ArtForum looks at Julie Doucet's career and work

Panels from Julie Doucet's work
“Life or Something Like It” / ArtForum / Hillary Chute / July 25, 2014

DARK, FUNNY, FEMINIST, and executed in gorgeously controlled rich black-and-white, the iconic comics work My New York Diary (1999) sealed the reputation of Montreal-based cartoonist Julie Doucet. The publication of Doucet’s first long-form narrative (originally serialized in her acclaimed comic book series Dirty Plotte [Dirty Cunt] beginning in 1993), earned her a surge of recognition from multiple corners of contemporary culture, and paved the way for a whole host of graphic memoirs to come, especially by women. One can see the influence in Doucet’s work of underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who has published her own edgy autobiographical stories since the early 1970s—especially in the attention given to the everyday grain of romantic relationships and to the force, as a negative or positive proposition, of the bodily. Indeed, Kominsky-Crumb was the first to publish Doucet in the US, in the hugely significant post-underground comics venue Weirdo (1981–1993), the anthology founded by R. Crumb that Kominsky-Crumb edited from 1986 on. Weirdo saw itself as a more populist counterpart to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s high-production and design-oriented RAW (1980–1991); Doucet appeared there in 1989 and 1990.

But even while Doucet emerged in Weirdo alongside important autobiographical cartoonists such as Phoebe Gloeckner, in retrospect the publication of My New York Diary in 1999 feels as though it banged open doors that were already ajar. My New York Diary became a signal text: for its intimate revelations (miscarriage, drugs, epilepsy); its bold, confident draftsmanship; and its spot-on presentation of decline—of crumbling relationships and of charismatic men overwhelmed by insecurity. My New York Diary charts the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that brings Doucet, in her late twenties, from Montreal to Manhattan. While it brilliantly reveals a young person’s early 1990s New York—the characters take in a Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black show, for instance, and go to a RAW party at Limelight—the book’s central theme, one might say, is timeless and translocational. Anybody who has lived in New York—or had a romance with its grittiness, as the central characters here are wont to do—will relate with pleasure to the thick visual texture of the book and Doucet’s love of detail: the swarming streets, full of trash and possibility, and rooms in which no patch of space is unattended or insignificant.

But the book appeals so widely because it is such a canny chronicle of a bad relationship. The cover to the original edition (there have been several reprintings and translations) features an angry Godzilla Julie, drawn in black ink, looming over a colorful, photographic Manhattan. She grimaces and throws off what Mort Walker called emanata from her head—the classic cartoon symbols of perplexity and consternation—as planes and helicopters circle close. (On the back cover she’s crying—and a plane is taking off above her.)

My New York Diary is a riff on the künstlerroman genre of the novel, in which one witnesses an artist’s creative maturation. The book opens with two episodes before Julie moves to New York: “The First Time” (nine pages) and “Julie in Junior College” (twenty-five). The title page of the first, with its awkwardly arranged vertical slabs of handwritten text, brilliantly forces the reader following the words (“I (Julie) was 17 at the time….”) to optically traverse the looming face of a dark-haired man; we sense the adolescent awe and longing for the romantic figure he cuts with his shaggy tresses and aviator frames. On the next page, we first encounter Julie with a pencil in hand at her desk, happily sketching a man and a woman. Sexuality and mark-making are intertwined as registers of desire. Soon Julie falls for the classic “I’ll show you my paintings” line out of earnest desire to connect with other artists; at the painter-in-question’s apartment, she thinks “YUK!!” at the work but “Oh well . . .” when he kisses her; and so she passively loses her virginity. In art school, she takes on lovers, all fellow students, in an almost distracted state as she tries to fill her sketchbook.

Julie’s enthusiasms, and thus the book’s scope of attention, always feel stronger for art than for the predatory men who walk into her life and siphon off her energy. Yet these relationships are always lurking. This narrative is amplified once she moves to New York, where she finally dispenses of the unhealthy pattern with vehemence. The New York boyfriend is a medium dashing, Nick Cave–manqué skinny-jeans and boots-wearing pen pal—Julie is part of a punk culture network of through-the-mail exchange—who quickly becomes a lover once they meet. (Cartoonist John Porcellino, of King-Cat Comix, is another more benign pen pal here.) The boyfriend is an aspiring cartoonist collecting unemployment and living in Washington Heights. When she moves in with him in 1991—Doucet dates each scenario precisely—she is already a cartoonist of note. Doucet shows herself trying to draw the next issue of Dirty Plotte at the kitchen table while the boyfriend encourages her to drink more beer. She never lets go of the work of being an artist, while he’s content to drop acid, snort coke, do whippets, and play Candyland. One serious breaking point comes when he demands to accompany her to an invited appointment with the Village Voice; when she draws a cover of the alternative weekly New York Press, he calls to tell her he’s seen it all over . . . in trash cans. The book tracks how shy Julie ultimately comes to accept the public recognition of comics and art communities over the sealed-off universe of her sulky, unambitious lover.

My New York Diary is the trenchant, charming result of the efforts of control and independence featured in its own narrative. Its stunning visual density, in which every drawing, enclosed in a frame, feels like it is about to walk off the page, lends Doucet’s work a constant sense of movement and animism that indicates future horizons of her work, and comics at large.

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