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“Getting to the Heart of the Matter”: The John Porcellino Interview (Part Two)

(continued from Part One)

Map of My Heart

Rob Clough: Why did you choose that particular image of the chair, desk, and lamp for the cover?

John Porcellino: Tom Devlin chose it. I thought it was perfect. It’s a scene of loneliness, humanity emptied of humanness. Of a darkened room, yet there’s light coming in. It was perfect for the comics collected in the book, for that era of King-Cat.

The material in this book comes from two periods where you were at some of your physical and emotional low points. At the same time, there's an astonishingly high level of consistency from issue to issue. Did you have a sense of channeling all of your remaining energy into King-Cat at the time?

Despite the fact that physically my body was falling apart, and my mind was shattering, I actually do look at that period in Elgin with warmth now. My own life was pared down to minimums. I worked a simple day job, came home to live alone with Maisie. Spent time in the woods, my yard, my hands in the earth. I read, I wrote in a journal, I watched good movies from the library. And I made comics. My whole intellectual and emotional life was going into those comics. There was a powerful energy flowing, I was focused like a laser on King-Cat.

Because of the OCD, being creative could be brutal, but nonetheless I was completely immersed in it, in the brutality, but also the power of being an artist. I was studying Zen very seriously, and that carried over into the work as well.

How much of a sustaining force was King-Cat, especially when you were facing depression?

King-Cat was the one thing that had stayed with me, along with Maisie, through all this shit. Shit and joy. It was an anchor in my life holding me steady through it all. Make no mistake, the pain was so bad I wanted to quit, I really wanted to quit. The pain of making comics with that illness tore the heart out of me. But I wasn’t going to give in. King-Cat all along was supposed to be the thing that I could put my life into no matter what. I took that seriously. It was almost a duty.

The issues where you were absolutely crippled with OCD were some of your best-ever comics. Did you have any sense of satisfaction when you finally allowed yourself to print issues like #61, or did the OCD make that impossible?

I was so fucked up, I don’t know how much satisfaction, in the normal sense, I could have taken from it even if I wanted to. A lot of this time was a breaking down of ego for me… in healthy ways and not-so-healthy ways, and maybe not-so-healthy ways that ended up teaching me healthy ways. King-Cat became my life; it was just something I did. Maybe you get satisfaction from waking up each morning, but it’s not something to be proud of. King-Cat wasn’t really something I was proud of anymore; it was out of my hands. It was just the way things were. Do you really get proud of that kind of thing? In a way it had nothing to do with me. I was channeling this thing, I was the vessel. That sounds kind of pretentious, but if you ask artists, writers, etc., about it, they’ll know what I’m talking about. So it was the satisfaction of living through, of surviving my life. It’s a different kind of satisfaction than, “Oh, hey, this comic came out pretty good.”

How do you compare the experience of taking acid with your later practice in Zen Buddhism?

A lot of people in the modern world, and probably the pre-modern world too, came to a spiritual sensibility through drugs. When I first took acid, I was a deeply conflicted, miserably self-loathing person, riddled with existential anxiety. I had found different ways of coping with it, or transmuting it -- like punk rock, for example, or art. Acid released me in a large part from that anxiety of self. It was a major turning point in my life. I don’t want to be a guy who suggests to people that they do drugs. It’s a tricky road with lots of danger for bad detours. But for me I have to admit it was a turning point.

Now, I should also say, I wasn’t a guy who took acid and was like, “Hey, let’s get groovy.” It was a sacrament to me. I took it seriously, as seriously as one can take something like that. Well, not like it was a church or some hippie thing. I wanted to be free. Acid was a tool for investigating consciousness, for breaking down that little self, the barriers I had erected between myself and others, myself and the world. I would say I took it twelve times. The last time I took it, I remember right away, I intuitively thought, “I don’t need to do this anymore.” So that was it. It was maybe like ‘89-’91. Acid opened my heart. Instead of fearing the world, I began to love it.

As far as drugs and Zen, this has become a somewhat controversial topic in Zen circles lately. Some people look at Zen, like -- I’m free! I’m Zen! It’s all good, bro. That what the Japanese call Buji Zen. It’s a false free ticket toward doing what feels good. That’s not Zen. The Buddha, in the Ten Grave Precepts, the moral core of his teachings, includes Not to Indulge in Intoxicants. Western people don’t like that because they have a lot of hangups about Christianity and rules and commandments. The Precepts are not commandments—“Do this or else”—they’re guideposts for practitioners. They’re the natural state of an enlightened person. An enlightened person does not indulge in intoxicants. It’s something to shoot for. Anyhow, some people in the west, they look at drugs as kind of an express bus to enlightenment. Well, maybe they can open a door, but they can’t do the hard work for you.

"I Saw Where The Root Hog Lives" in #51 was almost like a Porcellino Family Team-Up, incorporating two vastly different aspects of your storytelling into one adventure. What were you feeling when this trip began, and what was it like to draw it, given the very warm feelings you've expressed about your parents throughout the course of the comic?

Our family was never really close, emotionally close. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot. So for me, as an adult, in this comic, to get them together, simply to do something together, besides watch TV or eat dinner, brought me great joy. I think, growing older, and especially through meditation practice, I’d begun to see the darkness of my family life through the lens of compassion. It lightens the load; it adds depth and nuance to our interactions with others. This comic was kind of a love letter to my parents, who were exactly just who they were. I think maybe this is the meaning of that final line, “I saw her feet in the mud.” My mother’s feet, the woman who gave birth to me, brought me into this world, with whom I’ve had a fraught relationship for years… these are her feet as she moves through this same world of pain, messiness, hope, disappointment, fear. To finally see her, there, as she is, in that world, that experience of this life. It was a very moving moment for me.

The long "Mr Dusty" letter from Mr Mike that you printed was epic. That was an intense amount of text to lay down, which made me wonder how you feel about lettering and how your lettering has developed over the years. Did you look to others for inspiration? Did you ever use any kind of guide? Have you ever considered developing your own font?

When I first started King-Cat, the lettering was as sloppy as the drawing! I didn’t care about stuff like that. I was just slinging ink. As my drawing got more evolved, the lettering did too. I started to get a kick from lettering more legibly, making those E's, S’s. When I’m doing it it can be quite enjoyable. One thing I’ve found is I have to concentrate, kind of empty my mind, and focus on things. I can tell when I’m lettering and my mind starts to wander, things get sloppy. Then I pull it back in and keep going. Just like meditation, I guess.

For guides, like a large bunch of text like a Snornose page or a letters column, I usually use the edge of a piece of paper as a ruler… line it up with the edge of the page and use it as a guide, siding it down a bit with each new line. But it’s not perfect and half the time I end up inking a page and it’s all on a slant. In my OCD days I would redraw it. Now I just kind of laugh at myself and let it go. Occasionally I’ve ruled bluelines to guide me, and at least once I used graph paper. I think that’s how  [Aaron] Cometbus does it. That sure helps, but maybe I don’t really wanna think that much about it.

When I look back at my lettering in the OCD years, it floors me, how precise it is! I was nuts! It’s beautiful, but the cost is too much maybe. I don’t know. The whole story of my post-meds career has been learning to balance that spontaneity I had before OCD with the precision I got from it. It’s taken me like ten years to start to figure it out.

Font: no.

Do you consider lettering to be as important as a formal, aesthetic tool in your toolbox (as opposed to simply providing information) as anything you draw?

The simple way I put it to students or whoever will listen is: “Lettering is Drawing.” It breaks my heart to see people who can draw like crazy and then they throw down some lousy font on their work. I understand there can be benefits to it, for editing, for translation work. But if you’re going to do it, do it right at least. Bad computer lettering is just disgusting.

Did either you, Mike, or Zak ever consider drawing this story?

I know I didn’t -- don’t know about those guys. The actual letter has illustrations from Mr. Mike. Weirdly, I redrew them for the issue. I lightboxed them off his letter. It was back in the day when -- some things just wouldn’t photocopy well. They were probably drawn with a light blue ballpoint or something and I couldn’t get them to reproduce, so I had to redraw them in black ink. Like the picture of them in the canoe, that’s just a copy of Mr. Mike’s drawing.

In many respects, the era around #51-52 sees you at the height of your powers: drawing the material that would later be Perfect Example, and developing your comics-as-poetry techniques as well as coming into your modern style. What does it feel like as an artist to get the sense that you've finally discovered a style and choice of material that you feel confident in? In particular, I can't imagine more appropriate art for your Zen stories than what you did in these issues: a standard 2x3 grid with simple, evocative images that added a new element to the stories.

It’s kind of a relief. I remember when I had learned how to play guitar and write songs -- I thought “I have that stuff figured out, now I just have to do it.” I don’t know how consciously I thought about that in terms of my comics. I always felt OK with them, even in the early days. I didn’t think they were the best comics in the world, but they got the job done, and that was always what I was shooting for. Just get this thing in my head down on paper. Now, things have developed for a long time, I’ve been drawing King-Cat for thirty years -- the evolution is continuous, but the leaps maybe aren’t as apparent. I still learn little new tricks or methods. I’ll draw something a certain way for the first time and like it, and that starts to creep its way into other stories.

In #53, "Scared" is the first story that alludes to your health problems, and it is far from the last story in which you balance your problems against the vastness of the universe, as a way of resetting yourself. Did the extensive use of a gray wash in this story signal a way of trying to get across your feelings more directly?

Honestly, it was just that the technology was catching up. The guys who print my comics, they’ve been doing it since I moved to Denver in ‘92. At the beginning they were a little copy desk in the back of a used office furniture store. Now they have a huge industrial site towards the airport full of cutting edge machinery. Matt Allison, who’s also a cartoonist -- he worked there and he was the guy who was like, “Hey, look what we can do now. We can print halftones.” So I began to think about things that way. I almost drew Perfect Example with ink washes!

King-Cat #54 starts a chain of issues perfectly balanced in content: from Zen visual poetry ("Secret World", "Elderberries", "Marigolds"), to funny stories about your family ("The Trouble With Tigger"), stuff from high school ("Joel Jumps", "She Threw Up Fake") current anecdotes ("Ticks part 2", "Mister Moberg"), allusions to your sickness ("Ghost Eyes"), adapted Zen stories, and love. Was this balance intentional, or did it just happen to flow that way? Were you deliberately trying to create stories that were visually spare but dense with meaning and feeling?

As usual with King-Cat. nothing was deliberate. As my sensibilities changed, the comics changed along with them. I just went along for the ride. But yes, this period almost was a golden age for me: I had figured some things out, I had matured, I had discovered Zen. I was sick, but the illnesses hadn’t yet wreaked the damage they did to me over the long haul. Maybe being sick even kind of sharpened me a little bit.

#54 was the first issue I did after moving back to Chicago. I was delighted to be back home, among my family, and all my history, walking on those same sidewalks and fields of my youth. I felt almost—this is embarrassing to say—like a hero returned home after a long adventure. It felt really good. Being in the Midwest again was inspiring.

"Just Possum" (in #55) is a favorite, in part because you allowed yourself as a creator to do a story without a narrative or message, "just 'possum'" (that you saw) and nothing else. You had already been going in that direction, but this was the first time we saw you grappling with the question on the page. Why was it important for you to let the reader in on your thought process?

It was one of those comics, maybe one of the first or the first, where I was documenting not only what was happening, but also the thought processes going on as it was happening. A document of observation and consciousness. Interacting not only with the outside world, but with my own mind.

