Mind the Gutter: Sea Urchin by Laura Knetzger

Yesterday, I taught a class on Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, which is not an actual diary but also not a memoir and not totally a novel either (if you read my post early last month about Gloeckner’s talk at CCAD, you might understand why Diary might be more than a little defiant of our will to categorize). And we got to talking about what it means to destroy a diary, to be willfully self destructive while writing a diary, to want to blot out certain names or threaten the pages you write with their own extinction. The students I was in conversation with all brought up wonderful insights about why these threats to the diary exist in Gloeckner’s Diary, a text which was the opposite of destroyed: a text disseminated. But no one brought up the fact that sometimes you destroy your diary because you legit just do not want anyone to read it, because your privacy has been breached and you can’t leave your words so naked, so up for interpretation.

I bring this up because, even though I’ve been wanting to write about it since I read it last month, I’ve had a hard time sitting down and trying to give you my thoughts about how stunning the stream-of-consciousness panels in Laura Knetzger’s Sea Urchin are. Maybe it’s because I, like Laura, also have “a big sea urchin in the middle of my brain” that’s maybe a little more than “a bother because I have to do all my thinking around it.” Maybe it’s because back when I thought no one was reading these words, I would’ve been down to go into all the ways my brain works and doesn’t work, and how Knetzger’s broken panels and pixelated pages give solace to a brain on fire with both depression and too many ideas. Were these digital pages my diary (according to Knetzger, “Social media is a diary you keep for other people”), I might have already destroyed them, though hitting delete is somewhat less satisfying than balling up paper and watching it dissolve in the toilet. (For tips on how to destroy your own diary, please see Gloeckner’s Diary and also my dissertation, if I ever write it).


Back to Sea Urchin: what so impressed me about Knetzger’s (her what? her visual poem? her one off? her gutters?) comic was its total embrace of the heart, its resistance to naming itself a comic “about mental illness,” a comic “about depression,” a comic “about social anxiety”. It is about all these things, surely, but it is also about about drawing her brain life a little further out of the shell of diagnosis, the narrative arc of treatment and getting better. And Knetzger undertakes this project of visualizing whatever unsaid thing happens in her brainspace in panels that challenge what we think about when we think about comics. “If I leave a gap,” she writes in a blank box, a panel without the visual components we’ve come to expect and demand of comics, “someone will fill it in. People love filling in blanks. Ambiguity is an invitation.” While it sucks to feel bad, resisting any gestures towards mental illness is a useful elaboration for Knetzger, an invitation into pages that peel back the brain matter and send us into the gutters where we must come to terms with and learn to work around our own sea urchins.


I guess it’s appropriate that Knetzger uses a big black blotch to fill the page where she reveals her own sea urchin to us. And I guess I’m back to thinking about destroying diaries or making big ink splotches of my own. But if depression or feeling bad or exhaustion or whatever is black ink, Sea Urchin demonstrates beautifully just what a gift it is to work through your brain by inking comics panels.

You can visit Laura Knetzger’s website to find out more about her comics and play a video game called “Freshman Year” that’s really fascinating. 

Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, publishers of Knetzger’s “Sea Urchin” are currently in the last 12 hours of their kickstarter to publish works by some amazing comics artists. You can back their project here.


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