Not My Small Diary #19 Balances Humor with Horror
Delaine Derry Green (Editor), John Porcellino (Cover), Carrie McNinch, Peter Conrad, Noel Franklin, David Lasky, Jason Martin, Kelly Froh, Jenny Zervakis, Donna Barr, Max Clotfelter, Andrew Goldfarb, Colleen Frakes, Mark Campos, Rob Kirby, Ben Horak, Joe Decie, Asher Craw, Missy Kulik, Misun Oh, Rachel Scheer, Simon Mackie, Charles Brubaker, Graeme McNee, George Erling, Elmore Buzzizyk, Chad Woody, Brad Foster, Lee J. Green, Jason Young, Liz Prince, J.T. Yost, Andrew Wilmore, Jim Siergey, Patty Leidy, Pete Wentzell, James Burns, Fafá Jaepelt, John Porcellino, Micah Liesenfeld, Mari Naomi, Kevin Van Hyning, Roberta Gregory, Mike Kraiger, Adam Pasion (Contributors)
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy provided by Delaine Derry Green.
Sometimes a comic hits you right when you need it. When I read through Not My Small Diary 19: Unexplained Events (NMSD), an anthology edited by Delaine Derry Green, I was in a bit of an emotional rut. Grad school had dropped a mountain of work on my head, the Summer Learning Challenge launch at the library was just a week away, and I felt so overwhelmed that I wasn’t sure I could work on anything. However, when I realized NMSD wasn’t a pure horror comic, but rather a series of fun, inexplicable stories, I was so excited to keep reading that I read all 111 pages in one sitting.
Green began collecting the NMSD anthologies in 1996. The name cheekily plays off her personal autobio zine series, My Small Diary, but each issue of NMSD collects autobiographical comics surrounding a single theme. Past issues have featured stories about dating, pets, high school, and childhood tales.
Not My Small Diary 19: Unexplained Events collects a range of short stories about ghosts, supernatural or otherworldly experiences, aliens, and inexplicable coincidences. Despite the presence of horror stories, this anthology is a delight to page through, partly because of its structure. Green brilliantly honors each comic, no matter the length, by placing the creator’s name and website on the bottom of the first page of their story. I enjoyed this hyper visibility that reminded the reader of the person behind the work and didn’t mind an absence of breaks between each piece. The comics included all have neat endings or endings that are delightfully unsatisfying, as good horror should!
NMSD 19 has a cohesion that speaks to Green’s skill as an editor. Readers will find themselves following an emotional arc that dips briefly into real horror, but quickly carries them back up into stories that skillfully walk the line between horror and comedy. The first third of the anthology largely contains ghost stories and encounters with the supernatural that grow increasingly dark, but for the second third, Green pulls the tone back toward the light-hearted, sprinkling in more and more silly, skeptical, and humorous stories, until the funnier pieces outnumber the disturbing ones.
The emotional low of the anthology starts with a one-page comic titled “Room 410, 3/13/15, around one AM,” written and illustrated by Mark Campos. Campos shares a deeply unsettling experience in which he heard a ghostly voice make a harrowing confession. The comic contains neither context nor explanation, and the succinct depiction of this moment is perhaps the purest conveyance of “the unexplained” that appears in the anthology. Immediately following it is a story by Rob Kirby in which he visits a friend’s haunted home along with another friend who is “sensitive” to the supernatural. Kirby’s lamentation about not being sensitive himself is a perfect lure for skeptical readers open to being convinced about the existence of ghosts. Just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
NMSD 19 completes its descent into raw horror with “The Doorknob Game” by Ben Horak. In this piece, Horak recounts repeated childhood experiences in which he was trapped behind locked doors, first at home and then in public places such as coffee shops. When his aunt suggests that a friendly young poltergeist is haunting Horak because it’s trying to play a game, the young boy is terrified by this very idea, and his fear seeps out to the reader. Of all horror tropes, perhaps the most disturbing is innocence that manifests as evil; like a child that accidentally kills a pet, there’s no blame to place, but the act itself is still horrific.
The pieces that follow Horak’s are much lighter, such as Joe Decie’s short story about being cursed by vacuum cleaners that constantly break after a few uses. Decie’s art carries several trappings of an eerie horror comic. The grey watercolor shading gives the story a delightful, ominous feel, and Decie rounds this out with jagged, almost drippy, threatening lettering. But by the end the comic leans into humor. It could be a horror story, or it could be a silly excuse for not vacuuming.
The last third of the anthology mostly features alien-themed stories: UFO sightings, bizarre visitations, and strange lights in the sky. Some feel very serious, but many shrug their shoulders, as if the artists are saying, “Hey, aliens! Who knows?” Lee J. Green tells a story that visually breaks up the anthology because, rather than a traditional comic, it takes the form of an image of a space ship followed by prose that fans out in a triangle, as if it’s the transport beams pulling naive humans on board. Lee writes about receiving a call at his newspaper job from a woman who claimed to be seeing a UFO, and the punch line is so funny I broke social etiquette at the coffee shop where I was working and laughed out loud. Similarly, Fafá Jaepelt’s story about the strange appearance of a flying object no one had seen in real time, but that appeared in a photo utilizes simple, clean shading to keep the comic feeling lighthearted and fun, despite the mildly disturbing content.
All of the comics in the anthology are greyscale or black and white, allowing each artist to play with simple shading, linework, and lettering to determine the tone of their work. On the surface, the stories feel simple, but the skill of each creator becomes clear upon a deeper reading. For example, Chad Woody’s “The Unexplained Explained” contains some of the most detailed artwork in the book, with heavy cross-hatching, darkly colored dripping blood, and menacing, Edward Goreyesque creatures. These illustrations reveal the contents of a young girl’s overactive imagination. Her increasingly haggard father, Doubting Thomas, refutes all her claims of the existence of the supernatural, likely trying to get her to sleep. Equally impressive is Liz Prince’s “Santa Fe; NM – 1999,” which fades to white and then greys back in to tell a truly haunting story that left me a little shaken.
Green consistently drops funnier tales or stories with a skeptical overtone into each emotional arc, and these light-hearted beats allowing readers to shake off any negative reactions. Despite some of the content described above, this is truly a light-hearted anthology that was an absolute delight to read. I had no problem tearing through it in a single sitting, and was excited to see artists like Mari Naomi and Roberta Gregory alongside cartoonists who were entirely new to me.