Portrait of the Artist as a Teenage Girl

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Like the end of the harvest, we come to the last of our month-long survey of recent comix by women cartoonists. Leela Corman's "Subway Series," Debbie Drechsler's "The Summer of Love," Lynda Barry's "One Hundred Demons," and Phoebe Gloeckner's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" are all semi-autobiographical stories about a young woman's adolescence. We saved the most difficult for last.

Phoebe Gloeckner is one of comix' most challenging artists. The company contracted to print her last book, "A Child's Life," refused to do it. The subsequent printer would only work on it at night with a staff who had read the book and did not object to it. With its raw, uncompromising tales of a young girl's experiences with sex, drugs, and neglect, told in a devastatingly clinical style, "A Child's Life" was a highlight of 1990s graphic literature. Gloeckner has since mostly dedicated herself to creating a single, book-length project. Finally arriving in November, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" (Frog Ltd.; 300 pp.; $22.95) continues Gloeckner's fascinating but difficult art.

Principle among her discombobulating strategies is the strange, muddy mix of signals about the authenticity of the work. Ostensibly the book is fiction, written by a girl named "Minnie Goetze," the character Gloeckner has used in nearly all her stories. Though Minnie looks exactly like her creator, Gloeckner has insisted in interviews that she is not Minnie. In spite of this the cover features a photo of the teenaged Gloeckner, noted as "the real Minnie Goetze" in the illustration list. Both this and the subtitle, "an account in words and pictures," rather than "a novel," clearly point towards straight autobiography. The pretense of fiction may give the author some legal room, or allow her to more easily write about painful parts of her history, but I suspect that Gloeckner also likes it just to freak you out.

Minnie confesses her love to Monroe

Set in San Francisco during the intensely self-indulgent late-seventies, "Diary" documents Minnie's first long-term love affair, between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Unfortunately it happens to be with her mother's boyfriend, Monroe. While much of the book contains typical adolescent interests — writing poetry, wondering at her changing body, obsessing over sex, and speculating about her future — it centers around this secretive, destructive relationship. Trapped between hurting her mother and feeling in love with Monroe, Minnie writes increasing desultory passages. In August she writes, "I wish everyone was as horny as I am ... I love cute guys, I really do appreciate them." By October it has turned to, "Everything is so loveless and mediocre." Yet, like all the best works of art, Gloeckner leaves out any moralizing or characterizing of the relationship. The audience must provide its own.

It gets worse for Minnie. Living in a house geared toward alcoholism and drug use, with a completely non-functioning mother, Minnie spirals rapidly downward, desperately searching for something to fill her emptiness. At first she indulges in meaningless sexual encounters with boys at school. Then, helplessly, you read her thoughts as she falls in love with a downtown lesbian, Tabatha, who introduces Minnie to heroin, and eventually pimps Minnie out to whomever will supply them with drugs. One atrocity follows another in this poor girl's life, where even the suicide prevention operator ends up abusing her. By the end, thankfully, Minnie seems to have resolved her feelings for Monroe, but it hardly makes you feel warm inside.

Luckily, amidst all these depressing encounters, there emerges a portrait of a smart, funny young woman struggling to find herself, written with the unselfconscious, often hyperbolic prose of a typical teenager. "...Ricky Ricky Ricky Wasserman, that exquisitely handsome boy," reads one description. Elsewhere she imagines seeing Monroe in twenty years when he will visit her and talk to her husband and give her "funny secret looks from across the table...and a tear will force its way from eye..." Thanks to Minnie's interest in drawing, "Diary" also has the unusual theme of showing a budding comix artist. Robert Crumb even makes a personal appearance.

Besides the striking material, what sets "Diary" apart from other books about teenage girls is the art. In a typically daring move that will be sure to alienate both strict comix fans and non-comix readers alike, "Diary" is "an account in words and pictures," as the subtitle says. Mostly text, it reads like the diary of an artistically precocious teenager, including copious illustrations and occasionally turning into full-on comix. Some of the art is original to the time, but most of the it has been added by the adult Gloeckner.

Gloeckner makes her living as a medical textbook illustrator, giving her late artwork an exacting eye for detail. Most of the singular illustrations are portraits of the book's characters. The comix sections either explicate events the diary only alludes to, as when Minnie and her best friend meet an older man for sex, or else they imagine scenes Minnie was not privy to, as when her mother confronts Monroe on her suspicions about the relationship with Minnie. Adding a different layer of challenge to the book, the switching from prose to comix feels like jumping between the sauna and the cold bath.

Phoebe Gloeckner's deliberately tough, difficult "Diary of a Teenage Girl," feels totally authentic because it is. As such, it makes such sanitized, safe books about teen's "real" problems, the Judy Blume-type material, seem utterly out of touch. Ironically, thanks to its uncompromisingly explicit details of rape and drug abuse, "Diary" may be completely inappropriate for anyone under 18. But for everyone else, "Diary of a Teenage Girl" reveals a reality that I fear more teenagers than we know have experienced.

"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" will be available in regular bookstores in November.