Starting with #56, you started to do your spotlights on animals, which became a recurring theme. Did you have a sense of not just observing nature, but being a naturalist? When you did your comic about Thoreau years later, did it strike you that you and he were pursuing similar projects?

As a kid, once we moved to the suburbs, I spent a great deal of time out in nature, but it was all just a lark -- climbing trees, falling in streams, skipping stones. During my first stint in Denver, going to the mountains every weekend, and then as a mosquito man -- you’re outdoors all day, you’re observing nature, you're interacting with it. It rekindled the love I had of the natural world from when I was a boy… that had kind of dried up as I got more involved with music and drinking beer. I had a friend there at the company, Tim Howard. In the Mosquito book I called him Rick. Cat’s out of the bag now… Rick is Tim Howard! He became kind of a mentor to me. We’d collect plants out on the job and bring them back to look at through the lab microscope after hours. He taught me about animals, how to key plants.

So I began to get back into the natural world again, but this time in a more scientific way. I wanted to learn about things, put them all together ecologically. So Tim was a huge influence on me in that regard. When Kera and I decided to move back home, I was very excited because I was going to be able to bring this new awareness to my old stomping grounds.

Regarding Thoreau, yeah. The more I read about him, the more I read of his work, especially, as I mentioned, his journals, the more I began to regard him as a peer, or a lost friend from 150 years ago. It was both the feeling of finding a path, and a kind of confirmation of my own path that I’d already been walking. Like with Zen. I’d already been feeling it in my life, but it was like someone stumbling through briars, and then suddenly they step out of the brush and there’s this open path. Same with Thoreau. He blazed the trail for me. Those are the three grounding elements of my life: Zines, Zen, and Nature.

"Punt No Tell" is probably the single longest story you've written about your (more-or-less) pre-teen years. In fact, it seems to be the story that talks about that painful transition between childhood and adolescence. Were you in that headspace because you had spent so much time doing Perfect Example? Were you looking to talk about that transition as indirectly as possible, using events instead of an overarching narrative voice giving the audience all of the context?

The inspiration for that story was that in the waning days of my first marriage, I started going to therapy for the first time in my life. Like a good Midwesterner, I’d always resisted it. Truth is, I was afraid. But I went, and the first five minutes on the couch I was like, “I should have done this when I was fourteen!” Who knew? So "Punt No Tell" was me working through some of the stuff I had been unearthing in therapy. Stuff about my family, my mom. It’s all true stuff, but there are so many really deep symbolic elements to that story for me. The fact that for Halloween I’m a bum, my sister is a witch. I’m trying to grow out of Halloween, and then I give in, stay a child, and my mom helps me put on my bum costume. I don’t want to give it all away. It’s there to find if you want to.

This was one thing that happened around the time of the Perfect Example storyline in King-Cat. I was getting letters from readers that made it clear that there were at least a few of them who were willing to unpack what I was putting into my comics. The hard work wasn't going to waste. That really inspired me to work harder, to deepen these comics even more. Because I knew people were willing to engage with them on that level. Something like "Punt No Tell", it’s not only for me, it’s for those readers as well. Something to really dig into if you feel so inclined.

"Psalm" (in issue #57) is probably the work of comics-as-poetry that's most similar to modern versions of the form, with the rhythm of panels, telling the reader to read slowly, the way you "rhymed" images. Were you seeing any other comics like this at the time?

I didn’t really read comics during this time, aside from the handful of things people sent me in the mail. My inspiration for “Please read slowly” came from meditation practice, where you’re watching the breath rise and fall. I considered including more explicit instructions, to read one panel on the in-breath and the next as you exhale, and so on, but I felt that might be a little much. But the intention was just to ask the reader to slow down, to spend time with each panel. At the time I became really conscientious about trying to establish a sense of rhythm in my comics -- the connection between comics and poetry or comics and music that we talked about earlier. I was trying to find ways to instill the same kind of meter one finds in poetry into comics… Also, at the time I was becoming fascinated with the composer Erik Satie -- and he famously included absurd or conceptually abstract playing instructions in his compositional notations. Where previous composers would note a work “largo” or “adagio,” Satie would notate his works with instructions like “Very Soft,” or “Open Your Head.” That was an inspiration to me as well.

In poetry, you have all kinds of literary devices used to translate meter, rhythm. I was looking for those in comics. And there are plenty: the drawing, the text, the rhythm of the text, the way the text and image interplay within the panel, the way the panels interplay with each other… punctuation, composition, page ends, page turns. The more you examine the structure of comics the more subtlety and nuance you find, the more tools you have at your disposal as a creator.

To me, comics is writing. By that I mean, comics is a symbolic structure used to communicate ideas from one person’s head into another’s. Like writing, with its alphabets, words, sentences, punctuation is a system for converting an idea into physical form that can then be decoded by the reader -- this is how I view comics making. My goal is to convert that idea I have into a physical form that can as efficiently and accurately as possible be conveyed to another person’s mind.

Now, you can’t always pull it off. Once the work of art is out of your hands, people will do with it as they like. But I was working hard to make that transmission as seamless as possible.

The example I use when I’m teaching is… when you learn to read -- you learn your ABCs. You learn the alphabet -- which is nothing but an abstract system, the symbolic building blocks of language. On its own, the letter—the form— “A” means nothing. But when lined up in conjunction with other abstract forms, you create words, and words convey meaning. You learn that the letters C, A, and T, though they mean nothing in and of themselves, when placed in that order mean the fluffy animal throwing up behind the couch. When you become proficient in reading, you don’t have to plod through the letters, you no longer have to sound out words and grasp at meanings and nuances… they just come in a steady flow.

Similarly, when I draw a horse, I’m not interested in drawing every hair in its mane. That’s unnecessary to me. I want to put down on paper the bare pictographic essence of “horse,” so that when the reader comes across the image they don’t get bogged down, they just see it and read “horse,” the same way they read H-O-R-S-E in text, and the mind instantly conjures the concept HORSE.

In issue #58, "Forgiveness" is perhaps your most emotionally devastating story in King-Cat. You stated in the endnotes that your OCD was full-blown at this point, forcing you to do the entire 30+-page story in one night. Were you able to feel the story's titular theme after all these years when it happened, or did the OCD inhibit that? As an artist, do you feel a direct connection to your emotions when you are at your most creative?

The OCD was so bad that I wrestled even with the idea that calling the comic “Forgiveness” was a sin. That it was presumptuous. Who was I to forgive myself? It seemed the height of hubris. The thing with the OCD is its quicker than you. Every turn you attempt to break free of it, it’s already got a plan for that. “Not so fast!” I was fucking fighting myself every minute of every day, over the tiniest ideas that grew into life or death mental struggles. So it becomes, “If I name my comic ‘Forgiveness’ will I go to Hell?” I had really bad scrupulosity, which is a type of OCD that takes the form of relentless religious thoughts about redemption and sin, repentance, grace… it’s a nightmare.

Over time it just wears you out. It becomes pure exhaustion. Sometimes you give in: “Fuck it, this goes in the trash can…” Sometimes you’re able to prevail, or at least to find someway to allow yourself to move on. You take big leaps into fear. It’s terrifying.

Then there’s just the nitty-gritty day-to-day fears of: “If I don’t finish inking this comic tonight, what if I die in my sleep and it never gets completed?” So you stay up all night, your hands shaking, eyes burning, until it's done. I spent a lot of time, especially as a new issue began to take its final shape, writing little notes on my pages for those who might find them uncompleted after I died. “This is the order the comics should go in, this is the cover,” etc. “On page three of Story X, white out the second tree branch from the left.” Maniacal things like that.

Over time you have to let go, in order to survive, in order to have any peace at all. I started detaching from my work at this point. You see, my OCD doesn't hold anyone else to the standards it holds me to, so I can think, “I’ll call this comic ‘Forgiveness,’ even if it means I’m going to Hell, because perhaps it will provide some relief to some suffering reader, who’s going through similar pain and looking for a way to release themselves from their guilt…” Even though this attitude came from the OCD, and I’m no longer as stuck in its snares as I once was, I still view my comics that way… they’re not really for me at this point. They’re for the reader. If I get some peace or clarity from them, some satisfaction, that’s a bonus.

There's a progression between issues #59 and #60, where #59 is about the painful admission of a relationship shattering as you try to make sense of the world and are constantly thinking about being alone. Whereas #60 notably has a third, fun "Ticks" installment that saw you both going out alone and being alone at home with Maisie. Did you feel like you were in a different place emotionally when you did issue 60? Even "Somewhere In Central Nebraska" celebrates a moment of intimacy instead of heartbreak.

The different place emotionally was that I was feeling the afterglow of having been on meds for eighteen months. My therapist at the time had convinced me to give them a try, and the results were immediate. My OCD lifted dramatically… but it left in its place my depression, which was very severe at the time. It went beyond depression really, to that state of numbness people often report when being on SSRIs. My anxiety had lifted, but the depression was crushing. Not only that but that numbness made me fearful that I might “accidentally” kill myself. I’ve coped with suicidal impulses since my teen years, but I always had the willpower to resist them. Once the side effects of the meds hit full force I no longer felt I had the will to resist. I would find myself on the couch staring into space for hours. My brain moved so slowly, it was almost like my thoughts were slurred. I became afraid that I would have one of my suicidal impulses, like I had for years, but that in my current state I would find myself acting on them before my better judgement interceded. For this reason mainly, I went off the drugs. Afterwards, the depression lifted and I had a good honeymoon period where the OCD had not reared back again. I think this is where I was when I drew issue #60. So there’s a bit more freedom there. I felt lighter for awhile.

Then 9/11 happened, and gradually the OCD began creeping back into my life, until, by #61, it was in full force again. I was afraid to go back on the meds due to those side effects, and thus commenced a decade-long attempt to mitigate my anxiety without pharmaceuticals. I tried everything that’s recommended: meditation, diet, exercise, cognitive-behavior therapy, and so on. It all helped to a degree, but never took me over the hump the way the meds had. I wrote all about this in The Hospital Suite. But I guess I had that little window of balance where I knocked out issue 60.

To end the volume with #61, this felt almost like a companion piece to #54. A perfect blend of stories, including some very warm stories about your mom, more comics-as-poetry, more naturalism, and the reveal of your relationship with Misun to your readers as well as another move. What was it about this issue that made it feel like the cap of another volume in retrospect? What made it different from what came after it?

Well, it was just the end of an era. The end of my days back in Illinois, the Elgin Years as I call them. Clearly, with meeting Misun, a new chapter was beginning. What was known was at an end. I was embarking back into the world after four years of solitude.

In the appendix of the book, I'm glad you included the insert you had of an earlier issue, which was just drawings of Maisie. How it is different for you to draw when you are just drawing something you see, like Maisie in this section, vs drawing when you're doing a story?

They’re two different ways of thinking, of making art, for me. Cartooning is a coded language that you develop as a cartoonist. You don’t need to look at a tree to draw a “tree” in a comic. In fact, looking at a tree when you try to draw one in a comic might blow the whole thing. That’s not to say you don’t learn from observation. You observe a tree and figure out how to code it in your comics. And you go from there. Those little sketches of Maisie in the mini-zine are different. They’re drawn from life, they’re based on direct observation.

At the time I was keeping a journal, and Maisie was always right there. I drew her hundreds of times in the corners of my notebooks. That’s where those drawings originated.

