Monday, April 15, 2013

Comics as Visual Performance Art - Jenna Marbles' Amazing Draw My Life

I recently discovered the YouTube videos of comedian and filmmaker Jenna Marbles. She's been making videos for a little while now, and is very popular, racking up over a billion views on her channel. Unsurprisingly, I'm usually a fair bit behind the curve on internet memes and celebrities and the like, but the recent New York Times profile on Marbles (real name Mourey) opened my eyes to her hilarious short comedy films, and Marbles' latest video opened my eyes to a new subgenre of video-blogging that blurs the lines of the language of comics as performance art.

Marbles' comedy is irreverent and incisive, tearing down conceptions of beauty and gender. Her videos are short, lo-fi, completely self-produced and largely self-shot, featuring consistently funny critiques or observations often quickly jump-cut in the five-ish minute videos. Part of a new generation of comedians whose videos are simply made and often shot straight-on in classic vlog-style, Marbles has parlayed her extreme popularity into a wealthy living without resorting to product endorsements or changing the style that has made her a household name to millions.

Though much of her work is shot in her home and often features her pets, her work is not necessarily autobiographical, so her new video Draw My Life (below), the latest in a wave of similar autobiographical cartoon-perfomance pieces, breaks the mold of what she has done before. It also remarkable illustration of a new subgenre of videos appearing on YouTube that breaks the mold of what is possible with the language of comics.

The video is representative of the "Draw My Life" genre, a straight-down shot of Marbles drawing on a simple dry-erase board, sped-up with Marbles' straightforward narration laying out a brief outline of her life, from childhood to her current fame. While some "Draw My Life" videos use post-production effects, Marbles' sticks to just her cartooning. The problem with so many autobiographies, comic and prose, is that they are boring, about uninteresting people or lack focus. The same goes for most of the "Draw My Life" videos. Marbles' video is funny, but it is also a pensive, honest, reflective work of autobiography touched with loss, uncertainty and sadness. Marbles covers the broad strokes of her life in eight minutes but it works because it is about the emotions of life and the small things that make us who we are. Any memoir is selective, and here her narrative here can be seen as rather sad - ultimately it isn't. Life is a weird journey filled with professional and personal mishaps that build to who we are. The video is ambiguous. While she may not be happy with her personal situation and the losses she has suffered along the way - the loneliness and uncertainty of life that we all share - she has found some modicum of professional success and artistic satisfaction, a success she knows may be fleeting.

But is the work just a straight-forward presentation of her drawing things out as she describes the events of her life? Is it animation? Or is it a unique form of comics?

First, as noted Marbles' approach here is not unique. Of the wave of "Draw My Life" videos on YouTube now, Marbles' is just the latest and now likely most viewed. (It is also really, really good.) If you coupled her narration as written prose presented underneath her drawings, the work would undeniably be considered comics, perhaps on the outside edge of the commonly accepted view of comics that we find in illustrated non-sequential narrative panels. Draw My Life - both the genre growing on YouTube, but especially Marbles' video - is comics as performance art, where the production of the piece plays a role in the piece itself, the finished product a sequence of moving (but not animated) images underlined by the audio component of the narration. Here it works better as an audiovisual presentation because of the pensiveness in Marbles' narration that we may not necessarily get in just still images and prose, though its role as an audiovisual piece could move it outside the realm of comics. And some could argue that her narration could carry the piece on its own, without the need for any imagery. But her rough, whimsical cartooning presents vital representative illustrations of her life story, and adds to the comedy of the piece. The combination of the images and her narration play with the same exact mechanisms of standard comic storytelling, but where Marbles controls the pace with the added audio aspect of the work. To say this is a comic may be a stretch for some, perhaps it is better understood as animation. But I'd make the argument that not only is Marbles' Draw My Life (and most of the Draw My Life videos) a comic in its own right, but a damn fine one at that. A unique melding of the comics language with the added bit of performance, it tells a story of someone's life in all its sadness and joy, briefly but with an acute perceptiveness.

Many of Marbles' videos show her to be a funny and very comics-geeky comedian. Draw My Life shows her potential as a graphic memoirist.

View Draw My Life here. Visit Jenna Marble's YouTube channel here.

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