Pages from Kathy MacLeod’s YA graphic memoir, “Continental Drifter.” Courtesy of Macmillan

Kathy MacLeod has a vision of herself stuck in her mind.

She keeps it with her, as she does with all her memories. The half-Thai, half-American illustrator is an obsessive diarist, and she chronicles the complexities and anxieties of her life as a thirtysomething biracial woman in Bangkok in daily illustrations, many of which feature her visions of her younger self. MacLeod lovingly refers to this character as “Little Kathy.”

Little Kathy has always been a useful narrative device for MacLeod’s comics. Where she often presents her adult self as brooding and longing, struggling to process things like death, depression, substance abuse and social media addiction, Little Kathy emerges as her hopeful, benevolent counterpart. She is a ghost, disappearing soon after she appears, but in “Continental Drifter,” MacLeod’s debut graphic novel, Little Kathy finally becomes the protagonist.

“It’s sort of a gift (to her),” MacLeod says. “The gift of not criticizing Little Kathy all the time, and giving her some love and happiness and care.”

“Continental Drifter,” published in April by First Second Books (an imprint of Macmillan), introduces us to Little Kathy in her present of 1995. Like her older self, Little Kathy lives her life inside her head. She begins the young adult graphic novel as a precocious 10-year-old student at an international school in Bangkok. She spends her days making silly newsletters for her family and counting down the days to an upcoming two-month trip to Damariscotta, a small town of 2,200 in Lincoln County where her father’s family lives. She delights in American sitcoms like “Full House” and “Family Matters,” imagining the American life she’ll live once she sets foot in Maine for the summer.

That Christmas, her father gives her a gift that would alter the course of her days for the next several decades: a lime green diary. This present is not only the inciting incident for “Continental Drifter,” but also for MacLeod’s art. Even her artistic style – undetailed and in heavy pen strokes – feels like it’s scribbled out in the last hours of the day.


“I can’t have a day where I don’t write something down,” MacLeod says. “It’s kind of a neurosis that, if I don’t write it down, then it’ll just disappear.”

MacLeod, now 39, has kept a daily record of her life since that first edition, which she still has. She started a Livejournal when she was 17, inviting an audience into her inner life for the first time. At 19, while attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, she started drawing comics for the school paper, inspired by autobiographical artist James Kochalka.

After college, she started reading her diaries out loud at poetry readings, the panels projected behind her. That led to a gig at BK Magazine, a Blogspot, and briefly, a Patreon (a platform for creators that allows them to sell subscriptions and digital products). “Continental Drifter” is only the latest manifestation of a lifelong passion for visual journaling, one which begins right in the book’s opening pages.

“I knew it was going to begin when I started writing a diary, which is when all the self-awareness comes in,” MacLeod says. “I feel like 10 or 11 is the age you become more self-aware, but then also self-critical and self-loathing.”

Little Kathy arrives in Maine with a heart full of possibility. She dreams of blueberry pie from Moody’s Diner and shopping trips to Reilly’s Grocery. More than anything, she’s looking forward to being able to be American in the warm embrace of her father’s gregarious family.

But soon after entering a local lobster pound, those illusions are shattered. She feels the eyes of the diners upon her and her mixed-race family. She blanches when her mother speaks Thai to her in front of a waitress. Her dreams of living out a “Family Matters” or “Home Improvement” storyline are shattered: she is simply too Thai to be American, too American to be Thai.


“The summers in Maine were an opposite experience to Bangkok in so many ways,” MacLeod says. “The whole sensory experience of being outside among trees and water, and also being with relatives who are very loving, was intense as a kid. The visuals of it became very ingrained in me.”

Comics creator Kathy MacLeod, who grew up between Damariscotta and Bangkok. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

“Continental Drifter” began, as all MacLeod’s work does, as a work for adults. MacLeod, who has self-published several graphic novellas in her career, pitched the book as a collection of short stories centered on the theme of belonging. In that manuscript was a 20-page comic about traveling to Maine as a child and attending summer camp for the first time. MacLeod’s editor urged her to pull that story out, flesh it out, and target it at middle-grade readers.

“Up to this point, I’ve only drawn comics for adults,” MacLeod says. “I thought, ‘I can’t write a book for kids.’ But the more I thought about it, the more fun it seemed, and it’s a relief from having to go very dark or go very heavy but still tell a story full of feeling.”

Little Kathy’s story is full of both dejection and triumph. While away at summer camp, she discovers a penchant for riflery and makes friends with her bunkmates thanks to an auspicious book of Mad Libs. These moments send her to her diary beaming. But when a misunderstanding about who Ricki Lake is and a pair of paper underpants sabotage her, she returns to her diary to cross out the old entries and replace them with messages about how stupid she was to believe she could belong.

This is where MacLeod would usually flash forward to herself as an adult, illustrating how these memories metastasized into present-day hang-ups and insecurities. But re-orienting the story for a younger audience and keeping it framed in her childhood allowed MacLeod to give herself a happy ending. “Continental Drifter” ends on a moment of actualization, a victorious sendoff ripped right from one of her favorite sitcoms.

MacLeod says, at first, it felt dishonest to close on such a happy moment, knowing how difficult the years after would be. But Little Kathy’s gift to MacLeod is the forgiveness to end the story as she boards her flight home to Bangkok, a little more wounded than before, but full of strength and resolve – completely free of the weight of what might come after.

“To cut that out, was very freeing, because it gave the book a lot of possibility,” MacLeod says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Little Kathy’s doomed to have trauma as an adult because of her childhood,’ it was like, ‘OK, this is just childhood, you can end it on hope.’”

Jerard Fagerberg is a freelance writer and product manager based in Kittery. He writes about beer, culture and food for publications like Good Beer Hunting, VinePair and InsideHook.

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