Newsarama interviews JOHN PORCELLINO

“Interview: John Porcellino” / Newsarama / Henry Chamberlain / December 21, 2009

In America, now suffering for its excess with the Great Recession, you never know who might look down upon you if you don’t own a house, or a car, or the latest gadget. Western society tends to have a problem with identity and status and capitalism and commercialism are always there to provide a quick fix. Maybe these times are converting more people to cherish a more simple life and appreciate what they already have. That back-to-basics lifestyle is what is at the core of what is one of the most significant do-it-yourself enterprises out there, a self-published zine called, “King-Cat Comics & Stories” by John Porcellino who has grown into a significant artist in his own right.

The current issue of “King-Cat Comics & Stories” marks the 20th anniversary of the little zine that has influenced a generation in comics and much more. John Porcellino’s last visit with Newsarama was a few months ago. With the current leg of his book tour completed, here’s a chance to catch up a bit more with the man called the heart and soul of the small press. Here is further insight into his latest collected work, “Map of My Heart” and “Thoreau at Walden.”

Blog@Newsarama: “Map of My Heart” covers six years, 1996 thru 2002, in your life and “King-Cat.” At the start of this period, you were just beginning to study Zen Buddhism. How would you describe that journey and how it has influenced your comics?

John Porcellino: I always say that when I first discovered Zen, it was like finding an old pair of shoes in your closet, that you’d forgotten you had. You put them on and they’re worn-in and comfortable.

Zen practice is the practice of everyday life, so eventually it connects to all aspects of your life. In that way, for me, it connected to comics. Comics became part of my practice.

In a way, meditation probably helped me to slow down a bit and have the patience to really look into small moments, which was something I was always interested in doing with my comics.

Blog@: You make such wonderful observations about nature. And, often, it’s about little creatures that must coexist with us humans and our suburban sprawl. You find the poetry in that. Tell us more about this.

JP: In one of his writings, Thoreau talked about appreciating more the natural environment in which humans have made an impact. I feel the same way. Pure wilderness is amazing, but I was always more attracted to the pastoral, where the fingerprint of human activity is on the land, but it’s not obtrusive, it’s a part of the environment. So I’ve been interested in the way Nature adapts to humans and vice versa.

I think it’s beautiful, and inspiring, that humans are so self-centered, stomping around blindly on the planet, yet Nature rolls on all around us.

Blog@: I love all your top forty lists. Among movies, I see that the Marx Brothers are all-time favorites. Those guys loved to perform and loved people. What do you think of Charlie Chaplin? I think he shares a quality you have of wanting to give back.

JP: I’ve only seen two Chaplin films, “The Gold Rush”– while in high school, and “Modern Times,” last week… so I don’t feel knowledgable enough to comment on Chaplin. As far as giving back, yes, I feel like part of a community, and that we’re all here for each other.

Blog@: What can you tell us about your influences in your work? I’m guessing that James Thurber is one of them.

JP: I’ve read Thurber for years, and I definitely love his work, but I wouldn’t call him an influence. If he was it was very subconscious. My main influences I would say were Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, the Chicago Imagists, Kerouac, Thoreau, John Rooney (college painting teacher), Warhol, punk rock, Jenny Zervakis, Jeff Zenick, and various Buddhist poets and writers.

Blog@: “King-Cat” began in 1989 and is unique in having developed this world-wide grass roots following. Can you speak to that?

JP: I don’t know what to say about that. I appreciate it… it’s humbling, and motivating.

Blog@: Please tell us about a project I am sure is dear to you, “Thoreau at Walden.” I see that you visited Walden. That cabin is pretty small!

JP: One day Jame Sturm emailed me and asked if I would be interested in doing a book on Thoreau… as soon as he mentioned it, I thought “Wow– what a perfect idea!” Thoreau has been a huge influence on me, perhaps the biggest influence on me as an artist, and it was a real honor to work with his writings in that way.

While on tour I finally got to go to Walden Pond. It was a clear, cold morning at the beginning of October, so there were very few people around. It was a joy to walk on those paths. It felt like American holy ground.

Blog@: What would you like to tell us about your book tour? You’ve completed the East Coast leg and there’s still more to come, right? Any stories come to mind?

JP: I toured the Northeast and Midwest in September/October, and hope to make it out to the Southeast and West Coast next spring/summer. The tour was great, but exhausting! I got to see so many new places, and meet so many people, old friends and new. It was inspiring. My life isn’t very dramatic, so I don’t know how many interesting stories I have to tell. It was fun learning how to sleep sitting up in a freezing cold car.

Blog@: Share with us a bit about your own reading of comics. What comics are you currently into? Any thoughts on DC, Marvel, whatever comes to mind.

JP: I’ve been reading mostly some of the great reprints that are coming out nowadays, Little Orphan Annie, Peanuts, Popeye, Walt and Skeezix. I picked up about two boxes full of books and zines while on tour, so I’m set for a long time as far as reading goes. Been learning a bit about the alternative Manga artists, and that’s pretty exciting, it’s a whole new world to explore.

Of contemporary cartoonists, I really love Kelly Froh and Max Clotfelter, Jason Martin, Gabrielle Bell, and all the other usual suspects.

As for DC and Marvel, this year I started reading a bunch of the Jack Kirby reprint series, and it’s no exagerration to say that they’ve totally changed my thinking about comics. They kind of re-inspired me after a long period of self-doubt. But I’m otherwise unfamiliar with anything those companies have put out since the mid-80’s.

Blog@: You’ve written about how suburban life can be comforting. Do you think that’s sort of a human’s natural habitat?

JP: No, I think suburban life is unnatural. It’s comfortable in some ways, if you have a car, and don’t expect to have a community experience. I spent my adolescence in the suburbs, so I have an affinity to them, and a nostalgic kind of longing for them, but in general I think they’re unhealthy and unsustainable. I appreciate more cities and towns. I suppose the most natural environment for humans would be a town large enough to have a cultural scene, but small enough to feel human scaled. By that I would include city neighborhoods. But there should be access to Nature. I don’t know!

Blog@: I love the notes you include in the back of “Map of My Heart.” You provide the initial thoughts that led to some of your comics. In “Psalm,” I thought you stayed out of the house to let your cat, Maisie Kukoc, sleep but you say it was the stars that kept you outside, which makes perfect sense. Could you really hear the living ground?

JP: Yes.

Blog@: You’ve had your share of illness and, in the end, you say it has strengthened you. You speak about not fearing death but, at the same time, loving being alive. Would you say that is the theme to “King-Cat”?

JP: Yeah, in a way it is. Maybe the theme to “King-Cat” is “This is your life, and it’s your job to live it. No one else can do it for you.” Find the sanctity in that.

Blog@: You started “King-Cat” as a youth full of dreams and you’ve kept on with it and seen it mature and prosper. Would you say that “King-Cat” is fullfilling your dreams?

JP: I wouldn’t really think of them as “dreams.” I had something I wanted to pursue, and a way I wanted to pursue it. To have been able to do that to the extent I have has been gratifying.

I always wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be able to communicate to people through my art. At some point that became a reality, to one degree or another. In that way it’s been successful. It feels good to go on.

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