Like a Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road to Revolver, Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a creative quantum leap from A Child’s Life (#15 on this list). More than that, it’s a trailblazing, prophetic stretching of the definition of “graphic novel” itself. Once again using her “Minnie Goetze” stand-in, Diary adapts Gloeckner’s real-life teenage diary, in which she detailed her sexual relationship with her mother’s very adult boyfriend and her own downward spiral into addiction and abuse. Gloeckner also juxtaposes prose passages from her teenage self’s cassette-recorded journal, stand-alone illustrations that portray her experiences as she felt them at the time, actual drawings and comics she created during the years the diary chronicled, and contemporary comics that reflect her adult understanding of the events that befell her. The resulting work has a power far greater than the sum of any of its parts — a blend of youthful naïveté, jaded cynicism, and grown-up empathy that lets no one off the hook yet refuses to judge or condemn anyone, allowing the reader to make those decisions as a sort of proxy for the girl who wasn’t able to do so herself.
Gloeckner’s drive to stay true to the emotional experience of her teenage girl, no matter how sad or silly or horny or ugly or abused or angry or awful, is a model for any artist attempting to tackle difficult subject matter in any medium; Gloeckner’s talented enough to pull it off in three mediums simultaneously. The sheer craft of her drawing shines through throughout, rendering Minnie as a full-fledged human being in defiance of the after-school-special stereotype she could far too easily become.
Originally released in 2002 and adapted into a film in 2015, Diary anticipated the blend of image and text that would become teenagers’ standard way of conveying their own experiences online, but that’s almost beside the point. In and of itself, it shows that in the hands of a cartoonist of sufficient ambition, intelligence, artistry, and empathy, there’s nothing comics can’t do.