The Hospital Suite

In many respects, The Hospital Suite is a book that's the story behind the stories of Map of My Heart, and beyond. Its structure is interesting, as the way the stories overlap with but are ultimately distinctive from one another in terms of tone led to stark contrast as a reader. Do you see them as one long story, or as separate entities?

I of course always had it in mind that I would write The Hospital Suite. The moment I arrived home after my surgery in ‘97, I started writing out the narrative, making notes. I drew a calendar and filled it in with the details— “This is the day I had the Barium X-Rays, this is the day I found out I was having surgery, etc.”—so I’d have a timeline to refer to once it became time to actually make the story. As time went on I had these three independent stories I was working on, the three stories in the book: “The Hospital Suite”, “1998”, and “True Anxiety.” They were each separate in my mind, but obviously they overlapped and referred back to each other. My original intention once I set out in earnest to put them together as comics, was to produce a trilogy of slim volumes. When I started to think more about it though -- I didn’t want to be that guy that puts out a new, miserable book every year for three years. I wanted to get in, get it done, and get it over with. And since the stories were all so closely related, I decided to make it one volume. But yes, in my mind they’re three independent but connected and slightly overlapping stories.

It was finishing the Map of My Heart collection, and touring behind it that was the specific motivation to turn The Hospital Suite into my next project. Speaking to audiences about it, where I was more forthright and open about my experiences, was liberating. And I saw the hunger of audiences to hear these stories, no bullshit, no poetry, just “here’s what happened to me.” Because it was relatable to so many people. Where the stories in Map of My Heart were mostly pretty ambiguous, or swathed in poetry, I wanted The Hospital Suite to be a companion to that, but direct, a straight narrative.

It's clear  that the titular story was one you had meant to get around to for over fifteen years. What prevented you from pursuing the project earlier? Did anxiety and depression have something to do with it?

There was the anxiety and depression, yes, that made it hard to produce just about anything, but mostly it was just ... I didn’t know where the story was going to end. Does it end when I come home from the hospital after the surgery? Does it include the health disasters that followed? If it does include those, how do I wrap it up when I’m still in the midst of those disasters? Does it include the psychological fallout that ensued? Where’s the “satisfying conclusion?” So again, after Map of My Heart, I was not only emotionally prepared to tell the story, but I had come to a sense of resolution, or at least enough of one to be able to complete the book.

This book has more in common with Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man and Perfect Example than your usual King-Cat stories. How was the process of working on this book different than composing an issue of King-Cat?

It was a lot of work. The kind of work I did for Perfect Example, or the Thoreau book… Multiple notebooks, index cards, cross references, vast revisions and edits. Moving stuff around. I did a lot of research. I had my original notes… but luckily I was able to get copies of my entire medical file from the time… they were just about to discard all that stuff. It was just before all that record-keeping became digital so the hospital wasn’t sure if they still had it. Thank God they did. It was an enormous help, and also -- just to read these voluminous notes that described my personal experience in purely cold, clinical detail.... It was remarkable gift. So it was a lot of wading through that kind of stuff. A 240-page book, naturally you have to approach it differently than a two-page story.

The stories are also direct and straight-ahead in terms of the narrative and revealing detailed autobiographical details. You noted that it was incredibly difficult to talk about these things directly until you finally managed to spell things out in the notes of Map of My Heart — did this make it easier to write stories like "1998"?

Yes, for sure. I couldn’t have done it earlier. But still… like knowing I’m coming up to the page where Kera walks out. It was nerve rattling. It brought up a lot of stuff for me. In a way though, it was liberating. Like, knowing for fifteen years I was going to draw the scene where my wedding ring falls off my emaciated finger. And then, holy shit, you pull out the blank page after all these years and finally draw it. It put that stuff in the past for me, at last. It was an enormous relief to make that book.

Was the process of drawing this book more difficult than drawing an issue of King-Cat?

The hardest part was drawing the scenes where Kera leaves -- and then the scene in “True Anxiety” where I tape up every crack in my apartment. That was perhaps the craziest thing I did -- because it took such enormous effort. It wasn’t washing your shirt four times in a row. It was this monumental, insane undertaking that took planning and gathering of resources, and a tremendous amount of time and energy. I hesitated to include that scene because it was so humiliating to me to admit it publicly. But I knew if I was going to put this shit behind me, there was no other way. So I drew it. It was really hard.

What kind of reaction have you received from others for writing "True Anxiety"? Did people from your past write in, now understanding what you were going through? Did you find that strangers wrote in, grateful for helping them be seen and understood?

The response was incredibly gratifying. But I knew there was a hole there in our society to fill. I mean, I’m not the first person to write about struggles with mental illness. But I knew it was a story that could help people. To know that it has had an impact has been wonderful. It’s being used in therapeutic situations, in classrooms, it’s a part of the whole Graphic Medicine movement in comics. It feels good.

From my friends, people who know me on a day to day basis, the reaction was mostly, “I knew you were going through some shit, but I didn’t know it was that bad.” I tried so hard to hide it. But that hiding becomes almost as bad as the disease itself. It was time to let go.

Despite the fact that the characters you draw are stripped to their essence, it's clear you pay attention to things like body language and the way bodies relate to each other in space. Did that comfortable spatial sense with seeing and then describing them on the page come naturally, or was it something you worked at?

If I have any success at that it just comes from drawing for so long, from looking at things, remembering how things look, how people act when they’re together. Like any writer, I’m always observing. Even if it’s subconsciously, you develop a storehouse of visual information to access. Perhaps too there’s just a certain empathy one develops over time. The ability to put oneself into another’s situation, to see things from their perspectives. You put all that experience into the work.

As someone with OCD, how difficult was it sometimes to not add many more lines to each drawing? Did it sometimes go in the opposite direction, where the OCD compelled you to simplify to a fault?

More lines doesn’t help a person like me! It’s not how I’m wired. In the comic “Bird Story” from issue 61, there was a panel where I’m looking at the bird on the lawn, and in the original drawing I went full Ron Regé... There were incandescent lines, vibrations, that kind of luminous space he creates through linework. It looked amazing! But I felt it was too much for me. One thing I learned over the years is don’t be precious with your drawings. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a brilliant drawing in service to the story. So you give it one last look, maybe sigh a little, and pick up the eraser.

The last panel on page 239 is one of your most powerful, as you depict yourself finally feeling relief from your symptoms thanks to medicine. What did it feel like in the moment to finally draw that panel?

Well, it felt like what it felt like to finally feel it, in real life! When I got back on the meds there was part of me that wondered, would they work again? I was so relieved they did. That feeling, of the meds kicking in, is a distinctly physical feeling. Which tells you a lot about these illnesses. They’re “real.” They’re truly physical illnesses like anything else. But as the meds started to work I could feel my brain on occasion start to go to the bad places it had in the past and simply… not get there. You could palpably feel your circuitry being rewired. What a blessing.

Anyhow, drawing those kinds of things... I’m one of those cartoonists that when I’m drawing that kind of stuff, I’m putting myself back in that place. I’ll even make the faces at my drawing table as I’m working on it. Bugging out my eyes, smiling, sneering, whatever I’m drawing. It would be pretty amusing to watch.

The end of the book is especially inspirational, particularly the line "Let's shake hands." It's like the entirety of your work coalesced in that moment: that life is pain, but we are alive and can get better if we want to. How much of a relief was it to be able to write that ending, after years of distress?

Like I mentioned, it was a huge relief. Not only for me personally, but to feel like somehow all that pain had resulted in this thing I could now share with others, and maybe it would help them.

How has your OCD being under more control affected your career, in terms of productivity, the physical act of making comics and even going to shows?

It’s funny. Since going back on the meds, I feel like I’ve had to relearn a bit how to make my comics. I’ve found myself having to consciously try to find a balance between the spontaneity of my early years and the precision of the OCD years. Those issues from 2009 on have been an experiment for me again, trying to figure it out. Maybe not super successfully. But it’s like the old days again for me. Trying stuff, failing. Looking back, trying to figure it out. Once I was out of the grip of the OCD I think I kind of swung the pendulum back too hard the other way… my comics got a little sloppier, maybe too sloppy. My writing became less precise, maybe too imprecise. I feel like maybe just recently I’ve come to a kind of good balance. In a way it feels kind of good that after all these years I’m still figuring stuff out. It still feels new to me.

 

PFC

In 2013, Porcellino traveled to Minneapolis to participate in Pierre Feuille Ciseaux ("Rock Paper Scissors" in French), a weeklong experimental comics camp that brought together artists from North America and Europe to collaborate on constraint-based comics. Artists did drawing games together based on time limits and formal & conceptual limitations.

Photo Credit: June Julien Misserey

What did you get out of the experience of the PFC event?

It was life-changing. I wish every cartoonist could have the experience, and I wish something like PFC happened all over the country every year.

What was collaborating like for an artist like yourself who had always worked solo?

It was funny, the first evening people sat around the workroom spread out all over, skeptically, with their arms crossed. It felt exactly to me like the first day of school. “Who are these people?” “I don’t want to do this.” And by the first afternoon everybody was best friends, people were laughing, goofing around, having a blast.

The hard part for me, was… I don't play games with comics. I don’t care too much about formal strategies and the like. But once you get into the PFC exercises, they're just that -- exercises for your brain, for creative thinking. Synapses in your brain that have never been used start firing, it’s exhilarating.

It was amazing not to only work collaboratively, but just to work in a hive like that where creativity is spilling out of every moment, every interaction. I learned so much about materials, asking questions of people, getting to try their tools, watching people work. It was amazing.

Were there people you worked with that surprised you, and in what ways?

What surprised me was that everyone felt insecure. I was looking at these brilliant cartoonists like Lille Carré, Marc Bell, JC Menu, everybody felt like everyone else was better than them. Everyone was in awe of the person across from them at the table. That’s the just the cartoonist’s way, I think, a result of working our whole careers in isolation. But once everyone realized it, everyone’s insecurity melted away. Well, mostly.

Did this wind up influencing or changing your approach afterward, or was it more just a singular, powerful experience?

It changed my approach in little ways -- thinking about new materials and tools, learning to enjoy drawing again. When I say it was life-changing, I mean that, but I also have to admit that the charge you get fades, like anything. You come home and gradually find yourself slipping into old habits. That’s why I think it would be wonderful to do this annually. I’ve discussed with some friends the idea of making an annual, informal PFC amongst ourselves. Rotate the site every year: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Beloit (!), and just have whoever can make the trip make the trip. Spend a week drawing together, problem solving together, hanging out, talking, eating meals. It would go a long way towards curing the loneliness cartoonists feel, not to mention keeping that spark fresh.

 

From Lone Mountain

If Map of My Heart represented things falling apart and a document of time mostly spent alone in one place (Elgin), then From Lone Mountain seems to be about building new relationships and moving to several different locations. You noted that moving helped shake up the OCD a little; how much did moving also inspire you by giving you new environments to draw?

Well, San Francisco is one of the most inspiring places on earth, right? I mean not only the beauty, where you can be walking around a corner and suddenly find yourself face to face with an unexpected view of the ocean, or a bridge. Or the flowers everywhere. But the spirit of the place. It’s very special. You feel it right away.

We moved there so Misun could go to school. I knew that we weren’t going to be able to afford to stay without her financial aid, so I knew it was going to be temporary. That might have been a bad thing because it kept me feeling uprooted. But it also allowed me to consciously drink in the experience. “Wow, for three years I get to live in the most beautiful city on earth!” I tried not to take it for granted.

