Early this month, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel This One Summer became the first graphic novel to win a Caldecott Honor, one of the most prestigious awards for American children’s books. As the illustrator, Jillian received the award, and fresh off that win, she writes and storyboards an episode of Adventure Time that impresses with its lush visuals and deep emotional substance. From the detailed natural environments to the poignant story of a young woman discovering what she wants from life, “Diary” is an incredibly rich 10 minutes of television, spotlighting the skills that have made Tamaki such a bold voice in the illustration world.
As an illustrator, Tamaki has a talent for creating immersive, meticulously detailed environments, but she doesn’t lose any expression in that specificity. Her character designs are as painstaking as her settings, but her figures are full of emotion and personality in their animated body language and facial expressions. There’s a reason she was just awarded one of the highest honors for illustrators, and Adventure Time is lucky to have her on the creative team, first with the hauntingly surreal “Astral Plane” and now with “Diary.” I didn’t know what to expect from Tamaki’s first episode as sole writer and storyboard artist, but I had a feeling that it would be breathtaking. And I was right.
“Diary” is a stunning episode, maintaining the distinct stamp of the artist’s print work because it’s a mash-up of the things she does well: Like the graphic novels This One Summer and Skim (both written by Jillian’s cousin Mariko), this episode has lots of arresting natural imagery, heightening the romantic elements of the story with shots of tall grass, falling tree petals, and sherbet sunsets as Jake’s son T.V. (Dan Mintz) becomes engrossed in the diary of B.P. (Alia Shawkat), a mysterious teenage girl. And like Tamaki’s webcomic SuperMutant Magic Academy (collected in print this May by Drawn & Quarterly), “Diary” gives her the opportunity to explore teenage emotion in an environment where she can let her imagination run wild, using candy teen drama to make poignant observations about human nature.
With his regular gig as Bob’s Burgers’ Tina Belcher, Dan Mintz is very well versed in playing characters that easily get lost in their fantasies, and he fully commits to the imagined scenarios T.V. and his father come up with as they try to solve the mystery of B.P.’s diary. That commitment makes the fantasy a reality for the character, and there’s a very real sense that T.V. is walking in Betsy’s shoes as he fills in the missing bits of the diary. Mintz and John DiMaggio have great chemistry together, and there’s a similar vocal quality in their performances that helps strengthen the father-son bond. T.V. is much more deadpan and intense than his father, but it’s not hard to see him becoming more like Jake as he grows out of this angsty shut-in stage.
Like Mintz, Alia Shawkat has played a similar character to young Betsy Poundcake with her portrayal of Arrested Development’s Maeby, a girl suffering her own teenage identity crisis, and you can hear a bit of Maeby in those moments when Betsy gets especially angry and frustrated in her diary. But for the most part, Betsy is a much calmer, gentler character than Maeby, giving Shawkat the opportunity to show off her softer side. Shawkat’s voiceover makes Betsy an immediately sympathetic heroine, creating a moving portrait of a shy, bookish young girl that falls desperately in love and loses herself in the process.
After her obsession leads to personal injury and abandonment, Betsy begins to readjust her priorities, choosing to leave her old life behind to live in a cave and study to become a nurse. In a letter to her boyfriend Justin, she details the reasoning behind her decision, and it’s an inspiring speech performed with a lot of warmth by Shawkat. Just in case there are any actors looking for a slightly offbeat monologue for a teenage character, here’s the letter in all its insightful glory.
I’m not sure you’ll ever read this letter. Maybe I’m writing this more for myself anyway. You know when you’re little and the future feels really far away? You don’t know what it looks like, you just hope you’ll have stuff figured out by then. You’ll know exactly how to act, and feel. You’ll have conquered all your fears, and you’ll never feel dumb or uncomfortable. You don’t think about how you’ll actually get there. The middle parts, between now and then, the middle parts suck. Which is why I split, I guess. OK, so riding out your teen years in a cave is pretty dramatic, but do you know how much reading you get done in a cave? I even figured out a cure for my crab hand! Oh Justin, I hope you’re not too upset. And I hope you didn’t spend too much money on that birthday present. It wouldn’t have worked out between us anyway. You’re kind of clingy.
