Growing up with John Porcellino

Like Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman, John Porcellino’s long-running minicomic King-Cat is so simplistically drawn that I sometimes, think I know third-graders who are better craftsmen. Porcellino reduces figures and landscapes to near-stick figures and bold squiggles. He’s not much for rigorously detailed faces, objects, animals, or much of anything else, really. His art is high-contrast—stark black-and-white, with no hatchmarks or shading or even the pretense of shadowing. He rarely even attempts realistic perspective—Porcellino’s the most consciously two-dimensional cartoonist I can think of. In a back issue, Porcellino defends his “content over form” work, in an irritating manner much like fellow intentional-simpleton James Kochalka’s perennial rants that “craft is the enemy.” (And, like Kochalka, Porcellino is beholden to the shibboleths of indie/post-punk rock and culture, regardless of how well that ethos fits the current story he’s drawing.) In an early-1990s piece ironically titled “Well Drawn Funnies #0,” Porcellino tries to explain:

A lot of people complain about my art—they tell me I can’t draw, my art is garbage, etc., etc. Maybe I can explain. My first artistic loves were the “Hairy Who” from my hometown of Chicago, and other “funky” artists. Their art was direct, bold, and often embraced ugliness. In high school I discovered “punk rock” and fell in love with the tortured “bad is good” school—Flipper, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, etc.

About this same time I discovered the underground and “new wave” comics of the early-mid ‘80s, like Gary Panter, Mark Marek, Lynda Barry. A big turning point came when I discovered that a crappy line, scratched on paper, was infinitely more “realistic” than the most labored rendering. Especially in this day and age. Why bother spending 3 hours on a drawing if the world could end tomorrow? Or I could spend time watching TV instead? Anyhow, if the world is a piece of shit, art that denies that is in essence a lie. It is more important to me to make art that is an honest expression of my life than it is to make pictures people think are well drawn.

Oh dear. It’s easy to pick apart this desperate bid for “authenticity.” First, the world is a piece of shit, granted, but it’s also more beautiful than we can imagine and more expressive than any individual could ever understand. The inability to hold these multiple strains of thoughts in mind simultaneously is a sure sign of foolishness. To use this as an excuse—shitty art equals honesty and integrity; craft is dishonesty and commercialism—is adolescent nonsense. Besides, this sort of art brut is in itself incredibly stylized. As with so many consciously anti-craft cartoonists (or lo-fi indie-rock bands, or Dogme 95-aspiring filmmakers), Porcellino went to art school. He’s no outsider artist. The cover of some King-Cat issues are delicately and realistically rendered. “Ugly” comics work, when they work at all, because they wrench away our expectations of sanitized blandness or manufactured cuteness, because they make us conscious of this comic being the work of this particular sensibility, and therefore make us less complacent about and more suspicious of the mass-market stuff that’s fed to us. Sure, it’s self-expression, but most mini-comics are as sweated over as any Marvel or DC pamphlet, in part because it’s usually one person—rather than a team—who does all the work of writing, drawing, lettering, assembling, reproducing, and mailing. As Dolly Parton once said, “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”

It’s difficult, though, to stay mad at Porcellino. “Well Drawn Funnies #0”—which is, incidentally, mostly hand-lettered text—is obviously a provocateur’s throwing down the gauntlet, written by a very young man, and not the work of a mature theorist. We’ve all said stupid things when young; I forgive him. Furthermore, he’s got a point. The strip, published in issue #21, came out in September 1990, at the height of the post-Watchmen/post-Dark Knight Returns emphasis on steroidal style and revisionist plot mechanics—and only faux-revisionist, just enough so that the teenage boys don’t give up on superheroes entirely. Computerized coloring was just coming into fashion. Even the independent comics companies seemed to have a house style. Image Comics, founded just two years later, billed itself as creator-centered, and where cartoonists kept the rights to their work—but the content and drawing style was just as formulaic as that of the companies these cartoonists used to work for. Porcellino’s bid for a line that reflected the cartoonist more fully is amateurish, but a point worth making against comics as pure commodity.

