It’s impossible to convey, to anyone who didn’t stumble across the stuff on their own, the evanescent but ferocious intensity to be found in the photocopied page of any zine or comic from the late eighties and early nineties. Self-publishing in those days showed you, the reader, a culture being ripped apart, at the seams and straight through the middle, while on fire, the raw guts of oppression and abuse and injustice exposed and left behind to rot while you watched with a beer from a spot near the stage. The French Canadian artist and comics creator Julie Doucet invented a character, named Julie Doucet, who let you tag along as she did exactly that, can in hand, enjoying the show. Starting in 1987 in the pages of the fanzine Dirty Plotte and then continuing on through a comic-book series of the same name as well as several graphic novels, Julie-the-character gallivanted semi-innocently about the club, the city, the country (any country), concerned primarily with her own pleasure as the Berlin Wall crumbled somewhere behind her, a sign that the cultural undoing you felt in your bones had tangible political effects.
The daring adventures of Julie Doucet’s smart, hot, disheveled, and sometimes rageful imaginary self just goofing off or engaging in semierotic play with an array of mammalian coconspirators have seared themselves into the minds of a generation of readers. These fanciful images from a world in flux pointed the way for creators seeking inspiration from nocturnal visions and creators with stories to share from their own experiences. Not to mention creators—women and nonbinary ones, in particular—who hadn’t had impetus to imagine themselves in the creative role before coming across Doucet’s work. Among other merits, Doucet’s strips gifted the field of comics with the hope that creators who are not male might eventually see mainstream acceptance. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Yet I admit that when I’m asked about important comics, or the importance of comics, the signature scenes from Doucet’s oeuvre—Julie the man, Julie at a club, Julie hopping into a tub to scrub her cooter, Julie in flagrante with her elephant lover—are not the images that immediately pop into my head.
The panel that springs to mind instead is a quiet, domestic scene. Julie-the-character plays a minor role while her various home goods—discarded beer bottles, half-used condiments, an iron, forks, lamps, et cetera—carry the action. The panel comes toward the end of one of her many dream comics, a plethora of narratives in which the renowned creator presumably lays bare the machinations of her subconscious mind. These are often transcribed in gruesome, delightful detail: Julie as a gunslinger dies alone in a saloon. Julie is upset that she can’t find a decent brassiere at a basement warehouse sale (clearly a dream; Julie-the-artist didn’t wear bras at the time). Julie turns into a man overnight and—lucky her—meets up with Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and makes a sex date with him. The very definition of dreamy!
Doucet’s dream comics are something of an extension of her most beloved work, semiautobiographical tales of her imagined self—a bolder, louder version of the real-life artist—responding to semireal or pseudoreal scenarios that occasionally get unreal super fast. The dreams tend to be dictated by an interior logic that the reader becomes familiar with over the course of her Drawn & Quarterly series Dirty Plotte, black-and-white standard-size pamphlet comic books (“floppies”) published from 1991 to 1998 that contain the bulk of her internationally distributed comics output. While the dream comics often seem motivated by fear or anxiety, the comics that explore the artist’s idealized persona are instigated most frequently by joy, desire, and curiosity. My favorite comics panel—the one that pops into my mind unbidden when I’m asked about the possibilities of the comics form, or my bizarre and oft-wavering devotion to it—reflects a mixture of these emotional states: a quivering, vibrant panel crammed with the promise of both terror and delight.
This particular dream story is from the first of the floppies, although the dream itself ranks among the lesser convolutions of Julie-the-artist’s sleeping-mind logic. I must work to remember what happens in it, in fact, recalling at first only that the narrative trades in some sort of low-grade creepiness. Yet on the final page of the strip, Julie-the-character is awake, surrounded by small appliances in the comfort of her own home, no longer scared. Our protagonist remains confused by the dream and is as disheveled as always. Significantly, her sleepiness distracts her from the fact that her kitchen utensils, food containers, and electrical gadgets have all gathered just below her line of vision, on top of the table and along the floor, intent on annoying, harming, or murdering our heroine as she goes about her normal just-got-out-of-bed-from-a-nightmare business. The angry mob surrounding Julie-the-character is drawn with a line that is both anxious and playful, as if the hand that drew it were unable to contain its own energy. A fluted, used cereal bowl, spoon still intact, adopts a leadership role at the head of the mob; unwashed water glasses ooze germs and resentment. The table is stippled in an unpracticed hand, marking the strip as early in the artist’s oeuvre, which adds to the ensuing chaos; the bathrobe that Julie-the-character throws on upon waking portends the artist’s later post-comics abstract print work.
