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Drawn from Life

New York Times best seller, Am I There Yet by Mari Andrew is of the lineage of women inked graphic novels

By Jaq Greenspon

A few years back, Mari (rhymes with “starry”) Andrew was a late twenty something who was going through a pretty severe breakup. This isn’t a new phenomenon, mind you, people in their late twenties have been going through breakups for a while now (they were probably doing it even longer ago than one would expect, but due to societal norms and based upon what us Gen Xers have seen on TV, no one really talked about when they did). But where this story breaks a bit differently is with just precisely how Ms. Andrew decided to deal with it.

See, rather than jump out of an airplane or join a wine and cheese club or swear to give up dating altogether (all of which are perfectly fine responses, by the way), she decided to draw out her frustrations and pain. By which I don’t mean she extended them. No, she literally drew them, with pens and crayons and pencils, onto a piece of paper to get them out in the world. As she says, when going through her tough time, she was looking for a new and different way to express herself. After a multitude of other creative endeavors, it turned out it was the artistic scribbling which seemed to fit the bill. “I decided to make one drawing a day for a year and put up my doodles on Instagram to keep myself accountable,” she explains on her web page. “First my mom followed, then my friends followed, then strangers started following, which was super exciting and weird and wonderful.”

Currently, on Instagram, she has over 785,000 followers, which is a whole lot of strangers. Enough so that Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, took a chance on her and, this past March, published her book, Am I There Yet: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood. Andrew says she wrote the book “to share what I learned through heartbreak, love, loss, rejection, career confusion, adventures, and the gnawing question in the back of my mind: Where exactly am I going, or am I already there? I wrote and illustrated a book I wish I’d had in my 20s—to know that I wasn’t alone.”

The chance paid off, too. Within days of its release, the book topped several Amazon Graphic Novel lists, including Contemporary Women as well as Biographies and History. Not bad for a woman who, by her own admittance, had never drawn a person before she started her daily doodling. “It took me a while to figure out how I actually draw,” she says, “but it just came with time and doing it a whole lot.”

What’s most interesting, though, is how this plays out in a larger scale. Mari Andrew isn’t breaking new ground with her book, which is getting rave reviews. Thing is, a lot of these reviews center on how she has tapped into a current cultural zeitgeist. From the Washington Post (“Achingly vulnerable and completely relatable.”) and Elle (“The illustrations … are often packed with truths about dating, self-care, careers, and all the secret thoughts you never say out loud.”) to The Independent (“Her illustrations will resonate with anyone who has ever had a crush, went on a date, or felt the sting of heartbreak.”) and even the website Cup of Jo (“Mari has a knack for drawing things people are secretly thinking about.”). All are coming back to how she is using a simplistic art style and minimal prose to get at some universal truths…and she’s doing it through social media, which seems to be the way to break out in today’s crowded market place.

Looking back, though, the lineage of where Ms. Andrew is coming from can be traced to people like SARK and Kate Beaton. SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy), whose new age, self-illustrated, self-help books became best sellers back in the 90s, started as a hand-printed garage-based endeavor, spread by word of mouth from the Bay Area outward. She was one of the first to fully embrace this idea of using a minimal art style mixed with real life observations to create a positive, message driven product. Meanwhile Beaton is responsible for an even more direct pedigree as her success stems directly from her online web-comic Hark! A Vagrant!

Beaton is a Canadian with a BA in history and anthropology who started her comic on a bit of a whim, posting it to a LiveJournal account (an early social media site) and her own website, KateBeaton.com, back in 2007. The first book, also titled Hark! A Vagrant!, spent several months atop the New York Times bestseller lists and Beaton herself has been nominated or won a number of cartooning awards, with her work appearing in places as varied as Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales, The New Yorker, and even as a Google Doodle.

While her topics are usually historically based, she will include herself from time to time and more recently, she’s completed a more personal series called “Ducks” about her time working at the Fort McMurray mining site. As she says in her online introduction to the piece, “It is a complicated place, it is not the same for all, and these are only my own experiences there. It is a sketch because I want to test how I would tell these stories, and how I feel about sharing them.” The site itself boasts an almost 50:1 ration of men to woman so here we have Beaton using her deceptively simplistic art style and storytelling to speak to larger, more universal issues through personal experiences. “Ducks is about a lot of things,” she explains, “and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.”

From Beaton, it’s easy to see how Sarah Andersen emerged. Starting in 2011, while she was still a student at Maryland Institute College of Art (she graduated in 2014), Andersen’s comic strips employ a similarly simplistic style but focus more on being an autobiographical representation of her life. As a self-identified millennial, Andersen makes full use of her social media presence, having upwards of 2.5 million followers on such platforms as Instagram and Facebook, where, like Andrew, she posts her comics (and where they are shared thousands of times each).

As a cartoonist, her most recent book, Herding Cats, came out in March and her first collection, Adulthood is a Myth, beat out all comers to take top honors in the Goodreads “best graphic novel” category for 2016.

And following in the digital footsteps of Mari Andrew are illustrators like Beth Evans and Catana Chetwynd, both of whom have been cartooning online for many years, but whose own books and collections will be coming soon.

Evans, who also has a huge following across the various social media platforms, draws and shares comics about her anxieties and fears and dealing with her own bipolar diagnosis. “I’m not always good at expressing my words or my emotions,” she said in a 2016 interview with Gracie McKenzie on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Blog. “…But sometimes it’s easier to tell 20,000 random people on the Internet how you feel than admit how you feel to those around you.”

Having drawn inspiration from Sarah Andersen, Evans stumbled into cartooning and has parlayed it into a book deal. As of May 1, her solo book I Really Didn’t Think This Through: Tales from My So-Called Adult Life is available from Harper Collins. As an illustrator, she’s already tasted a bit of success through her work with Anna Williamson on Breaking Mad, which reached number 1 on Amazon UK earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Chetwynd’s book release date is fast approaching, on May 15th it is a mere two weeks after Andersen’s, and she has been gathering fans with her tales of love and life with her boyfriend John and their dog for the past 18 months. In fact, it was John who initially suggested she draw a few panels about their lives together – and then put them online. The response was so positive, Chetwynd decided to continue the strip and created a dedicated website for the effort (https://catanacomics.com) as well as also sharing them through her various social media outlets (her Facebook page is nearing 1 million followers and her comics are shared tens of thousands of times).

Like the others mentioned here, Chetwynd shares her personal stories while still creating art with a universal understanding. Her collection, Little Moments of Love, is, according to the sales release, “a sweet collection of comics about the simple, precious, silly, everyday moments that make up a relationship.” Which really means it’s another book by a woman, intended to provide signposts along the way of life to whatever destination is in front of you.

Mari Andrew asks the rhetorical question Am I There Yet in the title of her book. Are we there yet? It seems like we’re getting closer every day.

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