Besides, in all honesty, I look forward to each new issue of King-Cat. (Issue #68 just came out, the first new one in a year. Hallelujah!) His omnibus best-of collection—the new King-Cat Classix—selects the best from the first 50 issues. It’s convinced me that, if he ever believed the aforementioned sentiments of “Well Drawn Funnies” in the first place, he doesn’t subscribe to them anymore, at least not fully. This anthology is published by Drawn & Quarterly, one of the most high-end comics publishers in action. Their production standards are so high that it’s initially hard to justify Porcellino’s crude art, originally hand-stapled and folded and photocopied, in its roster.

Porcellino’s gifts as a storyteller are tremendous, however, and the art grows on me. I found the comic last year, through Buenaventura Press, and was immediately impressed by the cartoonist’s lulling sense of pacing. The artwork, full of white space and open vistas, makes the reader fill in the details with her imagination, making it seem more personal and iconic. “These characters could be me, or my friends, or my dog,” I found myself saying as I stared at the minimalist art. “This suburbia could be mine.” The stories, mostly low-key vignettes and dreams from Porcellino’s life, are snapshots from a life in progress. Like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, King-Cat ardently opposes “big” moments or era-defining statements. It’s the quotidian stuff, the job-related effluvia, the little victories, and the perfect mixtapes that fascinate Porcellino. He’s content to place a comics adaptation of a Zen koan he’s mulling over next to a remembrance of playing a rock gig at a house party.

The later issues—I started with issue #62 (2003)—are suffused with calm. The spareness is charming, in part because it belies how well-constructed the narratives are. These might be little stories, but they’re not fragments. They feel like complete thoughts—even the one-page tone poems. Everything here’s so personal, so idiosyncratic, that the comic is sometimes embarrassing to read. An issue of King-Cat feels like a letter from an old friend, not something intended to be read by a couple thousand people. Issue #64 (June 2005) is devoted to his father, who had just recently died, and it’s one of the more touching comics I’ve read this decade. A mix of Zen koans, prose-only stories, comics, and single-panel cartoons, Porcellino builds up a portrait of a generous, unpretentious man in the most unpretentious format possible—on paper stock you can buy at Kinko’s, in 32 pages, in black-and-white, on a cozy trim size of 5.25 x 8.25 inches. It looks simple, like something we could pull off in our spare time. It’s only when reading again, and noticing the precision of language and image, that it dawns on us that the ruminative, Buddha-like gentleness of the comic conveys difficult truths and uncommon depth.

Again, I started with the later issues. So, King-Cat Classix, which selects from 1989 to 1996 (the early years), is a revelation. Frankly, it’s rough sledding, too. The later issues marry the fidelity to the punk lifestyle to the resonance of Zen teachings, but the early stuff doesn’t have much of the latter. There’s a lot of unbridled id here. Explicit sex fantasies, fart jokes, one-off fictions, an incomprehensible serial (“The Violent Garden”) that riffs off soap operas, stories of drunken bouts of weirdness, and morbid (but inchoate) thoughts on death and suicide are all here. The art is not clean and airy as it would be in later issues. It’s not always clear what objects are being drawn, and the backgrounds are smudgy, the figures shaky, and the narratives freewheeling and unhinged. It takes about halfway through the 384-page volume for Porcellino to find his style.

Still, the quintessential artist peeks out from between the dirty blinds. Porcellino’s affection for cats and road trips makes him a winning narrator, even at his most self-consciously earnest or irritating. Through the use of rich blacks, he conveys night well. The über-Expressionist quality of his work lends itself well to adapting his dreams onto the page, and so they’re more interesting than they have a right to be.

Plus, he’s figured out something about autobiographical comics that few memoir-based cartoonists discover—the best way to convey your life fully is to make the other characters within it as interesting as you are. Pekar, Joe Matt (Peepshow), and Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons) all understand this; occasionally, they even serve as mere vessels for stories about the people around them, and the cities in which they live. Porcellino’s friends are losers, layabouts, dreamers, and drunkards, rambling through Illinois and Colorado, and they’re all engaging.

The exception here, and it’s unfortunate, are his women. In the omnibus, Carolyn and Kara may well be the same girlfriend (and eventually first wife), but it’s hard to tell. His sister is a presence through her absence; there’s an intimation that she died, but it’s not made clear. Of the women, only Porcellino’s mom comes through with a forceful personality until midway through the book. It’s a serious lapse.