The relish with which an actual jar of relish threatens our protagonist is silly, inquisitive, thoughtful, endearing, and ultimately terrifying. All while Julie-the-character’s smiling visage is warmly contented by the notes she jots in her dream journal, a device that allows her to speak directly to the reader from the page without breaking the diegetic spell, remaining oblivious to the dangers that seem set to befall her once the strip ends.
Entitled “dreamt February 17 1990,” the final panel of this comic is intentionally destabilizing. We are, perhaps, to read the concerns that Julie-the-character’s brain imagines at rest as insignificant compared with the dangers that await Julie-the-artist, awake in the kitchen. But are the real-life threats physical? Emotional? Metaphorical? Purely imagined? Exacerbated by paranoia or clumsiness or slovenliness? Or maybe—and this is what gets me about that final panel every time it pops into my mind, which is almost every day, and which also presents the most likely possibility—a batch of murderous home goods is just a goddamn blast to draw, and Julie-the-artist has foisted it upon the world to terrorize us all a teeny, tiny bit, simply because she fucking felt like it.
Doucet’s work, overall, is nothing but destabilizing. It throws readers for loops; it brought momentum and new creators to independent comics; it inspired one of today’s most important publishers to develop solo-authored lines and thus acted as a flagship for the black-and-white boom even as it cleared a path for the graphic-novel boom a decade later; it changed our very presumptions about who can and will master the form of comics. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Julie Doucet’s comics changed history. Yet what’s never been clear to anyone—the enduring mystery of the murderous home goods, if you will—is how much the upending of the form was ever truly the artist’s intention.
I pressed Doucet once on the question. After gushing over the panel in an interview, I queried her on its visceral sense, lodged somewhere between imagination, dream, and reality, pointedly asking what she intended it to depict. Is it inward or outward perception? Silliness? Anxiety? Rage? Her response couldn’t have been more destabilizing.
“Oh, I don’t even have an iron,” she told me.
Julie Doucet launched her comics career with the self-published Dirty Plotte in Montreal in 1987, after placing individual strips in a student anthology and contributing to a friend’s short-lived collaborative fanzine. For fourteen issues, she drew, wrote, and collaged the minicomic in her apartment on a monthly basis. The first issue was advertised in Factsheet Five, then a five-year-old print periodical from California devoted to reviews and ads for the independent press. Factsheet Five was one of a handful of publications to offer wide access to the smaller, weirder, independent projects that people like Doucet were crafting all around the globe before the appearance of the Internet. Called fanzines or, in more recent years, zines, such publications are hand forged by people whose work doesn’t fit into aboveground, mainstream, or corporate-produced magazines, and are disseminated throughout the cultural underground. The original term refers to the science-fiction fan communities that developed the earliest independent print periodicals, an alternative mode of publishing particularly vital for female, queer, and nonbinary sci-fi writers, who rarely saw their work included in more popular outlets.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, the independent press grew rapidly. The fall of the Berlin Wall eliminated a major barrier to the global spread of capitalism and its favored product, media, and Doucet’s popularity was aided by the worldwide hunger for authentic international voices. Her strips appeared in American tabloids like Screw and French small-press venues like S21’Art? and Model-Peltex as well as in Canadian mainstream and underground publications. The cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, then editing the comics anthology Weirdo—which she cofounded with her cartoonist husband, Robert Crumb—invited Doucet to contribute a strip in 1989. Doucet would also appear in the Phoebe Gloeckner–edited Wimmen’s Comix from Rip Off Press that year, as well as Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s high-production-value, art-comics compendium RAW in 1989 and 1990. Chris Oliveros, then publishing a comics anthology in Montreal called Drawn & Quarterly Magazine, found a copy of Doucet’s fanzine and wrote a letter to her around the same time. The two met for coffee, and she mentioned she’d been looking for a publisher to put out a series of black-and-white pamphlet comics. Until then, Oliveros hadn’t considered expanding his publishing scope to include solo-authored titles. He did it anyway, and Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q) then became an internationally acclaimed comics publishing house, now headed by Peggy Burns.
