Wednesday, April 7, 2010

John Porcellino at Domy

John Porcellino John Porcellino gave a reading at Domy last Friday. I was amazed that he came to Houston at all. Art comics artists on tour to promote their latest book almost never come through Houston. They hit the Northeast, maybe parachute into Chicago and Toronto, then head over to the West Coast. Porcellino amazingly came through Houston and Austin, hit Norman, OK (!), and will be in several Colorado locations over the next few days.

His signing here attracted a standing-room only crowd (in an admittedly small space). I think it was definitely a success. Do you hear that, art comics publishers? Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, First Second, Pantheon, Adhouse, Picturebox, Buenaventura and anyone else I'm missing--send your touring cartoonists through Houston! (Of course, Gary Panter came to Houston when his big book came out, so I shouldn't complain too much...)

The tricky thing for a cartoonist on tour is that it's not obvious what he or she should do besides sign books. Porcellino showed slides and read some of his own strips. This was very effective. He provided a rich context for the strips he read (something that other cartoonists might be loathe to do). The book he was promoting was Map of My Heart, and if you've read it, you know it contains a run of King Cat issues that were done during a particularly rough period in Porcellino's life from 1996 to 2002. When I read it last year, I was a bit put out by the fact that he included everything from those issues--including the fan letters! But he explained that each issue of King Cat (by that time) was a conscious creation. Everything--including the letters he chose to print--were in service of the feeling he wanted to evoke with a given issue.

Porcellino spoke of his early life (much of which can be gleaned from reading his stories)--alienated high school kid, discovers punk rock. (How many times has that story been told?) He started publishing in high school, and continued in college, where he got involved in art and poetry. Then in 1987, he saw his first copy of Factsheet Five.

John Porcellino

"It's no joke to say that when I saw that Factsheet Five, everything changed for me," Porcellino explained. "Suddenly this thing I had been doing that had been kind of meaningful for me in terms of communicating--it wasn't just my friends or people at my school or whatever, it was people all over the world. The possibility for communicating with people this way was vast.

"I never looked back."

He started King Cat in the spring of 1989. By the time he drew the issues in Map of My Heart, he had been doing King Cat for almost a decade. He got married, things were going OK, but then a variety of Job-like misfortunes befell him--a string of serious illnesses (one requiring surgery), a serious case of OCD, divorce, etc. Porcellino describes King Cat as a journal, but you wouldn't really know what was happening to him from reading the issues. He looks backwards to his childhood a lot, and also writes a lot about fleeting moments. He describes himself as being "very interested in looking at in between moments--the kind of things you do day-in and day-out and don't really notice." In this way, some of his work has a strong kinship with Harvey Pekar. Pekar is at his best when he's talking about the "in between moments." (I think one reason Pekar's work has been so disappointing the past few years is that he seems to feel the need to tell "important" stories.)

John Porcellino

During his illness, he would write poems about how he was doing. These poems ended up getting turned into comics. (The vibe at Domy was very much like a poetry reading.) In the Q&A session after the reading, I asked Porcellino if he thought of these pieces as illustrated poems, or were the pieces themselves poems?

"During this period, I was always writing poetry alongside my comics, and over time the two started creeping into each other's territory. A lot of these comics were originally written on paper as poems," he explained. "But that's tricky. I think they are comics. I don't think they're just illustrated poetry, because in the comics form, they work a little bit differently than would just as text."

Then he said something that I think readers of King Cat have likely always sensed. "To me, comics kind of are a form of poetry. Not in all cases, but I think they can very much be that way.

"Like a lot of cartoonists, I view comics as a rhythmic pattern. You're working with meter, you're working with words. The thought of making a comic is breaking up that expression into a way that translates your ideas into meter. It very much has to do with things like meter and word choice and the location of words on the page. The way the words work with each other and within the panels and on the page."

John Porcellino

If you haven't read John Porcellino, I recommend his work highly. Domy has copies of all his in-print books.

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