head around completely in an unnatural toy-like movement while walking up the stairway. Reading this gave me the impression that his character is fake or disingenuous. Doucet draws herself with spaghetti-like hair that fits into the chaotic, garbage-ridden aesthetic of the apartment and her New York. Doucet blends in and becomes lost in the scenery. The cans in the hallway, the ominous shadows, and dirt on the walls in the first panel foreshadow the messiness of the apartment and the instability of the relationship, exposing the younger Doucet’s idealistic fantasy of New York. Doucet and her boyfriend move erratically, almost jerkily, from panel to panel, like stop-motion animation figures. They hug in the second last panel on page five and suddenly in the last panel her boyfriend dramatically throws himself into a swing-dance-like move, his arm extended toward the refrigerator.
The subtly shifting toys and walls and the disorienting tilt of the floor create an atmosphere filled with anxiety and instability. The shifting unreliable objects offer a critique of consumerist culture as well—since the objects and possessions become threatening and unreliable.
I associate Doucet’s graphic narrative to the voyeuristic glimpse into an uncanny dollhouse, but I also think about how the process of paneling and drawing comics itself parallels the childhood act of playing with dolls by placing them in various positions and making them speak. Although this might play into the stereotype of the cartoonist as the social outcast alienated with their collectables and imagination, artists like Doucet can distort and manipulate the dollhouse and dolls and force them to work against problematic social norms. For example, Doucet defamiliarizes the social conventions and the “nuclear family” ideology attached to the original mass-produced plastic dollhouses.
The panoramic center panel on page five shows Doucet’s character smiling, standing next to the smiling mouse doll in a cape. The character Julie is encompassed in her boyfriend’s belongings and becomes another doll he has collected. This panel is the establishing shot for the world of the apartment where the character Julie will isolate herself from her new city. Doucet’s character is empowered by her creativity, but otherwise she is afraid to leave the apartment. The reader views the panel from the powerful perspective of the puppeteer while Doucet’s character is the puppet doomed to repeat Doucet’s behavior and experiences. However, on page fifty-two the character Julie meets the reader’s gaze, altering the power dynamics and uncanny feel of the earlier page.
Page fifty-two establishes Julie the character is more autonomous and self-reflective than in earlier stories. Doucet draws the title of page fifty-two, “My New York Diary”, studded with jewel-like decorations, alluding to the glitzy façade of theatre productions or glamorous fantasies of fame and fortune. Here Doucet might be making fun of her earlier fantasy of New York’s romance. The first page I looked at for this post begins in Spring, season of hope and rejuvenation, while the second page I chose takes place in the desolation of winter, wrought with isolation, hibernation, and somber self-reflection, befitting Julie’s disillusionment.
On page fifty-two Julie speaks in split speech balloons that suggest a conflicted internal dialogue. The split speech balloons also reveal her ability to be self-critical and investigate her potentially conflicted feelings. She is now aware of an audience and has become disillusioned with her earlier fantasy of New York (page five). Page fifty-two lacks the imposition of narrative voiceover and finally Doucet the author merges with Julie and is able to speak through her. Although I could read the same page as Julie speaking with another character in the room, she is still more powerful and self-reflective than on page five where she hardly speaks. On page fifty-two the reader is less powerful because Julie is able to meet their gaze, even if she does not necessarily break the third wall. The character is no longer submerged in the naive fantasy of her new life in New York. The reader initially views Julie on page fifty-two from the perspective of a camera angled down from above, like from the vantage of a puppeteer, however the page ends with the reader meeting Julie’s gaze and her character is empowered.
The atmosphere on page fifty-two is less cluttered than page five and hints at Julie’s contentedness and clarity, but the walls and floors are still dirty and cracked and the shifting floors and walls are more noticeable without her boyfriend’s clutter, so the environment is still unstable. Julie’s shifting posture also contributes to the page’s visual tension. Initially her cartoon self sits in the proper posture of the Victorian fantasy of the sophisticated young woman— upright, elegant, with her hands crossed over her lap. However, as she talks about her ex-boyfriend’s latest immature escapades she becomes angry and slouches, her legs split apart in a grotesque “masculine” position. Although she is no longer lost in the chaos of her boyfriend’s apartment she is still surrounded by objects and furniture that do not belong to her. Only her cat, stripped of its facial features, becomes a reliable object. she is also more free to travel and move on because she carries few possessions.
On both pages the small gutters create more crowded-looking panels. One moment in the story jerks ungracefully into the next as each busy panel fragments the narrative and forces the reader to linger on the page. The cluttered panels and sliding landscapes offer an anxious and chaotic environment and a challenging reading experience. Each page contains almost too much to look at so that the pages disorient the reader like the lights and visual cues in a casino. In this way Doucet uses visual tension to recreate her physical and emotional experience of New York.
My body responded to Doucet’s visual narration. Sometimes as I read I felt tense and nervous, but other times I genuinely laughed out loud. Doucet’s characters pop out of the black backgrounds with the erratic jumpiness of marionettes or the dolls that would come alive in a child’s nightmare of a dollhouse. Doucet’s characters are more object-like than any other graphic narrative I have read so far and I found it hard to be selective while tracing these two pages because it seems like the objects are just as important in Doucet’s visual narration as the people. After a few close readings of this work and after tracing the two pages discussed in this post (as part of the assignment), I believe that part of the power of Doucet’s artwork is her ability to disturb and provoke the reader through stories offering a voyeuristic glimpse into her uncanny dollhouse and the memories it explores. Doucet retells her stories through visual and visceral narration that recreates both physical and emotional experiences, allowing and forcing the reader to engage more intimately with the narrative.