In Julie Doucet’s comics, body parts are often changing: growing, detaching, breaking, leaking, morphing. On the letters page of an issue of her comic book “Dirty Plotte,” which ran from 1987 to 1998, one reader wrote in, “Stay cool and don’t be sad if you run out of bodily functions.” He need hardly have worried. Doucet, a Montreal-based French Canadian artist, is known for her influential 1999 graphic autobiography, “My New York Diary,” the chronicle of a very bad relationship, but the seething, exuberant comics world she creates is not only tethered to reality. It includes all sorts of fanciful, surrealistic stories with invented or hoped-for bodily functions, like one in which men insert tampons into their urethras, or “The Double,” in which the Julie protagonist happily turns into a man, only to later encounter the prior female self as a separate body. The two Julies then pleasurably have intercourse. Doucet brilliantly toggles between charting dailiness and fantasy.
DIRTY PLOTTE (Drawn & Quarterly, $119.95), a gorgeously designed box set offering two hardcover volumes collecting Doucet’s entire comics oeuvre, arrives at an opportune moment. It’s a lavish history lesson for those who might take today’s outpouring of feminist comics for granted, returning readers to the skimpier landscape of the 1990s, when Doucet’s work, in both concept and style, broke new ground. Its aesthetic echoes forebears like Lynda Barry and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, yet its execution and vision are different. (Doucet’s dense panels, full of precise, stylized shading and characterized by heavy black-and-white contrast, swarm with details; they appear as the comics equivalent of a deep focus shot, the film technique used by Orson Welles and others in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus. In Doucet’s comics, a coffee cup has personality; the objects in a room seem to dance.)
And while most of the material dates from 20 to 30 years ago — Doucet abandoned comics in 2000 — the wonderment and rage at virulently gendered behavior feels fresh, and relevant for this moment. The physicality of Doucet’s work is still shocking. The box set includes a stand-alone, stapled, digest-size pamphlet — a reproduction of the very first iteration of “Dirty Plotte,” which was a self-published fanzine before Doucet turned it into a proper comic book. (Doucet’s success in shaping alternative culture is testament to the power of self-publishing; the collection is dedicated to “all the zine makers in the world,” followed by the injunction “Don’t do nothing.”) On its third page a woman, as if performing a striptease for readers, sheds her clothes, then rips her breasts off, leaving bloody patches on her chest. She then proceeds to gut herself with a knife; finally animals pounce into the frame to eat her entrails. It’s a darkly funny, jolting vaudeville. But if Doucet’s work leans heavily on violence to both women and men’s bodies (there are many cut-off penises), it is also unapologetically about female desire; the last issue of “Dirty Plotte” concludes with a story about jubilant masturbation with an elephant’s trunk.