By the same token, how much did the general upheaval in your life (moving, the death of your father, the death of Maisie) affect your ability to make comics? Did King-Cat continue to be that reassuring (if often difficult) constant in the face of turmoil?

I’ve always kept in mind that King-Cat was one of the few things in my life that had never let me down. I mean, it’s caused me a great deal of suffering! But it was my heart and soul, I knew that. I knew that no matter how crazy making comics made me, not making comics made me crazier. So I’ve developed this commitment to the thing.

The biggest pain in the ass about San Francisco was I couldn’t find a place to print the comic! Everywhere I went people gave me a hard time about it, or did a bad job. I was always struggling with printers!

In terms of my dad -- at the time my OCD was so bad I was kind of living moment by moment. Anything else was too scary. Like I said in the comic, I was biding my time. But I kept going as best I could. My dad dying unleashed a streak of creativity in me. I basically drew three entire full sized issues in six months. I hadn’t done that since the early nineties. I think it just brought so much stuff up to the surface. So many memories and feelings. That spark was more powerful than the OCD. I mean, I struggled for sure. But I was knocking out pages and stories and issues again.

You drew a lot of stories with Misun as kind of a straight-man/skeptical observer/partner for witty repartee. Why did you include Misun in your stories more directly than you did Kera?

During much of my marriage to Kera, which was short -- we were “together” only four years, one of which was spent separated -- I was simply struggling to survive, physically. A lot of my comics were focused on that experience, or looking back -- on memory stories. And just logistically, much of our time together was spent making Perfect Example, or sitting in hospital rooms. Daily life had me kind of in shock, I wasn’t always sure how to write about it.

Thinking about this too, Kera is a very quiet person, as I am. Our relationship, a lot of it was unspoken stuff. We weren’t always out having adventures or wild conversations or the kind of things that stand out. It was pretty quiet, and just trying to cope with an unbelievable amount of outside stress. Misun is loud, boisterous, always having fun. She brought out more of that kind of thing, which must have crossed over into the comics.

There was a special freshness in your Zen stories as you studied it more closely. It created a new balance of stories: stories about zen that were ironically told in an entirely straightforward manner by you, comics in the form of zen poetry, rumination about the past from a different perspective, and funny stories that emphasized the reality of living in the now and how funny it is to have a body.


Breaking that down, what was your approach in drawing the zen stories? Was it your intent to hew as closely as possible to the original text? What do you think you added, if anything, by illustrating them?

As for my “approach,” with the traditional Zen stories, mostly it’s just I came across a story that had a special resonance with me. And I just followed whatever translation I had that felt right. Very rarely I would add a bit of my own, or my own take on the story. So in putting the book together I ended up approaching a lot of the teachers whose translations I used to get permission. They were all very warm about the idea. Robert Aitken in particular was very generous. He kind of gave me carte blanche to use his translations, which believe me was a tremendous honor.

That said, the question of what I think I add to them by making them into comics is one I’ve asked myself repeatedly. The answer is I don’t think I’ve really added anything. I mean, I draw them pretty straight. That’s partly out of a sense of respect, but also -- there’s really nothing to add to them. If anything my hope is I’m just making some of this teaching a bit more accessible by putting it in comics form. It’s like putting a poem into comics form. Maybe it goes down easier for some people. In addition, maybe I would say the thing I bring to them is simply the context of that particular issue. Usually the Zen story has some personal resonance with what’s going on in my life at the time, or it resonates with the theme of the issue, or one of the other stories. So it helps give additional context to the issue. They’re like any other of my comics -- they’re something that happened to me that I found meaningful, and wanted to share.

The other Zen stories you mention, like the ones about my body and so on, are just the result of having studied, and applied the experience of practice to my life. At this point I see everything through the lens of practice. Zen is a way of interacting and integrating with everyday life. That’s why it was so natural for me when I found it. Everyday life is what King-Cat is all about. And if you study Zen -- or even if you don’t— Zen doesn’t have some kind of trademark on this thing! At a certain point practice and everyday life kind of fold into each other.

You mentioned challenging some of your readers, and some of your comics poetry here is especially abstract. Was this deliberate in the sense that you wanted to continue to have stories that required some thinking and rumination--some in a Zen-like fashion?

Some of my stories are very direct, straightforward narratives, and some of them are more abstract. Again, I don’t really think about it too much. I try to let each story take its own form naturally. But I don’t mind challenging my readers, because I know that there are some of them who are willing to be challenged. There’s an energy there. It’s fascinating to me how much latent information comes across through art. As an artist I put lots and lots of energy into a comic, far beyond what it seems like on the printed page. But amazingly there are readers out there who can pick up on that. I don’t want to get too cosmic, but there’s a very mysterious communication that happens sometimes through art. It’s very inspiring to me.

You had always written comics about growing up in various places in Chicago, often with a certain sense of wistfulness. Do you feel that wistfulness and almost longing for home was far more intense in this volume, especially the San Francisco issues? Did the stories you did help you process those feelings?

I was terribly, terribly homesick during the From Lone Mountain years. Clearly, that comes through. I was trying to follow the flow of my life wherever it took me, but at the same time I was longing for a sense of home. When we lived in Denver it was bad, but in San Francisco it was painfully acute. I felt so dislodged, so temporary. San Francisco was beautiful. But it wasn’t home.

King-Cat, really, is the way I found to process my life. I was always so shy, as a kid, with a terrible case of low self-esteem. But I had so much inside me that wanted to be expressed. Zines were just the way I found to let that stuff out. When I started King-Cat I knew right away, this was it for me. It was a way to make sense of my life, share my experiences, connect with other people, free up this bottleneck in my heart.

You've never been shy in writing about your body or appearance, but how much did your near-death experience and overall illness affect your ability to grasp the absurdity of being embodied? I'm thinking of "I've Got A Beard', "Mister Sicko Face", and even "Barbers I Have Known" in this category.

From one aspect it’s hilarious, here we are, this consciousness, embedded in a body that blows snot, wants to hump other people, gets sick, falls apart, and yet because of this body we can experience the transcendent power of life.

Our bodies are so powerful, in fact, that we get hung up on them. We start to think that’s all there is to things. It’s a relief to be reminded otherwise.

What is it about hair, its grooming and its absence that is such a powerful worldwide area of intense importance? Appearance is part of it, but it seems deeper than that.

I wish I knew. Ask Samson!

Reading "Trombones No 1" (another story that we're told to read slowly), I was struck by the sheer presentness, the sense of Now in each panel. I had the sense that you were living entirely in the moment in each panel and that it was our job as a reader to do the same when reading each panel. The only text is on the little box of paper clips that makes note of their funny shape; a moment of absurdity that is no more or less important than any other moment in the story. Was this story directly influenced by your Zen practices?

I suppose it was. With Zen, the way I always describe it, I feel like I was stumbling through a brambly forest, hung up on thorns, tripping over vines, towards something that felt important, intuitively. I may not have known what it was, but its power drew me on. When I discovered Zen, it was like stepping out of those brambles onto a well-worn path.

With Zen, one of the things that was so attractive to me about it was its sense of humor. What is the meaning of life? A honk on the nose, a dried shitstick? “Trombones No. 1?” Sometimes you just have to laugh.

"Great Western Sky" in #63 is the rare story that doesn't actually feature any people at all, even if it's clearly from your point of view. How important was it for you to capture the profound impact of seeing so much of the American Southwest? Were you aware at that point on the impact it had had on many other cartoonists, such as George Herriman?

It’s hard to put into words. That landscape is so powerful. At times it feels like a blanket-- warm, secure. And at other times the desolation is so great that it makes you question everything. That’s what I like about the Midwestern landscape too. There’s no place to hide. It’s just you and the universe, face to face.

I knew about Herriman and the desert, but what really attracted me originally to the Mountain West were the Beats. I read On the Road right before moving to Denver. I remember thinking if it was good enough for Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, it would be good enough for me. There’s that profound openness, emptiness. You can be yourself there, create yourself. It’s a blank slate.

"The Bottle and Me" was straightforward in its presentation, but what led you to tell this story about this particular time in your life when you did?

This was one of the comics I drew for the long lost version of #61. I write about it in the notes to Map of My Heart, but what happened was my OCD was so bad as I was making that issue, that I kept all the pages I made for it with me at all times. I was afraid something would happen to them if I left them alone. So I had them all in a little manila envelope that I carried with me to work and back, to the grocery store, etc. At some point it disappeared. Ironic, huh? My assumption has always been that the wicked witch who managed the health food store I worked at found it and threw it away to hurt me. Sadly, that’s the kind of person she was.

But then, a few years ago I got an email from a longtime King-Cat reader. This was a person who lived in the same apartment building as Misun and I, in Denver in 2003. She told me that the day we moved out to leave for SF, her and her husband dumpster dived the trash we left behind, looking for King-Cat relics. And they found a manila envelope full of what looked like original comics pages. They ended up getting a divorce later on, and her ex-husband got custody of the pages. So, it’s very possible that those are the pages for the missing version of #61. It’s a great mystery! If that ex-husband is reading this, and still has them, I’d love to hear from him! I’m not mad about it or anything, it’s just a remarkable story. I’m very curious. It would be amazing if they turned up after all these years.

So anyhow, “The Bottle and Me” was drawn for that lost issue. But it had a scene in it that I worried, or my OCD worried, that it made me look like I was blaming my drinking on a particularly bad breakup I had with an old girlfriend. So I couldn’t bring myself to publish it. All those lost comics were like that. Finished stories that my OCD had rejected. Then once we were in SF, in our early months there my OCD lifted a bit, and I thought about it and redrew it from memory. I excised the part about the girlfriend and printed it at last.

King-Cat #64 was dedicated to your father, who had just passed away. This was a remarkable exploration of grief and act of mourning.   

What was the experience like in making this issue? Did your practice of Zen make it easier to work with grief and channel it into art?

One thing facing death a few times did for me is it lifted a lot of the fear I had about it. Still, it’s the great mystery. Zen, though, is the study of life and death. That’s what it’s all about. Because the question of life and death is the question from which all others arise. I don’t believe death is the end, but at the same time I’m a human being who loved my father, and then one day he was gone. You think you’re coping okay, and then one day standing at the corner waiting for the light to change, you burst into tears.

Making the issue…  the death of a loved one… the slap in the face, the wake-up call… it spurs you on. Suddenly little worries are revealed as insignificant. You get to work. I was dealing with not only my dad’s passing, but the guilt I felt for not being there with him, and the repercussions of having my worst fear realized: that something was going to happen to my parents while I was too far away to be of help, to be there for them and with them. It was crushing. But at the same time I knew, “This is life.” I did my best.

So much of this book has an unrooted feel to it. Your time in San Francisco, though it was three years, feels more like the vantage point of a tourist than someone who found a home. Beyond the OCD and distance from Illinois, why do you think you think you felt so unmoored there as opposed to being in Denver?

Firstly, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to afford to stay there once Misun graduated, after her financial aid ended, the whole thing felt temporary from Day One. Like, “Okay, I’m going to live in this place for three years, and then something else will happen.” It was just living with uncertainty every moment. And I’m a person who prefers predictability. I like the routine. So, yeah, I was unmoored during my years there. I tried to make the most of it though.

