In this week’s Illustrated PEN, Guest Editor Whit Taylor presents an excerpt from cartoonist Leslie Stein’s autobiographical comic, Present.
Taylor writes: In the introduction to her graphic novel Present published by Drawn & Quarterly, cartoonist Leslie Stein explains how she has often had to reframe unpleasant tasks to get through them, whether that be cleaning her room as a child, or struggling through the early days of making comics. By thinking of her comics as a present that she could share with others, regardless of their quality, Stein was able to get better without the stifling fear of judgment. Years later, as a seasoned cartoonist, Stein’s “present” theme takes on more dimension.
As an autobiographical cartoonist, Stein realizes the care she must take in portraying her subjects and showing gratitude toward many of them, despite their shortcomings. She must be present to listen to them and remain observant of her environment. Her skill as a memoirist is also evident in the way that she portrays herself as a complex and imperfect person who is contending with the mundanity and uncertainty of life. Autobiography succeeds when it reflects on the past in a way that allows for the reader to escape into the author’s present moment. The reader may not be able to identify with the specifics of a creator’s experience, but they must be able to resonate with their emotional experience. Ambiguity, nostalgia, sadness, fear, loneliness, boredom, joy, and love are just some of the universal experiences that Stein communicates in her work through a series of vignettes into her life as a bartender and cartoonist. I am excited to share two short stories from Present, which I believe nicely capture the spirit of Stein’s book. From its dynamic, colorful visual shorthand to its bittersweet portrayal of being human, Present is indeed a gift to the reader.