IN THE CURRENT MOMENT of women comics artists such as Raina Telgemeier, Emil Ferris, Kate Beaton, Jillian Tamaki, and Tillie Walden all but dominating both best-seller lists and award ceremonies, it is worth remembering the female artists who inspired and paved the way for their successors. Two new collections by comics pioneers Julie Doucet and Ariel Schrag make the case for the centrality of these artists — the former by providing a complete retrospective of Doucet’s comics work to date, the latter by collecting Schrag’s work since the series of comics she published with Slave Labor Graphics while (for the most part) still in high school.
Both Doucet’s Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet and Schrag’s Part of It: Comics and Confessions function as missives from, or throwbacks to, a time when especially autobiographical comics by women were largely a self-published and zine-based subcultural affair. Although both artists have since moved on to other forms — Doucet to printmaking, collage, and animation, among other projects, and Schrag to television and prose — these new collections provide an opportunity to take stock of the careers and lasting influence of these influential female cartoonists.
In the decade following the 1988 debut of her self-published, bilingual minicomic Dirty Plotte in Montreal, Doucet continually provided a distinctly feminine counterpoint in a male-dominated underground comics culture. “Plotte,” infamously, is Quebecois slang for “cunt,” and the title is emblematic of her simultaneously confrontational and playful engagement with issues concerning gender and sexuality.
With a visual style and an approach to storytelling that are both anchored in the grotesque, Doucet’s comics serve as a direct kick in the groin to dominant notions of feminine propriety and good taste in general. In stories depicting masturbation (in a spaceship, using a cracker given to her by her mother), menstruation (which causes her to morph into a gigantic Godzilla-like creature with fluids cascading from her loins), nose-picking (an event that inspires a showdown with her antagonist Super Clean Plotte), and bloody penectomy (of a reader who has teasingly offered his body to her), Doucet’s short comics mix the wildly imaginative with the intensely personal. Common to especially the early stories is an uncompromising sense of anything-goes dream logic; and although her comics consistently challenge masculine perspectives by depicting female unruliness and bodily messiness, the joyously freewheeling and often curiously innocent nature of her work means that it is never in danger of succumbing to a dull and programmatic version of feminism. Instead, Doucet’s emphasis on untraditional, in-your-face expressions of femininity means that her comics are closer in spirit to the riot grrrl–inflected feminism of the grunge era.
Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet contains two beautifully produced hardback volumes collected in a slipcase. The first of these assembles the full 12-issue run of the “official” Dirty Plotte comics, which was serialized by then-upstart Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly and which recycled some of Doucet’s earlier zine work in its first few issues. The later issues also contain the full narrative later collected as My New York Diary, Doucet’s perhaps best-known work, which chronicles her temporary move to New York City in the early 1990s. The second volume collects every other comic published by Doucet, including the zine work not included in the Drawn and Quarterly run of Dirty Plotte and several short comics originally created for various anthologies and other forums.
To date, Doucet’s work has not been served especially well by its various book collections, some of which have been out of print for years, and a single volume that collects everything is both overdue and revelatory. Dirty Plotte brings to light the sheer volume and consistency of vision in Doucet’s comics work, all of which was produced in little more than a decade. The second volume also includes a wealth of secondary material, including a useful biographical introduction by Dan Nadel, a few long interviews, a number of short essays charting Doucet’s influence, reminiscences by such contemporary comics figures as Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine, and a chronology of her work.
In its exhaustiveness, the new volume joins Fantastic Plotte! — a collection of Doucet’s early Dirty Plotte minicomics by Montreal publisher L’Oie de Cravan that retains their original bilingual format — in bringing renewed attention and archival support not only to Doucet’s later and more “mature” work, but also to her earliest and in some ways most imaginative comics. It affirms Doucet’s status as a groundbreaking and taboo-demolishing antecedent to today’s women cartoonists, many of whom approach comics making with a similar lack of self-consciousness about the form’s ability to depict the realities of lived female experience.
Bringing the collection back full circle to her earlier work, Schrag perhaps also articulates a reason for why she had to eventually stop using comics as her main artistic outlet. The author of the traditional prose novel Adam (2014), Schrag seems to have needed an escape from the endless recursiveness of autobiographical comics. Doucet, similarly, stopped making comics around the turn of the century, citing a feeling of being burned out on both the form and the surrounding culture. But while both artists may have moved on to other forms, at least for now, the near-simultaneous publication of Part of It: Comics and Confessions and Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet acts as a reminder of their lasting influence. It also provides an argument about their essential kinship as female comics creators who tirelessly but enthusiastically challenged conventions about what comics should be, and who should make them.