REVIEW: The Fire Never Goes Out – Noelle Stevenson

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Author: Noelle Stevenson (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Harper Teen

Genre: Memoir, comic, non-fiction

From Noelle Stevenson, the New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of Nimona, comes a captivating, honest illustrated memoir that finds her turning an important corner in her creative journey and inviting readers along for the ride.

In a collection of essays and personal mini-comics that span eight years of her young adult life, author-illustrator Noelle Stevenson charts the highs and lows of being a creative human in the world.

Whether it s hearing the wrong name called at her art school graduation ceremony or becoming a National Book Award finalist for her debut graphic novel, Nimona, Noelle captures the little and big moments that make up a real life, with a wit, wisdom, and vulnerability that are all her own.

I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson’s for a while. I loved Nimona, and all the fun comics and fanart Stevenson filled her tumblr with – I even bought Fangirl simply because she had drawn the cover art. But, along with that, I loved getting to know Stevenson herself through her personal art, and her year-in-review posts that she put out at the end of every year. In the same way I did with Lucy Knisley, I felt a personal investment in her wellbeing and success, even though we’d never met. I was so delighted when I heard she was helming She Ra and the Princesses of Power, and even more so to hear she was releasing a book, a memoir, based around these personal drawings she used to post on tumblr.

When the book was announced, Stevenson explained that she has always doodled on post-it notes, and these doodles and drawings became a diary of her thoughts, feelings, and struggles through some very difficult periods of her life. Through these small, simple illustrations, she examines her personal relationship with religion, her career, her sexuality, and her mental health. Sometimes she shares a cute little doodle about washing up, other times she dives deep into the mental health issues which are causing her so much pain.

Interspersed with these doodles are the annual posts she did on Tumblr, where she gave an overview of the year she’d had. This, to me, is what makes the book particularly poignant and relatable. In all these posts, she glosses over the hard things, trying to put a positive and happy spin on the year. She mentions in asides the difficulties and discomforts, but generally seems to try to project an image of happiness. Her comics then contrast this sharply, as she struggles with her personal demons and strives to do more and be better, but she doesn’t know what she needs to do more of or be better at to satisfy the fire that dogs her through the years.

It struck home for me, as I recognised myself in that juxtaposition. I’ve spoken on here before about my own mental health issues, and I’ve grown better at recognising the patterns of behaviour. As an optimist and someone who strives to be positive and happy, seeing the difference between the comics she drew at the time the feelings were fresh, and the summaries she wrote later, I recognised in it a desire for everything to be good. A desire to be happy and see only the positives. But there’s also the issue of potentially minimising dark, difficult periods of your life to blips, to things which weren’t worth noting, and then pushing on in spite of these until it happens again. And again. And it gets slightly bigger and more difficult to handle every time.

While this book lacks the formality of narrative that you would get in Lucy Knisley’s books, what it offers instead is the intimacy of immediacy. We see these thoughts, feelings, and concerns as they happened, as Stevenson herself is trying to process them and work them out, rather than through the lens of later consideration and planning. There’s no set script or structure here, just the journey of thoughts and incidents that happened during the course of daily life, and these are the things she wanted to examine more closely. You can see what was occupying her thoughts, and how she was trying to deal with it in her own way and puzzle it out. The only translation we get are the collection of 12-month reviews she writes, and as I mentioned earlier, these only tell some of her story.

Having moved off Tumblr for a while, largely due to a sudden massive increase in adverts, I had lost track of Stevenson’s career until I stumbled across her on Twitter and found the announcement that she was helming She-Ra. It was wonderful to see how far she’d come, and still more so to see how happy she is now. This book is a testament to everything she has worked and pushed herself to achieve. It ends with a photograph from her wedding last year to her wife, and fellow artist and animator Molly Knox Ostertag, and they both look giddy with joy. It’s a wonderful way to end a book which has been filled with struggle and self-doubt. Stevenson is clearly someone who wants to try and find and see the positive in everything, and in choosing that image to end the book, she’s sending a clear message to her readers, and perhaps to the univerise. Things are better, and she’s going to be happy.

Briefly:

– A deeply personal collection of drawings and blog entries through a period in Stevenson’s life when she was finding herself and working out who she really was outside of other people’s expectations.

– The nature of the drawings, as doodles on post-it notes, means that most of them are very simple, but every so often some will appear with unexpected complexity that it takes a minute to remember these are all hand-drawn pieces on scraps of paper.

– This book has been curated and collected with a very light touch. Stevenson doesn’t want to tell you how you should feel about what you’re seeing, or even how she feels about it now. She simply presents her thoughts to you as she had them at the time, and leaves it to you to decide how to interpret them yourself. It’s not as formal as Knisley’s work, but it engages the reader in a different way.

Rating: 4/5 – The nature of the book is that it doesn’t going into depth on a lot of things, so I read it easily in an afternoon. I can see myself easily dipping in and out of it again over time.

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