Sincerely, Nurse Betsy Poundcake
That is a speech that every kid should hear. Life can be an adventure, sure, but sometimes it sucks. It’s easy to imagine this perfect image of your adult life when you’re a child, but it’s a lot harder to comprehend the trials that are standing in the way at that age. The limits become clearer as you age, and it requires work to break through those barriers, work that some people just don’t want to do. Or are never given an opportunity to do. And that really sucks, when you’re never even given the chance. Betsy needed to find a way to make the middle part suck less, so she took some time away and found her true passion, becoming a nurse that has helped the citizens of the Candy Kingdom through numerous disasters.
I don’t know what T.V. wanted his life to be like, but I doubt that he dreamed of growing up to live at his mom’s house playing video games all day. Yet he’s pleased enough with this status; he enjoys his hobbies, and loves getting lost in fantasy worlds. He’s choosing to live vicariously, which is satisfying in its way, but not emotionally fulfilling. It’s why it’s so easy for him to fall into these fantasies. He’s looking for something to fill that emptiness, and hopefully Betsy’s story inspires him to take some initiative, get out of his mom’s house, and pursue something that will make him truly happy.
Maria Bamford rounds out the voice cast playing both a music box maker and Betsy Poundcake’s present-day self, and as usual, she’s brilliant. The music box maker doesn’t get much screen time, but makes a big impression, particularly with this line: “I must have made hundreds of boxes since then, each marrying sound and motion to tell a unique story. The dance of the cosmos in miniature.” Bamford’s performance lends a gravitas to the line that makes me think Tamaki intends it to have deeper meaning beyond the art of music box making; each episode of Adventure Time marries sound and motion to tell a unique story, and over time it has built a miniature cosmos that is pretty damn expansive.
Thanks to distinct voices like Jillian Tamaki, this series has remained engaging as it grows, never losing its playful spirit as the writers adds more elements to the narrative. The show has gained a lot of depth by employing some of the strongest voices in comics and illustration to flesh out the world of Ooo, and T.V. now feels like a more significant part of this show thanks to Tamaki. She brought her own personality to the show to define T.V.’s character, creating something wonderful by catering to her strengths as an artist while working within the Adventure Time house style. Hopefully there’s more work from Tamaki lined up in this series’ future, because she has a perspective that could help this show mature in a meaningful way.
- The title card for this episode is perfection. Immediately sets the tone and indicates the high level of detail Tamaki will bring to the visuals.
- Jake’s transformation from real dog to cartoon dog is one of the coolest uses of his powers ever. It’s also very eerie.
- I didn’t mention the confirmation that Susan Strong is a human last week. So here is that mention.
- There’s a dude in Lumpy Space that can get you a Nosy Nellies bootleg 7-inch. Mochi has the hook-up.
- I love the little creatures that help bring the environments to life, like the curious squirrel in the tree above TV and the mouse that gets eaten by a hungry owl. The mouse and owl bit is a nice bit of black comedy that foreshadows Justin and Betsy’s doomed relationship.
- “‘If you are still reading this you are a bad person.’ Ehnnn statute of limitations.”
- Betsy: “I’m a nobody. Less than nobody. I’m a pimple on the butt of a—“ TV: “Geez, B.P. Prone to dramatics much?”
- Taffi: “Is it insane?” Mochi: “It’s almost too insane.”
- “I never win at Canasta!”
- “I’m sure he’s fine. (Cut to TV rolling in the empty moat.) Uh oh.”
- TV: “Mom?” Jake: “Ehn, close enough.”
- “Why do they call this Lovetree Point?” Jake: “Because of that tree over there. (Pan to tree with heart-shaped bark.) Yeah, it’s pretty heavy-handed.”
- “Oh, yes. Yes, this is one of mine. From my dancing cat period.”
- “The box said she does weird stuff to bodies up there.”