Also, coming from the Midwest, California is so alien a landscape, even the mentality and energy is different. I mean, it’s amazing -- free, creative, open. I remember one day walking in Golden Gate Park with Austin English. I was talking about my upbringing, how being creative was frowned upon, criticized, and fucked up that had made me in reference to being an artist. And I could see in his face, not only did he not have anything like the same experience, having grown up in the Bay Area, but he couldn’t even register how such a thing could be. I don’t know, maybe I’m projecting. I never asked him about it. But I’m a Midwesterner. That’s my home.

Denver for me was probably a good middle ground for me. On the edge of the Plains, it still had a certain Midwestern vibe. But the energy was different. It was open, full of possibility. Colorado was libertarian in the best sense of the word: You do your thing and I’ll do mine, pardner. So on the one hand it felt a bit like home, and on the other it had a spirit that was liberating to me.

But then, even living there again for that brief bit after SF, three or four years… it felt good to be back, but I longed for my true home. I felt like it was inevitable that I would end up living back in the Midwest, and if that was the case, then every moment I spent living in Denver was spinning my wheels. After the divorce from Misun, along with the massive changes Denver was undergoing -- transforming from a city of openness and possibility to a playground for rich white people -- it was time to go.

 

San Francisco is one of those cities, like LA, Portland, New York, Atlanta, and Miami, that draw a lot of people. Did you ever have that sense that the city itself had a lack of rootedness compared to the smaller towns that you spent time in?

That lack of rootedness didn't bother me per se; it was my own personal lack of rootedness. Cities are places that draw people. One of the great things about Denver when I first moved there in the nineties -- it’s the only really big city in a 500-mile radius. So it drew people, creative people from all over. If you were born in Wyoming or Western Kansas, or Nebraska, you gravitated to Denver. So it was a big melting pot of creativity. The weather and the affordability (at the time), too -- the first five people I met randomly after I moved there in ‘92 were all from Chicago.

How does living in a new place change your perception of your environment (the natural world as well as the man-made world) in the short and long term?

Well, as soon as I get to a new place it’s invigorating. I like to explore places, get a feel for things. Before long I begin to look for things to dig into, to get curious about, to connect myself to the place. Like watching a little league game, or looking for information on the Bridges of South Beloit.

One thing about when I lived in a place like Elgin… I had a lot of history there. So walking from my house to the library -- each sidewalk, each street corner -- had some kind of resonance. It’s very rich. My friend John Rininger used to say that the older he got the richer the chord of his life got. Places are like that too.

There is so much joy mixed in with grief in this issue, like “April 7th – Western Illinois” with “Renegade” coming on. Do you have any sense of why someone who seemed as down-to-earth as your dad would take to listening to such over-the-top music so sincerely? If not, was this just another of life’s delightful absurdities to revel in for you? Do you see joy and grief as two sides of the same coin like so many of life’s supposed binaries?

Well, everything in life has its opposite. For my dad, who lived in a pretty straight work world, blasting Styx in the car was probably some sort of release. He had certain favorites. He loved CCR. Sometimes he’d pull up in the driveway absolutely blasting something like “Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest. I’d be like, “Dad, what are you doing!?” He’d roll the window down and be like, “What?” He was a funny guy.

For a while, til my mom made him get rid of it, he ran a refurbished 1955 Chevy Bel Air. It was one of the most beautiful objects I’d ever seen in my life. It was a yellow and white model, with black and white checkerboard naugahyde seats, chrome everywhere, a spotless engine. He used to show it on the weekends. One time we were out in it, out on some desolate, straight country road and he said, “ I want to show you something, but you can never tell your mom.” He floored it and that car literally launched off the road, you could feel the engine lifting the entire frame of the car. In a few seconds we were going 90. It felt just like flying. It was exhilarating and insane and terrifying.

The Places issue (#65) is the emblematic issue of this collection in many respects. It felt like you taking stock after so many different places you had seen, but also a way of going back to places that you missed in your mind and as a function of your art. As you noted, you were “waiting for home” and tired. Did you ever think that San Francisco could ever be a home for you?

No. I mean, I loved it. But I never felt at home there. In a way, perhaps I never allowed myself to feel at home there, knowing it was going to be temporary. I do remember, in the last days we spent in town, walking around the Embarcadero, looking at the Bay, and the skyline, and thinking how much I was going to miss it. I’m the kind of guy that can be nostalgic for anything. But I realized San Francisco may not be easy to live in, but it really was a perfect place to come visit. I’ve only made it back there once since we left though, for one afternoon in 2014, and it had changed so much, it really felt to me that I would never set foot in that city again. It’s not a city for poor people anymore. I ended up driving out on I-5 in a treacherous fog, and sleeping in the car at a rest area.

This was obviously during peak OCD years, but it really seemed like your art reached a new high. You had successfully stripped things down to their essence before this, but now it felt like you were able to add new, expressive details that were still true to this ethos. Take “Iowa City”, for example; there’s actually a lot of beautiful, expressive detail crammed into these panels about your band going on a road trip, but in retrospect it felt like you agonized for hours over what lines to keep in. In collecting the book now, as opposed to when you originally published it, do you feel pleasure in looking at these stories and seeing just how good they look? Or are the difficult memories of creating them still too fresh?

I remember the difficulties, but thankfully most of the details have faded. It’s more just I remember the general hardship rather than the specifics. Looking at the drawings, yeah, there’s that precision that I enjoy. That was one of the hard parts about making art with OCD. Part of the creative process is editing things, refining things. Sometimes that work is pretty intuitive -- you have a gut feeling something is off with your story, so you work on it, try this, try that, and then miraculously it comes together. So you learn to respect that artistic intuition. OCD will make you feel like something’s off even when it’s not. It was so hard to make those judgements -- am I reworking this because I’m “supposed” to or is this mental illness? To be honest the line between the two is kinda thin sometimes. It’s that obsession with details that can make art succeed... but then at some point the obsession is no longer paying off. I had to really learn to pay attention to myself, to the process. Learn to cut myself off before I got to the point where I was simply ruining things by overthinking. Sometimes you blow it. Sometimes you pull it off.

The same question can be asked of “Scott County Memories”. The final panel of the story was obviously meant to be a blockbuster of beauty, as you and your friend saw this unforgettable nighttime image of a lake and distant cottages. It may be your single most beautiful panel, and yet you note that the original was drawn and redrawn to the point of nearly tearing up the paper. What was it like to revisit those images when putting the book together? Did time, distance, and recovery help you appreciate them?

Now that one, that panel, that was one I did remember! That was a monster. Putting the book together, I was almost afraid to look at it. Like, what am I going to see? Am I going to see some further “error?” Am I gonna see the struggle? The thing I always told myself is, “You’re so worried about all these tiny, almost imperceptible details, and yet the reader is going to plow through this panel in a second and move on.” Now, part of the charm, if I can use that word, of comics is the amount of effort a cartoonist puts into this work that the reader runs past in a heartbeat. I mean, you realize it with something as simple as my work. Imagine being Julie Doucet and working hard on a page of comics for a week, and the reader blows past it in ten seconds. The thing is -- that work is not wasted. That effort pays off in the reader’s experience. Some readers are going to linger, savor a page of good comics. And even those that blow by, that effort pays off in their experience of the story.

Again, the struggle was -- where does that natural process of cartooning leave off and the OCD begin? It can be really hard to tell. But when you call that possibly my single most beautiful panel, ha, there’s some vindication in hearing you say that. A lot of work went into those lines.

Issue #66 felt very concentrated, going in two different but equally joyous directions. “Football Weather” is an all-time great story and an unusual one, as it depicts you only interacting with children. Beyond the sense of you being entirely in the moment (which is true in many stories), what I found interesting is that it seemed to be an exploration of what it might be like to be a big brother or even a father. It’s also an interesting companion piece to “Punt No Tell”, another story about football, this time from your youth—with the pain and uncertainty of adolescence of that story being replaced by a total acceptance from the kids you were playing with. There was a sense of the pure joy of being alive and being with others in this story, a kind of perfect day not only for yourself, but having a hand in creating that for someone else in the moment. What did penning this story mean to you at the time?

It was a love letter to those days in Elgin, living alone in my little Sears kit house with Maisie, on a quiet block of little houses. A love letter to the neighborhood. As for being a father… the thought never crossed my mind. I always felt so monstrous as a person, with all my health difficulties and psychological difficulties, those were not genes I felt like inflicting on anyone else. The only time I started thinking about kids was after my father died, and I had this sudden urge to procreate. I knew immediately it was some kind of biological response to my dad passing away, like, “Time is fleeting... pass that seed along, mammal.” It was kind of interesting.

“Freeman Kame” is an emblematic John P story: a road trip out into nature for a day. Page 181 and 190 in particular have stunningly beautiful panels; the former both abstracts the roads and strange perspectives and concretizes it and the latter does the same for the trees and forest. Why do you think that kind of abstraction and reduction in a drawing can make it feel more real and immediate than a realistic drawing? Certainly the brain filling in details is part of it, but when you’re drawing, do you have an intuitive sense of what the tipping line is between too abstract and too much detail?

I think it’s along the lines of … when I draw an image of a tree, it’s really a symbol of a tree. There’s enough pictorial information that the reader sees the lines and says, “Tree.” That’s what I’m going for. The reader not only reads “tree,” but brings all of their history with them, all their life experience with them. Do you need to draw all the lines on a hubcap so the reader recognizes it? No. And in the case of comics I would say there is a line where too much detail just drags the work, drags the reading. It goes back to my belief that comics is a form of writing. And in a more esoteric way, I think that all that work, and life experience that a cartoonist invisibly puts into their comics, somehow comes through to the perceptive reader.

It’s interesting to read #67 in retrospect, because your desperate need to talk about your illness was bleeding through every story. Do you still find it difficult to talk about your immediate fears and concerns when you do King-Cat now, or has talking about it openly made it easier? Were you receiving letters from your readers asking about you and your health?

I wanted so bad to just spill the beans. The burden of carrying around this mental weight was killing me. In my notebooks I started and stopped an essay called “What Happened” countless times -- an effort to just write in plain English what I was going through. But I couldn’t pull it off. With this issue I was able to put some feelers out into the universe. I was testing the waters for speaking openly.

I don’t think most people outside my immediate circle of friends had any inkling what was going on with me. I could be wrong. Maybe people I ran into, or saw at shows here and there. But my friends, Zak, those people, they were along with me for the ride.

At the same time, did it help that you also wrote stories, like “Cabin Flux”, that acknowledged the fear but also put forth the idea that you wouldn’t give up? Did stories like “Feels Like A Good Day” and their focus on joy in the moment similarly help, or was their creation similarly subsumed by OCD difficulties?

“Cabin Flux” was one of those type of stories where I let some of this buried stuff come up unconsciously, and it was a bit of a relief. Something that just came out on its own, and it felt right, it felt freeing. Again, at this point I was dipping my toes in the water, seeing how it felt to let some of these feelings creep out a bit. Something like “Feels Like a Good Day”, it’s an expression of joy, of gratitude, for those moments of relief, of clarity, of peace. That one was also a bit of a love letter to our neighborhood in SF, north of the panhandle. The joy of just walking. Feeling that no matter what happens, it’s all right.

It was funny to get a peek into your process in “Cloud Mountain”, where you reveal in part 2 that you were dictating the comic to Misun and made sure she was doing it right. Was her reaction what made it funny enough to do this behind the scenes feature?