D&Q released Dirty Plotte #1 in January 1991, and it was one of the more enduring titles to come out of the black-and-white boom, a period of rampant experimentation in independently published comics, when no title seemed likely to fail and thus no risks were too big for publishers. Doucet won a Harvey Award for best new series, appeared in Diane Noomin’s Twisted Sisters anthology from Penguin, and was interviewed by The Comics Journal that same year. She moved to New York shortly thereafter, relocated within a year to Seattle, then to Berlin. Lève ta jambe, mon poisson est mort! (in English, “Lift your leg, my fish is dead!,” although the title remained untranslated for the English market) came out from D&Q in 1993, compiling work from the minicomics and elsewhere. A collection of dream and fantasy stories, My Most Secret Desire, came out in 1995, also from D&Q. Doucet returned to Montreal in 1998 to complete Dirty Plotte #12, which turned out to be the last in the pamphlet series. My New York Diary came out in 1999, The Madame Paul Affair the following year, and Long Time Relationship in 2001, all from D&Q. Dirty Plotte came in at ninety-six on The Comics Journal’s 1999 list of top comics of all time. This year, D&Q released a two-volume set of her work, The Complete Dirty Plotte, including several strips previously unpublished in English, selections from her diaries, both runs of Dirty Plotte, work that was published contemporaneously with the series but appeared in other venues, and the entirety of My New York Diary and The Madame Paul Affair.
Around 2000, however, Doucet began backing away from calling herself a cartoonist, claiming that she was no longer interested in making comics. In 2010, she stopped drawing completely.
Race, gender, and class diversity among folks who thought and wrote publicly about comics was, for a long time, rare. Conversations about the form were almost charmingly predictable. That the conversation about comics remained so consistent for so long was a result of the presumption that the fairly small readership of the form was also homogeneous. The field of comics was imagined to be primarily straight, primarily white, primarily cis, and primarily male for the bulk of its history, largely on the basis of the straight white cis men who felt most comfortable speaking up about the form. Attempts to point to a multiplicity of readerships, however, or to acknowledge diverse and usually overlooked creators, ended up lost under the self-perpetuating logic of homogeneity. P. Craig Russell, George Herriman, Alison Bechdel, and Trina Robbins already exist, the thinking went, so the status quo was working just fine for everyone. If concerns were raised about the sheer volume of titles by straight white cis dudes complaining about women on the page or depicting violence against them, or if anyone wondered aloud why a book about their teenage pregnancy or lesbian relationship was getting rejected, concerned parties were likely to hear about the wonders of romance comics, titles that pandered to a certain (and similarly imagined) subset of young women who cared only about love or men or heterosexual marriage and whose main means of engagement with the world seemed to be waiting by the telephone. There is a place for women in comics, was the gist of the argument, and it was in the heyday of the genre, between the forties and the seventies. The place for women in comics, in other words, was always “over there.” The presumption of homogeneity thus perpetuated a more genuine homogeneity.
My interviews about Doucet’s work or career, or updates on the project during the research process in comics circles or via social media, were routinely interrupted by men eager to share their opinions—which invariably included an admission that Doucet’s work had sexually excited the speaker. Why the doings of so many dongs was thought to be of interest to me was beyond my comprehension. I can scarcely imagine what it would have been like to have created the work under discussion. (Of course, Doucet tells us: in a strip from Dirty Plotte #3 called “Interlude,” an otherwise pleasant scene on a busy urban street is interrupted by a man dropping trou and waggling his dick at us, telling us its name is Pete and threatening us if we harm it.)
