Unlovable by Esther Pearl Watson

Posted by on March 3rd, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Fantagraphics Books; 416 pp.; $22.99; Two-Color; Hardcover (ISBN: 9781560979555)

Esther Pearl Watson’s Unlovable is a rude, crude and frequently hilarious portrait of suburban teenage life in the 1980s. The book’s narrator, Tammy Pierce, is probably the most hapless 15-year-old girl imaginable. Her home life has nothing to offer; her parents are indifferent, and her little brother is an obnoxious brat. She’s overweight and unpopular. The few friends she has only hang out with her out of boredom, and even then she often has to bribe them. Her life is miserable, but she is anything but depressed. Every moment has urgency for her. She’s crazy-giddy when she’s in a good mood, and drama-queen petulant when upset.

Watson makes Tammy comedy gold. Each episode is superbly paced for laughs, and the naturalistic feel of the proceedings keeps them from lapsing into buffoonery. Some of the material, such as the scatological humor, seems more characteristic of middle school than high school, but everything feels rooted in experience. The narrative generally does a fine job of realizing Watson’s main conceit, which is that the book is an actual 15-year-old’s diary, edited and adapted into cartoon form.

The only significant flaw is with Watson’s visual choices. She’s an experienced artist; her paintings are a gallery mainstay, and she works as an instructor at the Art Center College of Design outside Los Angeles. The cruddy, grotesque look of the art is deliberate; the idea is obviously to emulate the way an actual Tammy would produce it. Unfortunately, teenage girls don’t draw or doodle like this; they tend to want everything pretty and colorful, and they try to hide technical ineptitude with lots of decoration. This is especially true of someone like Tammy. Watson’s artwork, with its stark compositions, primitivist draftsmanship and blah-green wash rendering, is something they wouldn’t be caught dead doing. The look of Unlovable owes more to art-school notions of “authenticity” than any fidelity to its subject.

There’s a lot that suggests Watson’s goal was to create an ersatz version of outsider art. This may give the book some highbrow appeal, but it can’t help but repel just about everyone else. For most people, grotesque primitivism is bad art, no matter how deliberate. Many who might enjoy Unlovable will take one look and pass it by. One wishes Watson had kept her aesthetic pretensions in check, because it is a very entertaining book despite them, and one hopes for it to do well. The second volume is due to hit comics shops today.

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5 Responses to “Unlovable by Esther Pearl Watson”

  1. TimR says:

    are people really put off by “grotesque primitivism”? Some primitivists are critically acclaimed, I can even think of a few with popular appeal.

  2. I’d be interested in seeing your examples. Watson is following the lead of artists like Jean Dubuffet, and those styles have not, to the best of my knowledge, been comfortably assimilated into the popular culture. They’ve certainly been acclaimed within the fine-art community, but that’s not the same thing.

  3. TimR says:

    Roz Chaste, New Yorker cartoonist

    Marjane Satrapi is sort of mildly primitive, not grotesque

    okay, I can’t think of many. It would be interesting to see someone draw a book in the pretend manner of a teenage girl, rather than simply crude.

  4. My feeling is that Chast and Satrapi are more minimalist than primitivist. Like Charles Schulz, they distill information down to the simplest means of expression.

    That’s very different in intent from the art brut or outsider art approach Watson is using. Artists who work in this mode are most often trying to evoke the sort of effort one would see from children or the clinically insane–very expressive but technically unskilled. Other cartoonists who play with this approach include Gary Panter and Ted Jouflas.

    I hope that clarifies the distinction.

  5. Kristy Valenti says:

    Here’s a direct quote regarding her choice to use that style:

    Watson chose to use this art style because in minicomics “I didn’t want to think about rules. Also, I love primitive, self-taught, heta-uma, art brut, etc … “