The "Cloud Mountain" strips were -- I started to get interested in not only showing the story, but showing the thought processes and the background of where the story came from. Like, life is a continuum, and you choose bits of it to document. In meditation you become very aware of the way your mind works, how quickly one thing leads to another. Things slow down enough that you’re able to see kind of the individual thoughts rather than being caught up in the usual rapid flow of things. You start to see cause and effect. How one thing leads to another in a continual flow. I’m probably not describing it very well. So these kind of comics are a way of documenting that I guess. In the case of "Cloud Mountain" Pt. 2, yes it was a funny story. It was even funnier in the first version where I drew Misun with giant fangs! But she didn’t like that so I tamed it down. So it was amusing, but it was also amusing for me to look from the outside at my own cartoonist’s brain. I figure or hoped other people would find it amusing too.

“Anthill” and “Breathe…” appear face to face on the page, as they both have the same admonition in the last panel (“nothing matters except for this anthill/lying here in bed with Maisie, listening to the birds”). Both of these are zen strips in their own way; did you draw them as a kind of reminder to yourself in addition to your readers?

Yes -- they are a reminder to me, or a record I guess of that reminder appearing at times in my life. Hopefully they can also be a reminder to the reader.

The Diogenes stories made me want to read an entire book’s worth of your adaptations, especially because you were able to frame it as a gag strip. Was it easy to put these into comics form? How similar was the process to adapting zen stories, which also had something of a gag strip rhythm?

They are very similar. I approached them the same way as I do the Zen strips, although Diogenes was without doubt such an iconoclast that it felt right to portray him as kind of punk, with the sailor tattoo he got as a slave etc. Laughing right through man’s delusions. I mean, those stories are hilarious. And you’re right -- those strips, and the Zen strips -- they’re gags all the way… there’s the setup, a bit of a parley maybe, and then the zinger.

“Feeding The Birds of The Fruitful Yield” was a particularly poignant story to end the main part of the book on, as it was on the one hand joyful in recalling this perfect moment from a decade before, but also desperately sad because the final sentiment (“I was home”) was no longer true, and hadn’t been for a while. Why is the concept of “home” so crucial for you in terms of equilibrium, and how do you think you can discern what is home and what isn’t for you?

Like I write in that issue, maybe “home” is that place where we feel connected to the meaning of our own lives. So that can be anywhere… or it can be a series of places. Maybe for the most enlightened of us it’s wherever you are at any given moment. I remember thinking that -- that I’d like to feel at home wherever I went. And to some extent I can pull it off. I find the things about places that ground me. But all that only went so far for me. Being home -- when I drew the strip at least I was back in Denver. That was my home away from home. I knew every inch of that city, it felt comfortable like an old pair of shoes.

Home for me is important because I felt lost and displaced for most of my life. I often felt like I was wandering outside my own life. Like in the strip “Warm Light” from the same issue: “I’m looking for for that warm light inside that tells you it’s safe.” A lot of people will probably barf when I say this -- but as a child my favorite book was Home For a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown… “A home for a bunny / a home of his own / under a rock / under a stone / where will a bunny find a home?” To me, that’s pretty cosmic. She’s talking about my life!

I ended the collection on that issue for the “bookend” effect of gathering the San Francisco issues with one each from Denver on either side, but also so it would end with that strip (and the picture of Maisie on the back cover). I was home… at last... but I didn’t know what was coming… that a lot more disruption was on the way.

In the appendix, the reprint of the mini “3 Poems About Fog” feels the most “San Franciscan” of anything in this book, with poems about fog, the hipster presence and generally being in tune with an environment that was different than anything you had done in King-Cat regarding the city. Why do you think it was easier to do this in a one-off zine for APE than in King-Cat itself? In your mind, what distinguishes the work you do in King-Cat as opposed to work you do elsewhere?

I think really it was just that APE was coming up and I had these three semi-related strip ideas. It was a spur of the moment thing to do for the show. Same with The Ones That Everyone Knows… Just a little thing I could put together quickly. It wasn’t that I didn’t think those strips would work in King-Cat or anything.

Mostly, I don’t do much work outside King-Cat -- except maybe special instances. I always make an exception for Not My Small Diary, Roctober or White Buffalo Gazette. Those are zine classics and it’s an honor to be included in them. I realized at some point pretty early on, that if I did a strip that I really liked, I wanted it to be in King-Cat. So as a kind of awkward consequence of that I felt like the strips I did for anthologies often felt a little lacking to me in retrospect. It’s not that I was pawning off bad strips on them, but just it was a consequence of the way I felt about King-Cat. So for a long while I avoided contributing things outside of KC. Now, when I do, I always make sure the publisher is OK with me reprinting the story in an issue of King-Cat down the road. That kind of solves the problem.

As for deciding about this stuff -- sometimes if there’s a themed anthology and I find I have a good idea for it, I’m happy to contribute. Or if it’s for a close friend or something. Or a good cause. But I don’t do too much anthology work anymore. This might just be a sign of my lack of self-confidence, but I remember thinking too that my work, on its own, in its own context, looks good, seems solid. Sometimes I cringe seeing it up against other people’s work. I think out of the context of King-Cat it might lose some of its power. Maybe that’s just me though.

 

The Next Volume: Issues 69-75

Issue #69 was from 2008, when you were still deep in the grip of your OCD. The tone of this issue was all over the place, with the light-hearted Skweezils stories, a story about your hair and a memory of listening to heavy metal contrasting the directly devastating "Lonesome Whistle" and "MC08". Were you trying to get across that not only things were bad, but you were living in a city where things were once great but you couldn't reclaim that feeling?

That’s exactly it -- that’s what "MC08 "is about -- “I can see how I once thought this was beautiful.” Life had ground me down at that point beyond anything I could cope with. The OCD had become so brutal, my exhaustion from dealing with it day in and day out, had worn me down to my last nerve. And my marriage to Misun was falling apart. I was spiraling down badly. It was hitting that patch, and realizing that without help I was going to nosedive, that led me to going back on meds after a decade off. I had become a person that I didn’t like, and I couldn’t control it.

Issue 70 was the 20th Anniversary issue, and it was your most upbeat issue in quite some time. Was this a deliberate act of will, or were things easing a bit at that time?

Well, if my memory is right, that would have been the first issue since going back on the meds. It didn’t take long for them to begin to lift me out of the OCD hole.

"Meds" is a strip that would be alluded to in The Hospital Suite, as a time when you got a prescription for OCD but didn't take them. Why was it important to you to record that event at that time?

It was the edge of a new era for me, I hoped. Still, I was afraid… I went a few days or a week without taking them. I don’t remember what the trigger was, but some OCD bullshit happened to me. I was at home, in our apartment. This thing happened, and I was just so fed up. I stood up and walked straight to the cabinet, pulled the prescription bottle off the shelf, and threw one of the pills down. It was almost an act of defiance, it was a middle finger to this illness that had wrecked everything about my life for ten years.

By this time I’d learned enough about my biochemistry, and how these drugs worked, that I was able to stave off the side effects I’d had before. I was ready for them. The first moment they appeared I knew what to do. Now I take an SSRI along with a couple {of} over the counter dietary supplements. They balance each other pretty good. It’s been almost another ten years now. I still have OCD -- but it’s mild, it’s something I can handle. Maybe if I’m really stressed, or not sleeping well, it will poke up for a bit. But it’s nothing like how it was, thank God.

How were you able to focus enough to come up with purely comedic strips like the one-panel Skweezil strips or silly memories like "Do The Pete Duncan" in the midst of your struggle?

It became a relief again, to be able to laugh at things, at myself.

How important was it for you to get a resolution to the Square-Head John story, which seemed to be a particular point of inspiration for you?

It drove me crazy, because that time I met him he gave me a slip of paper with his name and address and phone number. I probably told him I was gonna mail him a King-Cat. But I lost the paper somewhere. So I couldn’t even remember his last name. This was before the internet. Then, even when the internet came about -- it was impossible to find any info on him. Searches for Square-Head John all came up empty. So it was a feeling of mystery, but also a feeling of I let him down, I let myself down.

When Misun and I went back down to Trinidad that day -- like I said, Misun is boisterous -- forward -- I would have never gotten the nerve to stop that old lady on the street. But Misun did. And lo and behold, she knew the story. So it felt good to have some resolution. He was the kind of guy -- I mean, I only met him that once -- but he was the kind of guy you could aspire to be in your old age. Creative, funny, self-deprecating, and a little wry. Doing his thing. It was a pleasure to meet him.

King-Cat #71 was a fascinating issue because there seemed to be so many things happening at once. How happy did it make you to be able to scratch the surface of Florida's wildlife? There was almost a sense of palpable glee on the page with drawing after drawing of Florida's flora and fauna.

Well, yeah, a lot happened in a very short period of time. From July to October, four months-- I left Denver, moved to Florida, did a month long tour with Noah, left Florida, and ended up in South Beloit. I mean, when I moved to Florida, I was aware that maybe it was not gonna work out. I didn't really have a Plan B, but it was like -- I know something's about to happen, big changes are on the horizon -- I don’t know what they are… but they’re coming, there’s nothing {that} can stop them now.

So Florida was insane. It really was nuts. First, to go off and live with a gal who’d I’d met once. We lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of Payne’s Prairie… I mean, Payne’s Prairie was our backyard. There were a couple punk dudes, the lady who ran the household… some insane dogs, like close-to-feral dogs, that lived on the property. It was so hot, they’d dig holes in the dirt and crawl in them to cool off. You walked up a long drive through the woods to get to the house, it was pitch black at night. The sounds from the woods, the spiders, the roaches -- I mean Palmetto Bugs -- There were lizards living in the house with us. I called it Skull Island.

I was in love with this gal, but there was a huge age difference. It wasn’t to be. I went down there because she was there, but also because the first inklings of Tom Hart’s SAW Program were beginning to come together. I thought maybe Tom and Leela would be down there shortly after I arrived, but it turned out that didn't happen for another year. Without the school, some form of income, I wasn't going to hang around Skull Island. And then when the gal and I broke up, well, that was it. I drove back up to Illinois. I figured I’d sleep on my mom’s couch for a winter, try to save up money, and figure out my next step. That’s how I ended up in South Beloit -- and I’m still here. Couldn't have predicted any of it, except maybe the breakup.


This was the first appearance of your friend Noah Van Sciver in King-Cat, starting with a funny cover appearance. Why was it so easy to incorporate him into your storytelling during your Denver days?

We were best friends. He felt the way about that city that I felt about that city. We respected each other. He was a serious cartoonist, and so was I. We became best buddies. We’d walk around downtown, look at the beautiful old buildings. We had this fantasy of renting studio space in an office downtown. Going in to work in white shirts with ties, working on comics side by side all day, going down to the restaurant on the corner for lunch, and the waitress would have our food ready, waiting for us, at the same time every day. Like how we imagined life was like in the Golden Age of Comics. Putting in a hard day of work, then putting on our jackets in the evening and going home to our wives.

Plus, Noah is hilarious. It was fun to be around him. He made it easy to start laughing at myself, at the OCD, my misery. Now, of course, I hate him.

So much of this issue focuses on tenderness, joy, and small moments of happiness. Even the "Dirtbag" strip where you make fun of your dirty appearance is all in good humor. Were the last strips in the book, which reveal the end of your marriage, deliberately arranged to be the last strips in the book?

Yeah, everything in King-Cat is deliberate! I’m sure it was just like, what can you follow “Quiz Show Gizmo” with? It’s just a good ending for an issue. It was oblique, but if you read that, especially after “Isolation,” the strip before it, and put it all in context with the rest of the issue, you go, “Oh.” Mystery solved. Let things end on that note.

