When looking back at our previous coverage of Wash Day, the minicomic that acted as precursor for Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith’s Wash Day Diaries, I was somewhat surprised to realise that our original review as published well over four years ago. Wash Day Diaries expands the stories of the characters from Wash Day (also reprinted in colour in this volume) and brings in new characters, as we once again follow the lives of Bronx residents Kim and Cookie, alongside new characters Nisha and Davena, in five interlinked stories.
Back in 2018, Wash Day was a comics short described as a “tribute to the beauty and endurance of Black women and their hair”. In Wash Day Diaries the motif of Black women’s hair care is the throughline that thematically links each of these tales (beyond their obvious shared casts). What originally impressed me about ‘Wash Day’, the opening chapter herein, was the way in which it brought us so fully into lead character Kim’s world with so little exposition, as we observed her Sunday routine of hair care regimen, visiting the local store, and catching up with her roommate Cookie.
Robyn Smith’s art perfectly captured that feeling of a laidback Sunday with her hair care pages providing what I described as “almost rhythmic panel-to-panel storytelling in these sequences [which] infuses that sense of ritual with its own distinctive beauty, particularly in one very memorably crafted two-page spread that also carefully underlines the gradual passing of time involved.” Smyth’s vivid visual characterisation in Wash Day Diaries plays a vital role in communicating the personae of the four leads, enabling the reader to empathise with them immediately and ensuring that backstory becomes less important in forming our connections with the page.
The second story ‘Group Conversation’ cleverly juxtaposes timeframes and locations as, from the hairdressers’ chair, Nisha chats with the group by direct message about her recent romantic entanglements; their feedback acting as chatty commentary alongside the events of the recent past. Here Rowser’s ear for realistic and sparky dialogue is presented at its most observant. Wash Day Diaries continues this approach of conveying character and emotion in the moment; Nisha’s mental health worries, Cookie’s relationship with her ailing abuela, and Kim’s fears about the persistence of the intrusive Malik in her life.
Colour is thoughtfully applied to each entry to capture the emotional beats and tone of its themes, while Smith’s art employs a naturalism that is never a slave to overt realism. What is abundantly clear from this collection though is that we leave its pages wanting to know even more about its characters and their lives. A very similar feeling to the one that readers were left with after the original Wash Day minicomic. A joyous celebration of Black sisterhood, Wash Day Diaries is the finest example of how nuanced visual storytelling can speak to us all the more loudly for its subtlety and understatement.
Jamila Rowser (W), Robyn Smith (A), Robyn Smith, Bex Glendining & Kazimir Lee (C) • Chronicle Books, $19.95/£14.99
Review by Andy Oliver