When many Vassar students hear “graphic novel,” they immediately think Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Now, there is a new graphic novelist on Vassar’s campus–and she’s a student.
Emma Gregoline ’15 combined her love for art and passion for writing to make a unique senior thesis. “It’s an illustrated, visually-narrated critical study of the ‘diary comic’ form that examines the work of prominent ‘comic diarists’ Gabrielle Bell and Julie Doucet under a feminist lens,” Gregoline wrote in an emailed statement about her thesis project. However, before this project came into her mind, and even before Vassar, Gregoline had art and writing in her sights. “I’ve always been interested in art for as long as I can remember. I was lucky enough to have a mom who read me tons of storybooks.
“Even in high school I kept these really secretive diaries where I would draw and write down everything that happened to me, even memorable things that I ate,” she wrote.
Once she arrived at Vassar, Gregoline continued working with the marriage of art and writing. She commented, “I’m an English major with an art minor. I’ve always felt a little deficient in both—it’s funny because when Alison Bechdel came to Vassar to speak, she shared some old quote about how cartoonists are people who are mediocre artists and mediocre writers. That resonated so much with me!”
One of Gregoline’s professors throughout Vassar, Peter Antelyes, eventually became her thesis advisor once she began this project. He commented in an emailed statement about when they met and began working together, stating, “I first got to know Emma in the Fall of 2012 in my 200-level survey of early American literature, English 225, and then I had the pleasure of having her in a second class, JWST/English 282: American Jewish Literature, in the Spring of 2014. During our conferences I was introduced to Emma’s artwork.”
Graphic novels might not be the first thing on anyone’s mind when they think of how to combine English classes with art classes, but Gregoline found that connection through her classes at Vassar. “[The idea for my thesis] came about during junior year, when suddenly I was reading so many graphic novels in all of my classes! I had always meant to read high-brow graphic novels like Persepolis, Fun Home, Jimmy Corrigan, Ghost World, etc., but found them kind of intimidating and inaccessible from a distance,” wrote Gregoline.
She continued, “But I couldn’t have been more wrong–reading words and pictures at the same time came very naturally to me, and I fell in love with that form of reading.”
With a wide variety of topics to choose from, Gregoline had to focus in on a specific subject for her thesis. She commented on that decision process: “For my thesis I initially wanted to focus on narratives of trauma written by women graphic novelists, of which there are many; and I also wanted to focus on why the graphic form is an especially effective vehicle to communicate and process traumatic experiences. But that was much too large a topic, so I decided to focus on something more narrow within the broader field of feminist comics.”
Antelyes commented on Gregoline’s thesis, as he worked closely with her during the process, “Emma’s thesis is very much an original product. A hybrid of text and image, and of her own and others’ artwork… In it she explores what it means for these women to use the comics diary form to embody their perspectives and concerns–to take control of, or do battle with, the ‘blank space’ that haunts so many women.” He continued, “Her essay is brilliant not just in its insights but in the way it uses the image/text form to articulate and expand upon those insights.”
During the process of researching, writing, drawing, and editing, Gregoline got inspiration from many different sources. “I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Gabrielle Bell herself for the project, in person. That was honestly my favorite part. The ‘comic essay’ style was very much influenced by Scott McCloud’s graphic novel Understanding Comics, where he guides you, the reader, throughout the whole thing while he explains how comics work,” she wrote.
Gregoline continued, “My mom is my ultimate guiding light for everything. But in terms of work, there are a lot of hybrid illustrator-cartoonists who I find really inspirational, like Maira Kalman, Vanessa Davis, Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, and Lilli Carré, whose work I think is both visually beautiful and so real…Adrienne Lang, whom I know from home and who graduated last year, has always been such an inspiration to me. Her work is incredible. She has this blog called ‘Venus in Sweatpants’ that everybody should look at.”
Apart from gathering inspiration from the content of these well-established authors and artists, Gregoline had to research their style as well. Antelyes wrote, “Emma worked extraordinarily hard on her essay… the form she invented required a great deal of time and effort not just to produce but to get right. Like all comics, for instance, each of her pages needed to stand on its own as well as within the greater whole, and needed to be designed, from panel to panel, image to image. It’s a very different way of thinking about ideas, which derives, in this case, partly from Emma’s interest in the form as a feminist vehicle.”
On her final product, Antelyes wrote, “Three things struck me about Emma: her commitment to feminism, her initiative in pushing the project beyond an engagement with the books…and her wry sense of humor. I don’t think Emma would have come up with the insights she did if all three of these elements weren’t at work—a keen critical perspective, a talent for personal interactions, and a way of seeing things from unexpected angles.”
Gregoline plans to keep this long-developed interest in graphic novels, and art in general in her life after she graduates this coming spring. “I’m definitely sticking to the graphic arts. I’ve met so many amazing people in the comics community through this project and I hope I can keep doing that. I think everyone can agree that there have been groundbreaking things happening in comics for some time now,” Gregoline commented.