Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Fire Never Goes Out’

“Climbed the mountain and I reached for the sky, I thought that I had it all”

I’m a fan of Noelle Stevenson’s work, so when I saw she had a memoir coming out, even though I tend to dislike memoirs, I got it to support her work. Was it the right move? We shall see! This is published by Quill Tree Books, in case you want to know.

After reading it, I can say … it’s only worth it a little. I mean, I’m glad I got it because I do want to support good creators, and it’s an interesting look at how someone can make it the comics field and the animation field (Stevenson was the showrunner for She-Ra). Stevenson worked extremely hard during the 2010s (the book begins in 2011 when Stevenson is 18/19) and she also got lucky, which is a good combination for success. The memoir is about both her work and how she crumbled a bit as she failed to care for herself, until she figured it out, got married, and pulled things together. It’s a nice, inspirational story, and Stevenson uses both prose and comics to tell it. She visually shows how she feels, which takes the form of holes in her body and flames shooting from her and eventually spikes extending from her. None of those images are unique, of course, but usually, we read about them, and Stevenson showing them visually is an interesting choice. She intersperses photographs throughout, and her drawings veer from doodles to more intricate compositions. It’s an interesting journey through a young person’s life as she figures out that she’s gay, that she realizes that work isn’t everything, and that she understands that she needs therapy to deal with her world. All of these are positive things.

However … it’s not enough. Memoirs are tricky things, because the person being examined is, after all, the person doing the editing. So while Stevenson is telling us about the dichotomy between being successful in her career but losing ground in her personal life, it still feels like she’s leaving things out. When she finally gets to the part where she goes into therapy and goes on medication, she becomes even more cagey. She never discloses her diagnosis, and her transformation from anguished individual to more fully realized person happens in two short paragraphs. She does point out how she had romanticized her problem, thinking she was being a good “tortured writer” and how that’s all bullshit, and that’s good, but she’s still keeping us at arm’s length. This is a memoir of someone who is not willing to completely put herself out there, either because she’s afraid or because she didn’t want to put the people in her life into the book. You might say that the diagnosis is unnecessary, but I would say, Why is she doing a memoir, then? It appears that she’s doing this in “real time” – that, say, when she’s writing about 2013, she’s writing about it in the year 2013, so if she doesn’t know her diagnosis then, she wouldn’t be examining things in that context, but once she does get diagnosed, her troubles seem to lift and she blasts into the bright future. I know it’s not that easy, I suspect you know it’s not that easy, and Stevenson probably knows it’s not that easy. So why does she elide that portion of her life? I get that some people don’t want everyone to know about their personal lives. I get it. If Stevenson felt that way, she could have written only about her professional career. By only slightly delving into her personal life, she promises things but doesn’t deliver on them. You might think that’s a “me” problem. Well, sure. But I’m the one writing the review!

Memoirs are hard, I get it. You may think you’re going to be honest about yourself because you know people will accept you no matter what, but no one is completely honest about themselves, and that’s fine. I’ve often said my favorite memoir is Erika Moen’s DAR, which is not only hilarious, but utterly fearless, as Moen is extremely candid about herself. But she has told me personally that she wouldn’t do that again, because people have said some extremely awkward things to her and her husband due to their reading DAR, and they think they know her intimately (people are fucking weirdos, man). If Stevenson is afraid of delving too far into her mental illness for any reason, I get it. It can be a terrifying thing to write about things that you believe make you “worse” than others. But she brings them up, which piques our curiosity, but then retreats, making it sound like she has an issue that can easily be overcome, and that’s a disservice. So this becomes disappointing because it doesn’t go far enough.

I enjoy this book because it’s a fascinating look at how someone can actually become successful but hate that success, not because she thinks she doesn’t deserve it, but because she doesn’t necessarily know how to stop. Yes, “how to stop being successful” sounds like a completely douchey thing, but you know what I mean – the drive to succeed can consume people, and with Stevenson, she thought that was all there was, and she didn’t think to take care of herself in the process. So it’s an interesting book in that regard, but it still feels like Stevenson is keeping the readers at arm’s length. In a memoir, that’s deadly. So it’s a bit of a disappointment. I’m glad I got it, as I noted above, but I wish there had been more to it. Is that so wrong?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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