Were you trying to convey a sense of numbness and shock in "Quiz Show Gizmo" and "Isolation"? They were different from other strips where you expressed pain in that there's no attempt to ground them in Zen...they are just raw but oddly detached.

Not to be pedantic (!), but everyday life is always grounded in Zen. It's just whether you realize that or not. “Isolation” is raw, there’s no attempt to sugarcoat it -- it’s oblique, but like I mentioned, in the context of the issue as a whole, its meaning becomes clearer. But, yeah, numbness might be a good word. Detachment. By that time I’d been through so much, over the course of a long ten years, that I was just run down. I had nothing left -- no pride, no self-respect, no hope at all. Watching the things I loved leave me, one by one… and this is reality. I guess you could cry, but even that won’t work.

It took Florida to really bring me to my knees. Breaking up with Izzy I found myself at age 42, completely broke, emotionally destroyed, twice divorced, living in utter isolation in a cinder block apartment with no heat or running water, feeling rejected by life itself. That was the lowest I’ve ever been. Putting $20 in gas in your car, knowing you have $15 in your bank account, and knowing for an absolute fact that you are a failure.

The opposite seems true in "Under The Stars", where you try to be in the moment and accept a moment of peace in the face of pain. How were you able to process your desire to be creative and use the one outlet that had never failed you with the struggles of OCD and the heartbreak you had experienced?

I’d been through this stuff before -- maybe not this bad, maybe not this total -- but the difference was I was old now. I wasn’t some 23-year-old springing up from his latest misadventure. This felt cold, real. The future did not look good. It looked very bad.

In “Under the Stars,” it was -- I told myself to remember that moment, right? That was my message to myself. Remember that blanket of stars. Remember the crazy dogs, the lizards, love and affection. After Florida I fell into a really dark place. It was so dark, I don’t really want to talk about it. I don’t know if I ever will. But shit, what are you going to do. I had to wake up every day… I had to make money! I had to go on living. All this sounds so melodramatic saying it out loud like this, but it’s all true. People who have been there will understand.

"Christmas Eve" may be the single bleakest strip you've ever published, yet also very Zen, with the lines "I don't want to be alive anymore / but I am." Again, what was the reaction from readers at the time with regard to this strip? Were you afraid to be this direct, or was it important to you to be honest and direct with your readers and yourself?

“Christmas Eve,” that’s what I was alluding to just now -- I don’t want to be alive anymore, but I am. Now what? What do you do with this reality? That’s your koan.

In terms of being direct -- the funny thing was, at that point, I could finally be that direct! I had nobody’s feelings to worry about hurting, I had no worries that something I wrote would be misconstrued, or would be criticized, or laughed at. Man, I wrote about a Faith Hill song stabbing me in the heart! All True! Fuck it!

The tonal shift between the equally downbeat but brilliant meditation on loneliness, "Wedding Band", and the South Beloit Journal strips where you meet your girlfriend Stephanie is jarring. Was this a deliberate move, to go from moments of hopelessness to you never giving up and being rewarded for it?

Well, if you look at the issue, those South Beloit Journal strips come after the letters column, and the Top 40 and stuff, which are in the middle of the issue. That stuff is the part where you get up and flip the record over and put the needle back on. Side Two picks up where Side One left off, but it’s something new in and of itself at the same time. So Side One of #72 is After Florida, but Before Stephanie. Side Two is After Stephanie.

"Batty Batty Batty" almost seems like a reward for yourself and your readers as you introduce Steph into your storytelling world. While this was a funny story, was it especially rewarding to tell a story about you functioning as part of a team?

Yes, it was a new life, a new beginning. Something kind of domestic. Working together on a life.

That line, where Stephanie goes, “I bought it in Florida.” She really did buy the butterfly net while on vacation, but I put that in there as an affectionate poke at myself too. I could finally laugh a little about my folly: “I bought it in Florida.”

Issue 73 was perhaps the most lighthearted issue you had done in years. What was it like to do King-Cat again with your OCD finally under control?

It was nice. It felt good to try to bring some looseness back into things. I think, if I remember correctly, that was the issue I did after attending the PFC workshop. So I was feeling creative and limber, my brain had been exercised, and my hand… I had tried some new stuff. Marc Bell had walked me through going back to nib pens -- which is what I actually started with, drawing comics in my high school years. I drew the cover with those. It felt great.

How important was it for you to get your hands dirty in "Comix Dream" as a way of countering that OCD narrative in your own head?

Well, my subconscious was telling me something! To this day, getting my hands dirty is so pleasurable, so satisfying. Finishing a day of drawing with ink all over my hands, digging in the backyard, gardening. A few weeks back I went to a Life Drawing session at NIU with my friend Al. It was only the second time I’d done a Life Drawing session from the nude figure since college. It felt great to throw messy charcoal down on a big page, smear it with my fingertips. It reminds you that your hands are tools. The next morning I woke up, I could tell my brain had been completely rewired. I felt so at ease, so relaxed, a pure kind of peace. Just from exercising those muscles that had laid dormant for so long.

When I do my comics workshops, sometimes you can see how tight the students are. Comics can lead to a real tightness, these light, feathery pencils. When I see that I pull out some vine charcoal and make them spend an hour drawing the person across the table from them with it. Some of the kids, God bless ‘em -- I mean, I understand, trust me -- they pick up the charcoal like it was a piece of dog shit. Especially I suppose, even more for people who are used to drawing on tablets. But that exercise forces them to get their hands dirty, literally, and forces them to make drawings with imprecise, unpredictable lines. It can free the brain up a little.

How much delight did you take in being able to do strips about the cuckoo and continue your tradition of observing nature in the way that Thoreau might have?

The cuckoo comic was good, if a little frustrating. That was one where the struggle between looseness and precision, that balance I was trying to consciously relearn in the aftermath of OCD, where it ended up feeling slightly off. There are things about it that I would like to change, that I will change when I get a chance to collect it in a book. Bits of the writing to me are too clunky. I often try to keep a kind of conversational flow in my writing, but that one, looking back, there are little tweaks I’d like to make. Still, it felt good to be walking that line again, not knowing if I’d succeed or or fail, and then learning from the experience.

That was an important comic for me because I knew it was going to be the “title track” to that collection. For years I knew I wanted to call the Lone Mountain follow-up In Search of the Cuckoo Bird, but I didn't know exactly why. It had something to do with looking for home, searching for that place I felt at home. So when I ended up having those experiences I knew I would give that strip that title. Maybe that’s why I want to go back and tweak it too, because it was a kind of important comic or me. I wanted to do my best with it.

As far as the tradition of observing nature... coming back to the Midwest -- that was a big part of it for me -- I wanted to be back in that landscape with those critters, those woods and fields. It’s something now I don’t take for granted -- the joy of feeling at home, of feeling like I’m in my proper place. It’s a privilege. I think I wrote in one of the San Francisco issues, “I want to live in a place where there are woodchucks.” That was home to me. I’m glad I’m there again.

In the Snornose for issue #74, it felt like you had opened up about where you were living and why with an unusual level of detail. Why did you feel compelled to provide that level of information?

It was a statement of -- I’m here. This is it for me. Through trial and tribulation, crazy life, I ended up deposited at this front door. And I’m done. This is my new home, this is where I’m putting things down, opening up all those packing boxes, putting my books back on the shelf. No more U-Hauls.

This issue seemed balanced between depicting night terrors, funny personal stories ("B.O."), personal obsessions ("Bridges of South Beloit") and another team-up with Steph. How much does the time of the year affect the contents of an issue? Is most material gathered over a short period of time, or do you wind up putting together stories over a long haul?

Nowadays the work is so spread out. When I’m only able to manage one issue per year, things back up. Some stories I work on but they don’t make the cut. I hold on to them for next time, or somewhere else down the line. I’ve written before, it’s all starts as just a jumble of vague ideas in a notebook, but I’m always working on them, refining them, even if it’s my subconscious brain working at night, or while I’m doing chores. Amazingly, somehow, it all starts to coalesce, and the new issue leaps out at me. I “see” it in my head at last. That’s when the work starts in earnest, getting that stuff out of my head and into some final form I can reproduce. That’s the process.

When I lived in Elgin, and had that simplicity and focus to life, I found I fell into a predictable seasonal pattern. In spring I start moving out into the world, having adventures, developing ideas and themes. Life becomes more “active.” I’m hiking, observing things, people and nature. I also spent more time consuming art. I read a lot, I watched movies. All this stuff was an incubator for comics. In the fall, things start slowing down and then the Midwestern winter comes. I’m indoors more, things kind of recede into a more interior world. This was where I did that creative work, starting putting that stuff that incubated over the spring and summer into form. I’d put out an issue around December, then begin the next one, which usually was printed six months later, May or June of the next year. By which time I’d begun the cycle again, moving back out into the world and developing ideas. It felt very natural.

Since then my life has been so unpredictable, with so much upheaval, any kind of order or predictability went out the window. Mostly it became a year between issues. It was frustrating. I’m not as prolific as I am when I was young of course, but I would like to get back to that two issues per year cycle. That felt right to me.

Pets and animals have always been an important element of King-Cat, but were you surprised when you were doing the issue how much telling Maisie's story in #75 meant you were telling your own story?

The Maisie Issue was done right after I finished The Hospital Suite, and they’re kind of a pair. They obviously overlap quite a bit, since she was there with me through all the health issues. So that issue ended up being a way for me maybe to put that whole era of my life into a perspective, to process it. Hospital was processing it, but from a very specific angle. The Maisie Issue brought it all together as a whole. That cat was my treasure in life. I wanted to do her story justice. It all came pretty naturally. Those stories were such a part of me, it felt joyful to put them down on paper. Even the hard stuff. I wanted it to be a worthwhile tribute to this amazing animal.

What kind of response has this issue received from cat owners, and pet owners more generally?

Well, people were moved by it. If you’re a pet owner, someone who loves animals, I think it’s easy to see yourself and your pets in the story. It felt good, that it got that kind of response. I knew it was probably the best comic I’d drawn in years. It was just waiting there for me to draw. The emotions were so high making it, I think that came through on the page. I was happy with it, it was a gift to her.

Were you satisfied with how this issue came out with regard to its special status as the 25th anniversary issue?

Yes. I try not to put too much stake into things like anniversaries, but of course as I get older I get even more sentimental. I wanted it to be special, not for me, but for her, and for my readers. It was a thank you card.

Does this issue mark the end of the next volume?

Yes, probably. I’m not sure if it will go in the book collection, or if I’ll want to reprint it as a standalone volume. I think it could bear up to that. We’ll see. But yes, Cuckoo Bird will either end with 75 or close to it.

In the Snornose for #76, what did you mean when you thought this issue was a weird one?

When I’m working on the new King-Cat, I can usually tell if it’s gonna be a winner… meaning, it has funny stories, attractive drawings, relatable stories. Or if it’s gonna be a weird one. Weird ones are issues that I have to do, but maybe they’re not going to set the world on fire. They are what they are. They’re necessary in the greater scope of things. Maybe that issue has a bunch of oddball comics, or comics that are really personally meaningful to me, but I’m afraid won’t resonate as well with readers.

