Between the Gears by Natalie Nourigat
I feel like I lucked out finding Between the Gears by Natalie Nourigat: I generally don’t find myself looking for non-fiction sequential art, though I’ve certainly read enough to have favorites. What piqued my interest was a description of the book that let me know it’s a year-long autobiographical comic of her senior year at the University of Oregon in 2010. Since I earned my PhD in English Literature from the U of O in 2000, I was extremely interested in seeing Eugene, Oregon through her eyes. However, if the book had been merely of personal interest, I wouldn’t bother to write a review. I think it’s a fascinating work that will be of interest to anyone who likes reflective coming-of-age stories. If you also like comics, this book is a must-read. And if you’ve never read comics before, you’ll see why sequential art allows for methods of communication not available to other art forms.
What makes Between the Gears so impressive is the variety and quality of facial expressions that Natalie Nourigat employs. Unlike any other art form, sequential art with narration allows the reader to study an image such as a facial expression frozen in time but connected with the ones preceding and following it, to be visually “read” at the reader’s own pace. Nourigat’s types of expressions range from serious portrait to action to caricature in a variety of forms that will be familiar to those who know the visual language of Western comics, comic strips, and animation, as well as Eastern manga and anime. You don’t need to know these types of art or artists she’s imitating to follow the book any more than you would need to know all the influences that have an impact on a director in planning, filming, and editing a movie. You do gain extra pleasure from this knowledge, however. The facial expressions communicate moods of all types with which most people can relate as Nourigat fluctuates from extreme frustration with herself in falling behind in schoolwork to the elation she feels in a productive day’s work completing school assignments, going to classes, and still having time to meet friends for nachos at the local bar.
Other than the expressions, the autobiography works well for two key reasons: First, Nourigat’s observations and narration let us know we are spending time with an intelligent person — in other words, the character, or ethos, of the narrator is one we admire and respect. It’s enjoyable to see the world through her intelligent eyes. She’s a senior in college and at a pivotal stage in life, and the reader can actually witness her growing and maturing in the course of the book. She’s still a young woman, so for those of us who are middle-aged, it’s fun to be reminded of those times. And it’s nice to see that, though she has her share of parties and plenty of silly moments as we all do, she makes the most out of college in terms of classes and her friends.
In addition to her expressions and credible ethos, her portrayal of others is engaging. We meet her family, her friends, a boyfriend, classmates, and various strangers she runs into throughout the year. Though I can’t verify how much is “true” and how much is “invented,” I know that she’s portraying real people and that she doesn’t show solely the good side of many of those people, particularly herself. She shows some rough moments with her father in discussing her future, as well as her struggles with her romantic relationship. I liked that she showed some parts of her life that I know must have been hard to reveal, but I also liked that she often resorted to vague visual metaphor or “off-camera” moments to suggest to the reader that some events were too painful or too private to put on a page for others. Moments such as these had a double purpose in both revealing touching personal moments and obscuring when privacy was the best way to show respect for those close to her.
Through such double-movements, we respect this autobiographer even more than we would if we felt that anything that happened to her or someone she knew was “fair game.” I like that she drew an ethical line that made it clear that not everything in her life should be sacrificed for art. In his thoughtful, ground-breaking work of ethical criticism, The Company We Keep, the late Wayne C. Booth asks us to consider what the ethical obligations of an artist/author are to those around her, both in terms of whom she uses as material for her art and in terms of sacrificing time with loved ones in order to practice her art. Nourigat wrestles with both questions in this book. The first concern — How much do I consider those around me mere material for my art? — is answered in the way I’ve already mentioned: She is careful to be considerate of those she portrays, but in her obligations to herself as artist and to her readers, she also is willing to bravely include some scenes that will make clear that this autobiography is an attempt at being honest with herself and with us. I bring up Wayne Booth because she seems particularly concerned with the second question: Is my art worth pursuing so much that I don’t have enough time for my loved ones? She seems divided in her answer to this question. She berates herself for neglecting friends, especially her boyfriend, in order to pursue her art, but the fact that she continues to commit to her art and sacrifice much social time to do it well makes clear that at this point in her life, art often does take precedence over friends and loved ones. Of course, she also values her friends; otherwise, Between the Gears would be a very boring book! But, I did find of great interest her practical engagement with these questions — ones my students sometimes think of as merely theoretical.
Obviously, I think this book is a five-star comic, but my judgment comes from my expectations of what an autobiographical comic can do. If you are looking for action, superheroes, suspense, science fiction, horror, or whatever you most like to read, this book will seem extremely slow. Nourigat is trying to record one year in her life in roughly a page per day, and I can’t imagine how one would do it better than this. I’ve read plenty of memoir and autobiography in my life, and just in the past week, I’ve read several of the autobiographical comics that influenced Nourigat, and this book is my favorite of those. It’s one I’ll reread. It’s one I will tell others about. I read only about thirty pages a day of this 300+ page book. I wanted to read more at a time, but I enjoyed reading it slowly and looking closely at the images. Some of my favorite pages were more meditative than anything else: Nourigat would describe a mood she was in and then draw a self-portrait (in varying styles depending upon the mood she’s conveying) as she sat in a chair at home, stared at the ceiling from her bed, or stood outside by a tree. I would usually spend far more time “reading” these pages than I did the pages with more words on them, where narration was more prominent.
Finally, I greatly appreciated the bonus material. Nourigat explains why she wrote this book and how she went about writing it. If you’ve never read a comic book, or don’t know much about them, the bonus material will give you a greater appreciation of the difficulty involved in creating each one of these pages. They are not merely scribbled panels with no thought. This project was an enormous undertaking, and honestly, I can’t believe she completed it much less ended up with such a high quality work of art. One more reason not to miss the bonus section: The funniest two pages in the book can be found there. A motorcycle is involved, but beyond that, I’ll say no more! If you are looking for a book that helps you slow down and think about the world, a work that is at once in the present and nostalgic, I can’t recommend more highly Between the Gears by Natalie Nourigat. (Follow her blog at: http://homeiswheretheinternetis.blogspot.com)