An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley

TITLE: An Age of License: A Travelogue
AUTHOR: Lucy Knisley
PUBLISHER: Fantagraphics Books
PUBLISHED: October 2014
PROCUREMENT: Public library

I’d never heard of Lucy Knisley before, but because the graphic novel community is usually such a boys’ club, I picked up An Age of License to support a female graphic novelist. Knisley, according to the back of the book, is known for her “food-focused autobiography,” so An Age of License possibly speaks to a different demographic. The story is described as “an Eat, Pray, Love for the Girls generation.” Neither of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book nor Lena Dunham’s show are really my style, to be honest. Gilbert appears to romanticize life while Dunham makes it seem impossibly difficult for young adults to get on.

Knisley seems a bit obsessed with readers knowing what everything in her work means. For instance, she’s invited to a comic con festival in Norway, which is the catalyst for her travels in Europe. In every picture at the con, she uses little arrows to point to people and write their first names. This mostly seemed pointless, as it is not important to know who is moderating a panel nor who attended. Less obsession with making sure readers “get it” (even if there is nothing to “get”) would put emphasis on the important parts of the travelogue.

The images in Knisley’s book are simplistic line drawings, which is not surprising. Many graphic novels, including Persepolis and Maus, exist without color or sophisticated drawings. However, every 5 pages or so, Knisley includes a page completed in water colors. Knowing that she can draw and paint so well made me frustrated, as if she were too lazy or busy to care for the whole travelogue. For cohesion, she would have been better off sticking to one style and not suggesting to readers they were getting a partial deal. If Knisley were to use color to highlight aspects of her travel, the choice would make sense, but there appears to be no reason for which scenes are given more attention.

The majority of the information in An Age of License is descriptions of what happened, where, with whom, and (sometimes) what they were eating. At one point, Knisley points out her hair clip falls out while running for a train. At another, she tells the readers that three fellow travelers drank all of her milk. These details do not make a strong travelogue, especially when they take up a page or two, and the book was weak as a result. Knowing these details about the author adds nothing to a conversation about culture, humanity, or travel.

I can see why a book like An Age of License: A Travelogue might annoy some readers. The author focuses so much on questions about herself and her life, that she seems self-absorbed. These moments come in short bursts and are quickly abandoned. While it does take her a while to get there, Knisley eventually gets to the crux of her concerns: at twenty-seven, is she “messing up” too much? Is she behind on life? The question is preposterous: in her hand, the reader holds a book published by a respected publisher, from a twentysomething, and it is not the author/artist’s first published work. Knisley lives in NYC and traveled Europe because she was asked, and the trip was paid for, because she is established.

Then, the title of the book comes in; Knisley learns that the “age of license” is a time when young people are allowed to explore so that they know who they are before they solidify their identities. It’s a term a French man told her, though she cannot confirm that the term is a “real thing” through the internet or other French people. One issue An Age of License doesn’t discuss is at what age a person is supposed to stop creating his/her identity. The suggestion is that we must stop and become someone, that as we age we do not develop more. Knisley does point out there are different “ages”–license, confinement, alteration, investment, growth– but the image (a tree) suggests these are ages she’s lived through, and that at some point we must stop. A problem I see with the “Girls generation,” as some call it, is that life is something to “solve” before 30 and then suffer thereafter if you don’t know everything. To me, such a view of life is damaging and pessimistic.

Knowing that she has the money, support, freedom, and white skin, all of which make her privileged, is the second big issue with which Knisley battles. Knisley argues she has worked hard and grew up with a single mother, but that other factors out of her control have helped her along the way. It’s a familiar argument: guilt and acknowledging advantages versus bootstraps and hardships. After thinking about privilege for one page (less than she devotes to losing a hair clip), Knisley moves on to traveling with her lover, undermining the whole conversation she’d only just begun.

Overall, Lucy Knisley’s travelogue shares little with readers other than her day-to-day activities while in Europe for 3 weeks. While she asks questions like “What is my ‘regular life’?” and “To what do I owe my greatest gratitude for this age of license?” she doesn’t expound on those thoughts in a meaningful way, so I don’t recommend this particular graphic novel.

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