Worth underscoring, however, is that Doucet’s work elicits strong reactions even today. These reactions may seem merely sexual but quickly become proprietary and are unmistakably dominated by a very vocal, heterosexual, masculine readership. These voices have dominated the conversation that Doucet’s work could generate, casting her oeuvre as historical aberration, a mere lapse in homogeneity. The momentary failure of reassuring sameness that Doucet’s work represented was excusable, in large part, because it was thought to pander to masculine desire. This is not corollary to the story of her work in comics or what came after it; it is woven through both, inextricable from her career.
Doucet’s work imagines a world in which feminine desire predominates. Masculine desire, in that work, is acknowledged only when it corresponds with the artist’s own. Usually, however, it does not. That’s when the boyfriend has to go, or Micky Dolenz pops by, or the elephant gets called in to do what man cannot. The tension between the narratives explored in her work and what her most demanding readers wanted from it, and believed they got from it, defined Doucet’s career in comics and contributed to its brevity. In content and form, Doucet’s work asserts a quiet but unmistakable demand for her own autonomy and agency, but granting these proved a challenge for a sexually distracted readership. (Hilariously, Urban Dictionary defines Doucet as “a tall, skinny, tan man who has the dick supreme. Pleasures girls like there’s no tomorrow, and loves Coors Light.” More traditional French scholars, however, will spot that the name is a diminutive of “sweet.”)
There’s a tendency to reward any feminine narratives that manage to survive under such conditions with the title feminist, as if it were an honorific. It’s a label Doucet herself rejected then and has come around to only more recently. It’s a contested term, admittedly overused, embraced recently as the most efficient means to sell products like mainstream music, fancy underpants, and anti-rape lipstick. Doucet’s collection of work carved out a storytelling space in which she explored her own bodily desire and agency, and her insistence on the sanctity of this space forced the comics industry to acknowledge a potential for creators that was not limited to certain gender identities. Despite the fact that her fanzine was billed on the cover as a “Comic Feministe de Mauvais Goût” (A “feminist comic of bad taste”), her frustrations lacked a coherent politics and notably never formulated a case for women’s rights or interests in general. This was primarily because her stories rarely featured more than a single female character, who usually went by the name of Julie Doucet.
Actually, sometimes Doucet’s work depicted no women whatsoever. It has been described as distinctly unladylike, downright unfeminine, and even, at times, anti-feminist. Julie-the-character rarely perceived a gendered component to her various narrative struggles, and certainly the solutions invented to overcome them in the floppies didn’t involve advocacy for a widespread cultural shift toward political, economic, or social equality across the gender spectrum. It’s not until 365 Days that Julie-the-character falls in with a group of close-knit female friends, and the energetic shift is palpable, if short-lived: suddenly Doucet emerges as a collaborator, a supporter, a woman engaged in a culture that hasn’t always proved welcoming of her kind. Doucet herself hints that she may not have embraced feminism because feminists didn’t really embrace her, refusing to stock her fanzine in a local woman’s bookstore on aesthetic and moral grounds.
Whatever the impetus, Doucet, at least in the eighties and nineties, seemed to be something of a loner. The artist approached her career with a rock-and-roll swagger reminiscent of the one Camille Paglia ripped off from Mick Jagger, to use a mainstream reference, or the grittier one Kat Bjelland, from the proto–riot grrl band Babes in Toyland, was fronting on the Minneapolis stages of my own youth just as Doucet was launching her fanzine in Montreal. Like Paglia and Bjelland, Doucet established a career on masculine terrain, and to do it she adopted certain stereotypically masculine behaviors. It wasn’t necessarily that she sought outright to dismantle the master’s house so much as the house that she found herself in wasn’t built to accommodate her, and the master had left his tools lying around. What’s a resourceful girl to do? Pulsating with a vibrancy that infected both the field of comics and the generation of cartoonists to follow, Doucet’s comics changed history—even after she stopped making them.