Since 1989, John Porcellino has been recording his diary in comic book form. As seen in the pages of his zine King-Cat Comics, he records both the big and small details of his life – the many journeys taken, the low-pay jobs worked, the relationships started and ended, the fleeting moments that pass almost unnoticed, the books read, music listened to, movies seen.
In From Lone Mountain, the latest collection of his strips covering the years 2003 to 2007, life happens to him; he gets remarried, loses his father and moves to San Francisco. All of these epochal events are covered, often very movingly, in his minimalistic comic strips.
But Porcellino is not really interested in the high drama of life. It’s the interstitial moments that keep catching his eye and ear. At times his evocation of passing time is concentrated down to a few words and a few lines on a single page. It’s a form of the comic-book poetic.
Here, Porcellino tells Graphic Content about life and poetry and the challenge of keeping things simple.
John, where are you now and what are you up to?
I live in Beloit, Wisconsin, a smallish town on the Illinois state line, with my old lady Stephanie and two cats and two dogs and a bunch of birdfeeders. Right now, I’m finishing up the new issue of King-Cat (#78) and preparing to head out on some promotional dates in support of From Lone Mountain. And listening to Fats Domino’s version of Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.
When you were putting together From Lone Mountain and revisiting these strips from more than 10 years ago, what impact do they have on you now? How do you relate to them?
It brings me back to those times, you recall certain things and feelings from the time. It’s interesting to see how I approached comics making in those days, to see and remember the effect my circumstances had on them, especially my OCD – which was in full effect during these days. It made it hard on one hand to produce finished work, but on the other hand there’s a precision to these comics that I appreciate. It was a complicated struggle.
There are raw emotions on show here; the sections on your father in particular. What do you want to put on the page when you sit down to record what’s happened?
I try always to let things flow freely, as naturally as possible. What wants to come out I try to let out. Some of the strips about my dad are direct, depicting, for example, the events taking place while I try to get back to the Midwest to be with him. Others are more obscure, or tangentially related, or depicting my emotional state in the aftermath of his death. That issue is just a picture of me coming to terms with his passing, from all sorts of different angles.
How much work do you have to put into making your strips look so simple?
I always say, it’s harder than it looks. If you have a comics panel with a thousand crosshatch marks in it, it’s easier to hide errors, or missteps in drawing. When you have a comics panel that consists of just three simple lines, they better well be the right three lines. There’s no place to hide in that kind of simplicity. I’m not always happy with every single drawing, I feel I’m always learning, but at this point having drawn comics seriously for 35 or so years, much of it is intuitive. I generally don’t have to redraw much from my first draft. On the other hand, when I do have to redraw a panel, I often have to redraw it 10 times. I either get it on the first go, or I can be in for a slog.
This is a good question. For as long as I can remember I was drawing and writing, and for as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination and love for books, magazines, all kinds of printed matter. So, I think I was just naturally drawn to comics, and, in particular, to zines, to self-publishing. It combined my three early loves: writing, drawing, bookmaking. I’ve been making little zines since my pre-teens. Eventually, I discovered the international zine network and it instantly became my home, my place. Meanwhile, I was studying art too, formally, from my junior-high years. I always knew I was to be an artist and a writer. In college I studied painting, and to a lesser extent got involved with poetry in the English department. But as my college years wore on I began to have more and more qualms about the fine art world, the way it worked, the compromises and politics involved. To me, I wanted to be an artist because I wanted to communicate with people, I wanted to connect with people. I began to see painting as a very inefficient way of communicating. I was struggling a lot with these ideas. I could see that if I were to pursue a career in the “fine arts” it would ultimately be deeply unsatisfying. Meanwhile, I was producing my comics, my zines, and somehow the lightbulb went off over my head, and I realised that that form was the perfect one for me to pursue as an artist. Comics solved a lot of the problems I had with the fine arts world. It was direct, cheap, accessible to all, allowed for a greater degree of autonomy on the artist’s part. Comics, especially self-published comics, broke down the barriers between artist and audience the way punk rock did. It allowed for a more direct connection. In the zine world, the communication involved is a two-way street, between reader and writer. It was perfect. Once I realised all this, I dropped painting and decided to focus specifically on comics as my practice.
Motion or emotion. If forced, which would you choose? Is motion emotional?
Sure, life is emotional, and motion is just part of life. Sometimes movement can be very freeing, clarifying … It changes your perspective and allows you a new look at an old idea, or lets you get an angle on some part of life you hadn’t had before.
My favourite strips of yours are those that work almost as visual haikus. What is the relationship between comics and poetry, would you say?
Many cartoonists note the similarities between comics and music, which I agree with. In the same way, there are similarities between comics and poetry. As I mentioned, I’ve studied and written poetry throughout my life – it has always been a creative part of me. Somewhere around the late nineties I started to more consciously begin to integrate my comics with my poetry. Around this time, many of my comics began life as straight poems – text on a page in poetic form – that I adapted into comics. Any cartoonist will tell you that the deeper you dig into the form, the more nuances and subtleties you find. Comics is a complex artform. You work with words, images, panels, pages … you work with time. Like music and poetry, comics is a form that takes the audience through time. It’s not as static as a fixed image, it’s a flow. The more I looked into comics, and this kind of “flow,” the more similarities to poetry I found. I began approaching many of my comics the way I would a poem. I began working intimately with rhythm, meter, wrestling with words down to the syllables and punctuation choices. All these little tools a cartoonist finds to work with are ways of enhancing or clarifying to the reader that flow of information through time. The same way a poet will use word choices, spacing, punctuation, to translate a rhythmic idea, a cartoonist uses them – not to mention imagery, composition, panels, gutters, and the like. You can use these tools to guide the reader through a work. Much of it bubbles beneath the surface. It’s so subtle that it works without drawing attention to itself. Those are the comics that draw the reader in and move them through the experience effortlessly. I mean, it’s effortless for the reader. There’s a whole lot of effort on the part of the cartoonist. It’s hard work. But it’s gratifying.
We love your lists of the things you love. Name us five things you adore in 2018?
1. Six Moral Tales by filmmaker Eric Rohmer
2. You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends by Dorothy Iannone (Siglio Press)
3. John Coltrane: Complete Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961 (Impulse)
4. “Che la Luna Mezzo Mare” (Old Italian wedding song)
5. Charlie Rich: So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hi/Fat Possum)