Fortunately, he improves in his characterization (of everyone) as he goes along. This is another way of saying that he becomes less self-absorbed as the issues move forward. Issue #38, the “All Sam” issue, is a triumph. As with #64, it’s a tribute issue, but this time it’s devoted to the recently departed, thoroughly loved family dog. Samantha Love, a golden Labrador Retriever, belongs on a list of all-time great Porcellino characters. His observations of her—she bullies the other dog, she eats cat poop straight from the litterbox, she sighs loudly when she wants to sleep on the couch that’s currently occupied by a human—are so acute that, by the end of it, we know this dog. It’s our dog. We hate to see her leave this mortal coil. She resonates.

John Porcellino, despite (or maybe because of) his simple style, makes life resonate. It’s not always a good life, it’s rarely an easy one, but it’s his. He offers it up to us, issue by issue, and this act of generosity is as pure a form of love as we’re likely to see in comics these days.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Growing up with John Porcellino

  1. AC says:

    The positive things you have to say about Porcellino aren’t all that bad– once or twice, they’re even insightful. Your other, less-understanding remarks (and the irrelevant and plainly uncalled for ones) on the man remind me of the college students who, not wishing to appear to their professors & peers as not having an opinion, simply start criticizing in the mountain-out-of-a-molehill fashion, hoping to earn the title of Great Debunker.
    I hope you didn’t get class credit for this piece of writing.
    Now & again, it’s good to read critics who wholly or partially miss the point of an author’s work, if only insofar as it reminds readers of just how privileged they are to experience a connection to great works. My favorite quote from your article is “It’s difficult, though, to stay mad at Porcellino.”

  2. Walter says:

    AC, good to hear from you, though it’s interesting that so much of what could be criticisms of Porcellino are (probably unintentionally) embedded in criticisms of me. Porcellino’s made his whole career out of making mountains out of molehills–he elevates a morning walk to the level of Zen parable; his dog becomes the subject of a full-length comic; he apparently thinks the minutiae of his life (shitty jobs, going out drinking, casual chats) is worth rendering in comics for others to read. For all the talk about his lack of ego and effect, he’s the one who thinks his crude doodles should be read (and bought) by other people, after all.
    I’ve got no problem with that. However, you talk so much about “wholly or partially missing the point of an author’s work,” as if you’ve got the Master Key and anyone who makes–by your own admission–relatively minor criticism is a dolt. My piece–and, no, it wasn’t for class credit–wasn’t an attempt to debunk Porcellino. Rather, I wanted to put him in the context of other cartoonists, particularly in the tradition of other independent and minicomics creators. Your talk about “privilege” and a “connection,” actually, smacks of a new student who’s just been introduced to minicomics and thinks that Porcellino is the Greatest Artist Ever… because you’ve never read Glenn Dakin, Eddie Campbell, Julie Doucet, James Kochalka, Sarah Becan, or other minicomics artists that might put Porcellino in perspective. Sorry, but that snide claim about having a personal connection with him sounds like the high-school girl who’s just read Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and writes “SO TRUE!” in the margins of every page.
    To be a Great Debunker, the subject of the debunking must be truly acknowledged as great. While I think Porcellino is engaging, and he gets better as he goes along, being the best-known minicomics cartoonist in America is about like being the most famous badminton player in the world–it doesn’t mean that much. I’m not sure more than 10,000 people in the whole world even know who Porcellino is, so I’m not sure how it’s justifiable to call me a “Great Debunker” or to think that’s even what I’m trying to do. This is especially problematic given the last sentence of my post, which is so positive. But I’m genuinely curious: Which remarks have I made that are “irrelevant,” and why? Where am I “less understanding” of his work? And am I less understanding of his work, or what you get out of his work? (These are two separate things.)
    I suppose I’m being snide, but that comment about “class credit” set my teeth on edge, as if I’m pretending to be some oracle (when, in fact, I’m a lowly blogger who’s doing this in my spare time). You’re right: it’s hard to stay mad at Porcellino. But I can stay mad at his fawning, non-judgmental worshippers for a looooong time.

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