Of all the variations on autobiographical comics – one of the enduring thematic mainstays of comics self-publishing going all the way back to the early days of photocopied and stapled small press books – it’s the diary comic that is most prone to accusations of pointlessness and self-indulgence. Quite why this strand of comics is looked down on by so many commentators, and regarded as the lowbrow end of the graphic memoir genre, has long puzzled me. When a diary comic is competently crafted it has an everyperson appeal that speaks to us on truly relatable and empathetic levels. In that regard I will never quite understand the belittling of the subtler storytelling skills that are required in making keen observational points from life’s smaller, but no less important, moments.
That’s an ability that’s very much on show in the latest comic from MJ Wallace who displays a perceptive eye here for the finer details of human interaction. Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates is an autobio offering that is largely concerned with tracing the growth of her relationship with her boyfriend Ryan over the last two years. I have covered Wallace’s work before in ‘Small Pressganged’ both as part of the Team Girl Comic anthology collective and in her supernatural sitcom Haunters Gonna Haunt, co-created with her brother Cameron. While the latter book certainly had its moments it’s always been Wallace’s slice-of-life work in TGC that I’ve enjoyed the most with her quiet but insightful reflections on human experience.
Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates employs a rigid presentational structure of fifty-plus four-panel strips to recount events in its author’s life from the day she split up with her former partner to the second anniversary of her relationship with Ryan who, for endearingly arbitrary reasons explained in a prologue strip, is drawn as a bear throughout the comic. We dip in and out of their lives at various points over the months as we watch, initially, the first tentative days of their time together with all its ensuing moments of comedic miscommunication and those awkward courtship rituals that will, no doubt, be familiar to all readers. As the book progresses we witness the couple’s in-jokes, eccentricities, that eponymous rollerskating date and the gentle teasing repartee between them.
What particularly impresses me about Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates is Wallace’s adherence to that newspaper strip style. While the comic has a greater overarching storyline with ongoing plotlines and a tender thematic approach to the complexities of burgeoning love, Wallace ensures each individual four-panel affair adopts that traditional idea of working towards a punchline of sorts for its subject matter and creating a discrete narrative in and of itself in each instalment. Perhaps “punchline” is not an ideal word to use as not every strip is necessarily played for laughs – some of those concluding panels are more contemplative in tone. But it’s an effective and disciplined use of an old comics convention that gives the book its own rather distinctive rhythm.
It’s interesting to note how confident Wallace’s cartooning is here in comparison to her previous work as – not knowing whether this work was produced recently or whether it has been an ongoing project over the last two years – I can’t assess whether it represents an evolution in her drawing style or not. Whatever the case, this is indeed some of the most assured storytelling I have seen from her to date. It’s perfectly paced, both in a dramatic and a humorous sense, with an economical use of exposition. Wallace never resorts to having her on-panel avatar describing her emotional state when she can communicate that information visually with an expressive look of contentment, gauche moment of embarrassment, or frown of mock horror. And the incongruity of Ryan’s ursine appearance gives events a conspicuous running gag that should become tiresome after a while but somehow never does, such is the good-natured appeal of the comic.
If your natural inclination is to ignore autobiographical comics regardless, then perhaps you should approach Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates as a work of pure fiction; a semi-anthropomorphic romcom with cleverly crafted dialogue and a real world sensibility. This is not a groundbreaking or innovative use of the form but, as something of a devotee of this area of comics, it is one of the most charming examples in this field that I’ve read for some time, and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates represents MJ Wallace’s strongest work to date.
You can order copies of Rollerskates and Breakfast Dates from MJ Wallace’s online store here priced £3.00.
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