Issue 76 has “Country Mouse - City Mouse,” “Radish Reviews,” stuff like that. It’s got nine pages of letters! All those one-pagers with minimal text. It was just one of those weird ones. It’s like I knew early on, accepted that not every comic is gonna be the greatest comic in the world, I accept that every issue’s not gonna be the greatest issue of King-Cat in the world. But you still have to make them. They’re asking to be made, so you make them, and put them out into the world and hope for the best. I’m willing to trust my muse.

What inspired you to print so many pages of letters?

Partially it was that so many letters had accumulated over the course of the previous few issues. The Maisie Issue had no letters column, so they were backed up and I needed to clear the logjam. But also, as I get older, and the internet takes over, and the quality of people’s communication gets worse and worse, I wanted to have a place that was an antidote to that. I wanted to remind myself of the time when people wrote letters nd life moved more slowly, when there was a higher level of discourse, when people shared all kinds of things, you processed them, and shared back. Where real, personal communication was taking place. I know that saying these things sets me up for Old Man Shaking His Fist at the Heavens territory. So be it.

I’ve realized, with great pleasure, that doing King-Cat for thirty years, it’s become a kind of community. Those King-Cat readers are a community. I wanted the letters column to become a place for them. I want readers to be able to hear what Jeff Zenick is up to. If someone writes in about cougars, I want to be able to share that with other readers. This was always the role of the letters column, but in recent years it’s become even more important to me.

Part of me loves the internet. As an obsessively curious person, the amount of information available within seconds is exhilarating. And as an artist that has made his living communicating the small things in life, being able to post and share little ideas, stupid non-sequiturs, cute photos, rapidly, is right up my alley. But I think we’re all finding that there’s something unpleasant about the internet. It’s good for some things but not for others. Maybe it’s the form, maybe it’s the simple physical fact that we’re staring into glowing electronic screens all day. But for all its benefits, there’s something sick about it too. People are addicted to it. And that addiction is being exploited by people who sure don’t have our best interests in mind.

I’m heading into the last part of my life. I’m not young anymore. I’m starting to think constructively about what I want this last part of my life to look like. The letters column is part of that.

The "(Memory of) Frying Up Burgers..." story isn't done in your usual spare but elegant style. Everything's jammed together and scribbled like a journal comic. Was this approach intentional? Was it meant to evoke something immediate and powerful?

Yeah, it was another experiment… it was drawing straight to ink, no plan, no pencils. Just putting it down on paper in a direct way. I’m not really sure why. It sounds like a cop out, but as I always say, I just want the comic to be what it wants to be. That comic wanted to be made that way. I wish there was some amazing philosophical rationale I could give you!

The most recent issue (#77) is an "all-critters" issue, with stories about frogs, big cats, a big moth, possums and bees. You'd been leaning closer and closer to doing more direct reportage of stories set in nature, encountering creatures, but was it coincidence that virtually everything fell into that category here?

No coincidence. As things were coming together for the issue I saw the theme emerging. Maybe by coincidence I had a couple animal strips, but pretty soon into the process I saw that and decided to pull it together as an All Animals issue. Not always, but usually, most of my individual issues of the last fifteen or so years have had themes, even if the themes are so vague or personal that only I am aware of them. This one was animal stories.

 

South Beloit Journal

As stated in the introduction to the comic, Porcellino in 2010 was trimming the pages for The Next Day and wound up "with 91 2"x6" scraps of bristol board. They looked perfect for a comic strip one little diary comic per day."

It's interesting how much form (the extra paper) influenced this project. Had you ever thought about doing journal comics before this?

No. I mean, some of my comics I suppose you could call “diary comics,” stuff like “Today” from King-Cat #26… but KC wasn’t really a diary comic. I guess if I had to call it something it would be like a journal, or later, what I’d call memoir comics -- where it’s not so much just documenting a day in the life -- but working with that material to make a larger point, or coming at that kind of material from a bit of a different perspective than just documentation. The only other times off hand I can think of were the early strips I’d do for Delaine’s Not My Small Diary, back before the issues had themes. I kind of enjoyed that, I’d randomly pick a day with the idea that this day is going to be the comic -- and then just -- whatever it was -- turning that into my submission. Those comics were collected in the back of Map of My Heart.

Was a journal the only thing you considered doing, as opposed to a gag strip or a Zen stories strip?

I didn't consider anything! I just did it. I saw those strips of paper and was like, “Okay, I’ll document the next three months of my life.” I was so depressed, I mean beyond depressed… and they kind of gave me something to start the day off with, get my hand going, something to take the edge off of working on The Next Day, something loose and unpredictable. They were -- like my journalling -- not originally intended for publication. That probably freed me up a bit. It wasn't til later that I felt there was a certain “charm” to them, if I can use that word…! Or simply that they helped me through this particularly awful period of my life and that gave them some kind of larger meaning.

Photo taken during South Beloit Journal days by John Porcellino

How difficult was it working on The Next Day in the midst of depression?

I think it was ironic that I was working on that particular book at that particular time, but really it would have been as hard to work on any project like that at the time -- meaning -- an illustration job, working off a script someone had provided, going back and forth with edits and so on. That’s not the way I usually work on comics. So even if it had been a book about magic rainbows, I think I would have struggled.

Why did you seek an outside publisher (Uncivilized Books) instead of publishing this yourself?

I sat on the strips for six years. I cleaned them up a bit, and even had an intern scan them all. But it was going nowhere. I lacked the basic layout skills, I lacked the software needed to put it together as a book for the printer. I mean, I got quotes from printers! But I just never did it. Maybe other things kept getting in the way, and there was a bit too much effort involved with it that I’d have to exert to print the thing.

Tom [Kaczynski] and I had been talking about working together for a while. When he started publishing his Lab Series at Uncivilized, it seemed like a perfect fit. I just needed someone to take this raw material and physically make the book. It was great. Working with Uncivilized was great. Now that it’s out, I’m really happy we did it. It feels like a good contribution to my overall work.

American readers in particular look at a 2- or 3-panel horizontal comic strip and immediately think "this is a strip with a punchline," thanks to newspaper comics. Did you find the form influencing that, even when you were writing about loneliness and despair?

Sure -- I’m a cartoonist -- so even though I began each strip with no real intentions or plan, as I moved through them while drawing, those beats come out, it’s intuitive, you feel it and put it down on paper. Even if the “punchline” as some kind of gag doesn’t exist, you get into that rhythm of the three panel strip. That was part of what got me thinking about publishing them… thinking about putting these shitty hacked out comics about depression into that kind of format of the [Library of American Comics] books, like Little Orphan Annie, two to a page, landscape format. Of course we ended up printing the book portrait, but I was aware of the kind of connection they had, even distantly, to the traditional newspaper strip.

Was the process of making these strips in any way comforting? For some, it felt like it mirrored the day-to-day struggle of finding a reason to go on. You kept getting up even though it felt pointless, and you kept doing the strip even when you had nothing to say.

Yes, sure. For me, even though my personal psychology will always tell me otherwise, making art is comforting. It steadies my mind, puts me in that meditative zone. And with these strips, drawing them gave me a kind of commitment that was pretty easy to stick with. Towards the end of the strips, when I’m on tour, I think I blew through a lot of deadlines, and then played catch up, drawing three or four or five at a time. But mostly it just became a nice rhythm. As a master procrastinator, it got me going each morning in a simple way.

The end of the book is interesting as you go from sleeping in your car outside a venue to this whirlwind trip in Canada and Walden. What was the experience like of journaling these events (not to mention starting to get to know "S."), as opposed to the isolation of the first half?

Well, things had changed. All the lags in those last comics, between the events and the drawing, signal that I had other stuff going on. Meeting S. was a life-saver. When I look back, it was the time I watched the South Beloit HS baseball team play Clinton, Wisconsin -- that was the moment when the darkness of the previous months had started to lift. It was getting springlike, I had finished that stressful experience of drawing The Next Day… things were mellowing, and I was starting to try to ponder my future in terms that were hopeful instead of terrifying.

Now it’s seven years later, Steph and I are still together. I’m in the most stable situation since my childhood. We have a nice, domestic life in Beloit, with dogs and cats and birdfeeders, and a nice backyard. After all the tumult I’d been through -- going back really to 1997 -- fourteen years of upheaval and uncertainty! -- it felt amazing to finally feel at home again, to have some stability. I hope it lasts.

Is this the kind of project you would consider pursuing again?

Maybe. But as I mentioned, I don’t really consider things. I just do things as they come up. If the urge strikes I’ll do it again, but it’s not something I think about consciously.

 

Root Hog Or Die

In 2014, Dan Stafford (publisher of Kilgore Books) did a documentary about Porcellino titled Root Hog Or Die. Stafford interviewed a number of Porcellino's friends and former bandmates and followed him around on tour for a few weeks.

When did Dan Stafford approach you about doing a documentary about you? What were your initial thoughts on doing it?

I suppose 2008 or 2009? I knew Dan through Kilgore. Noah and I would walk around and he would say, “Somebody should do a King-Cat documentary.” Noah talked Dan into, I think, or put the idea in his head. My initial thoughts were skepticism. Like, I didn't know Dan super well at that point. It would be giving my trust to a person i didn't really know all that well. But Dan is a good guy, and it was flattering, of course. Why not?

Early on, he went on tour with me for a couple weeks though the Southeast. I always say if you put two strangers in a car together for a few weeks they're either going to end up hating each other or be friends for life. Luckily for me and Dan, it was the latter.

When you watched the documentary, what were your reactions to the various interviews done by others?

Mostly I just loved seeing my friends up there, especially when we showed it on a big screen. I got a kick out of that. The interviews were fine, they were all truthful. I have no problem with the truth.

A lot of the documentary focused on your days as a musician. What did it feel like to see all of that footage and hear stories from the old days?

It was sweet, maybe a little bittersweet. I’m sure I’d still be playing music if not for my hearing problems. So it was kind of looking back on good times. I mean, bear in mind, I always looked at all this stuff as parts of a whole: I drew comics, I played in a  band, I wrote poetry, I ran the distro. It was all one creative drive.

Did you find it important or satisfying to have some of your live readings recorded for posterity?

Ah, it’s OK, I have nothing against it! I don’t really think about that stuff too much. I’m not a natural public speaker. I had to force myself to do it. I’ve gotten better with experience. But it’s not really something that comes natural.

Did it feel liberating to be able to talk about your OCD in such an open way?

Absolutely. The more energy you put into keeping things like that hidden, the more you let them dictate the terms of your life. It’s amazing how just speaking openly and directly about something like that defuses its power. Speaking publicly about OCD helped break the spell it had over my life. And hopefully encouraged others who were in the same boat.          

Finally, how important has your Patreon been in keeping you going financially? Has the overall experience been fun or a burden? Those King-Cat fan club cards you send out look fun to do.

JP: Patreon totally changed my life. It essentially doubled my income. From something where I was really struggling, to where for the first time in my adult life I’m able to put away some money each month in savings.

When I started it, I consciously planned it so it wouldn’t be a ton of extra work on top of everything else I’m already doing. I already have too much work on my plate all the time. I didn’t want to get into a situation where I was hand-drawing hundreds of postcards every month or whatever. So I basically made it a straight traditional patronage thing. I send out a monthly newsletter, and for certain levels I send out physical copies of my zines and other little doodads. But even that, it’s only a couple times a year. And of course I was up front about that. I want people to know what they’re getting. I don’t want to trick somebody into something. It’s basically, “This is what I do. It’s hard to make a living doing it. But if you value what I do and are in a position to chip in above and beyond, here’s an easy way to do it.” The response has been wonderful. I’m very grateful.


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