An Age of License: A Travelogue, by Lucy Knisley, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2014, 208 pp, ISBN978-1-60699-768-0

Cartoonist and writer Lucy Knisley's body of work has emphasized memoir, autobiography and self-reflection, particularly around the subjects of food and travel, which she uses to discuss matters of family, personal relationships, and philosophies of life. Her latest long form comic, An Age of License, continues in these modes, but with the emphasis on travel.

Age of License begins with a prologue that introduces the travel plans that structure the main part of the book. This particular trip begins with Knisley being invited to talk at a comics convention in Bergen, Norway. Her plans expand as a result of a friendship started in New York, with Henrik, a man from Stockholm, Sweden, who Knisley decides to visit following the convention. From Stockholm, she goes to Berlin, Germany, to visit other friends, and, finally, she meets up with another friend and her mother in France, where her time is spent in Paris, Beaune and Royan.

As indicated by the subtitle, "A Travelogue," Knisely presents Age of License in journal form. With one exception, where she inserts a page reconstructing certain events after the fact, Knisley recounts her travels in linear chronological order, but with gaps. Some pages are given clear dates, and others are not.

While there are certain themes or reflections that reoccur in the text, Kinsley makes no effort to resolve her travelogue into a single, coherent narrative. This is one of the ways in which her book provides an entry point to the experience of travel. Traveling necessarily involves degrees of dislocation. The fragmentary, incomplete, and selective representation of who, what, when and where Knisely visits provides a sense of this experience of dislocation, of feeling both grounded, but also not, of having to deal with familiar tasks - eating, sleeping, walking - in unfamiliar or less familiar places, as well as meeting new people in new places and seeing people you already know in different contexts.

During her time in Stockhom, which turns into a romantic, if fleeting, moment with Henrik, Knisely admits to "distraction" and offers only a few "snapshots" of her visit before heading off to Berlin. While that feeling of distraction, or of not totally having one's bearings, is most intensely and self-consciously communicated during the Stockholm part of her trip, those same feelings, and how they translate into what is, or is not, on the page, is implicit throughout the text.

If there is a connecting thread in the text it is the idea encapsulated by the title, "age of license," which Knisley encounters via an American "wine guy," Denis, who asserts that the phrase is a French cultural concept meant to imply the freedom that young people have to, "experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do ..." From that point, Knisley becomes fixated on the idea, particularly as she discusses different life paths with other people. She is, however, unable to confirm the authenticity of the idea; no one else seems to have heard of this particular turn of phrase, at least not in the way implied by Denis.

Regardless of the provenance of the concept, Knisley's reflections on the "age of license" is one way the text opens discussions of travel and cultural privilege. Here privilege is rooted in age and life-stage, but Knisley also offers passages that feature discussions or personal thoughts on sex and gender, class, and race, and how these different forms of identity enable and authorize, or limit and repress, travel. As already noted, these thoughts are as transient and fragmentary as any other in the book. Her explicit self-reflection on race and class is particularly brief.

Such frustrations can be ameliorated by Knisely's art, which is cartoon-ish in the best sense: her figures and faces are always open and relatable. Kinsley makes everyone in the book clearly distinguishable, but without sacrificing the elegant simplicity of her drawings. Facial expressions, character body language, and contextual details can tell you things about different moments and places that her words or narration do not. Her selective use of color is another level of detail that helps to convey different senses of who, what, and where.

To crib from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden (2008), Lucy Knisley writes her pictures and draws her words. At no point is the subjectivity of her text obscured by detached prose or elided by mechanical reproductions of people and places. Whether in words or in images, as a reader, you are always clearly in conversation with the author. Nod in agreement. Shake your head in frustration. Ask for more. Reading The Age of License invites dialogue and self-reflection on the possibilities of travel and the privileges of mobility.


Abel J and M Madden (2008) Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. New York: First Second.

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Shaun Huston