Dear Diary: An Interview with Esther Pearl Watson
June 20, 2014 | by Meg Lemke
Esther Pearl Watson’s comic Unlovable is based on a found diary, from the 1980s, of a teenager Watson has named Tammy Pierce. Tammy lives in a small North Texas town with her parents and younger brother; her life is banal, poignant, and excruciatingly funny. She clings just above the bottom rung of her high school social hierarchy, awkwardly pursues “hot guys,” and is regularly exploited by her best friend, Kim.
In Watson’s hands, however, this is not a coming-of-age story. Expanding on the details of the diary, she amplifies Tammy’s naïveté and absurdity, capturing the grotesqueness of adolescence, how teenagers live in their aspirations and ideals but also in an amplified shame. Watson’s lines are exaggerated and energetic; her characters are sweaty and ugly, their imperfections magnified as if being scrutinized in a sixteen-year-old’s mirror. You feel, vividly, the humiliation of bodies. Matt Groening has called Unlovable “the great teen comic tragedy of our time.”
Watson has been at work on the series for more than a decade, first publishing it as minicomics and on the back page of Bust magazine. The third collected volume of the strip has just been released by Fantagraphics Books—a lime-green, gold-glitter affair that is apt tribute to Tammy’s fervent aspiration to be a makeup artist.
I spoke with Watson over Skype, calling her in Los Angeles from my apartment in Brooklyn. Though she’s well known in the LA art scene, her voice carries the lilt of her own Texan upbringing.
How is Unlovable different from the original diary?
I started keeping a daily diary when I was thirteen—I hoped there was somebody else out there who felt the need to put down what happened every day. My diaries are impossible to read now because they’re so boring. I would write down what I ate, what I wore, trying to make my life sound normal, but I wouldn’t write that my dad was building flying saucers in the backyard.
“Tammy”’s diary was different. I found it in a gas-station bathroom in a sink. Somebody had unloaded a bunch of garbage, piles of clothes. I hid it under my shirt and ran out to the car and said to my husband, Mark, Let’s get out of here, quick! We read it out loud, driving our beat-up car through the desert. It was less than a hundred pages. “Tammy” talked about friends, this whole cast of characters, and she tried to choose between two guys, which one she would go out with. She would sneak out of her bedroom window to hang out with these delinquent kids who you just knew were using her. And you wanted to yell advice at her—That doesn’t mean he likes you, he wants something else! Listen to your mom!
We could all give advice to ourselves at that age.
What was interesting to me about the diary was the hindsight—seeing mistakes, of course, and looking back and realizing that a superpopular song was cheesy, or thinking, Wow, I tried to impress that girl. I don’t know if all that was important, but it really felt like it at the time.
Are you from a small town?
I grew up in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. We moved around a lot because my parents couldn’t pay the bills. And my dad was building flying saucers in the front yard—that never went over well. One of my favorite places we lived was Wylie, Texas. I somehow convinced my parents not to leave Wylie while I was going to middle school. It was the only time I was able to stay long enough to get to know everybody in the school and how they all related, who the good and bad kids were, who had the outsider parents. I like to reference that compact little ecosystem for Unlovable.
Why did you decide to adapt it into a comic?
Mark and I spent many years trying to figure out how to publish the diary. I had a whole stack of rejections for it. I even wrote a young-adult novel based on it. Some of the rejections had to do with the idea that nobody wants to read a real diary, or nobody cares about the eighties—there was a list of reasons people didn’t want to publish it.
Mark had read Marvel and DC comics growing up, but I feel like those comics weren’t really for girls. They were intimidating—the guys are muscular and fighting and harsh and the girls are, too. They’re like guys with giant boobs. I never found them interesting or friendly. So I decided to make a minicomic of it. I thought, I’m going to do everything I was told not to do. I’m going to do everything wrong.
The comic has nostalgic appeal—for the eighties but also for a pre-Internet teenagehood.
It was different then. Tammy spends a lot of time waiting for a phone call, for instance. I remember that being excruciating—the hoping. Then someone else would call, and if you didn’t have call waiting maybe the person you were waiting for called while somebody else was calling! You could ruin an entire day waiting for someone to call.
The anxiety and the longing are timeless. But I’m surprised by the fact that Tammy is cruel as often as she is victimized.
There are moments when Tammy wants to feel on top. She’ll lash out. People say rude things to her, and she can repeat them to the guy who bags her groceries and feel like she’s one of those cool girls at school who always have a comeback line. Unlovable is about showing that we need space in which to be awkward, to learn and figure out what it is we are really trying to say with our actions.
It seems like Kim is the comic’s stealth feminist voice. She shifts suddenly from her usual laconic demand for a dollar in exchange for friendly help to offering a cogent opinion on, say, the hypocrisy of her sex-ed course.
I can only plant it in subtle ways. I always imagined Kim as somebody who doesn’t have the best home life but has the most potential out of all the characters. We tend to judge someone so quickly—Kim is a nightmare and Tammy should get far away—but Kim might turn out to be the one person who actually understands how the system works. She might be able to make the system work for her very well. Tammy is crudely repeating social patterns and has not quite figured out gaining and using power. But Kim has.
The series began as minicomics, which you sent to potential illustration clients. Then you moved into the DIY zine scene, exhibiting at conventions. How does zine culture intersect with comics and indie comics and the art world?
In the beginning, in 2003, I felt like I was wearing separate hats. I was selling paintings, I was doing illustration for commercial magazines, and I was publishing children’s books. Mark and I had written a book, Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?, which was published by Houghton Mifflin, a major publisher even though the book was about alternative media. Then, we started to go to conventions, where all these different zine publishers were either trying to subvert the commercial world or hoping to get into it. We were going backward—we already had established careers and suddenly we’re trying to sell our promo material for two dollars.
But something really interesting has happened with Unlovable. It does cross genres. It’s sold in bookstores and it’s part of alternative zine culture, but I would also hang it in a gallery as fine art.
You don’t use multiple panels on each page, as most comic books do, but rather a single image on each page.
I’m a painter, and I imagine each panel in comics as a canvas. I used panels for Bust magazine because the story had to be told one page at a time, but I try to avoid using multiple panels in the book form of the comic, too.
I was intentionally trying to disrupt the comic lexicon because I felt like it didn’t belong to me. And I see now how I was trying to create a new language. Sometimes people don’t understand Unlovable because it’s not a very clean, linear story. Its stories are one panel long, or one page long, or sometimes several pages long. Then thrown in there you have Chuck Norris giving Kim bra advice, or Colonel Sanders telling Tammy who she’s dating and who she’s not dating. Teddy Ruxpin pops in to converse. Teens live in a world that’s reality and fantasy at the same time.
Do you still have the diary?
Yes. I tried to get rid of it, burn it at one point. I don’t want anybody to get ahold of it. I want to protect Tammy’s privacy.
The original author listed her first name, and her weight often, but not her address. I know she might be around my age because I relate to the stories, but I would not want to know if one of my diaries had become somebody’s muse.