Sometimes it’s dreadful stormy and sometimes it’s pretty clear
You may work a month and you might work a year
But you can make a winning if you’ll come alive and try
For the whole world over, boys, it’s root hog or die.
—”The Philosophical Cowboy,” an old American folk song
At times in Root Hog or Die, the new documentary about his life to date, John Porcellino wanders down the streets of his old neighborhoods like he’s casing the houses. In a flannel jacket, raised hoodie, and ever-present Chicago Bears hat, he seems displaced but at peace with himself, a philosophical outsider sifting through his past. The off-handedness of these scenes and the film’s many interviews creates the impression that Root Hog or Die is almost a home movie, which it almost is, and this is a good thing. Disarmed, you forget this is a documentary, you forget the expectations of documentaries about an artist’s life, and you’re defenseless when Porcellino’s life unspools.
If you’ve followed his influential, self-published zine/comic King-Cat since the late 1990s, or read his new comic memoir, The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly), you know Porcellino has spent many years struggling with physical and mental afflictions: hypersensitivity to sound, mysterious intestinal ailments, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Porcellino isn’t one for drama, though. His everyday observations are documented in spare verbal and visual poetics, his black line-work is fluid but precise and minimal against backdrops of white space, and while the sharp black-and-white contrast of his artwork seems ripe for a more didactic storytelling style, Porcellino’s King-Cat stories are less stories than they are anecdotes, koans, and off-the-cuff thoughts. His work is the epitome of casual cartooning, a style that seems effortless despite its artfulness, thoughtfulness, and, as the documentary makes clear, considerable effort.
Directed by Dan Stafford, co-owner of the Denver-based Kilgore Books and Comics, Root Hog or Die is a labor of love centered around roughly the same series of illnesses as The Hospital Suite. Where the memoir goes into extensive and clearer detail about those illnesses, the film provides a wide-lens portrait of Porcellino’s life from childhood to the present day. Consequently there’s a much stronger sense of foreboding right from the beginning. For instance, Porcellino recalls childhood fears that seem comic, even absurd—aggressive rabies-infected squirrels and deadly muskrats—but as he walks barren, small-town Illinois sidewalks on dreary winter days, those fears signal the trouble to come. As the film transitions from high school to college, the tension slacks. Here, through interviews, excerpts from early work, and particularly in an actual home movie of one of his early bands (I think it was Smile) performing to a near-empty parking lot, Porcellino is a recognizable young artist brimming with ideas, freed by a lack of lofty ambitions, handcrafting zines and throwing together one-gig bands inspired by Zen Arcade. It’s been said many times: some of the best art takes shape when the artist thinks no one will ever see it. But in these sequences you can also sense how the groundwork is laid for the art we eventually do see.
And then, a jarring transition: Porcellino is married, has moved from job to job and from Illinois to Denver, and has already developed his extreme sensitivity to sound when the even more serious health issues appear. Abdominal pain occasions a lengthy hospital visit then a search from doctor to doctor. His marriage falls apart. His work stalls, projects are abandoned. A second marriage fails. As the film documents Porcellino’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, there’s no crisis moment, not exactly, no dark night of the soul, just the suggestion of many such nights, and then, what seems like a simple realization and decision: after trying anything and everything, Porcellino gets back on his meds.
According to his bookstore’s site, Stafford “finished 1/2 a degree in filmmaking at Bard College.” It was just enough. The film is a lo-fi affair, but after Porcellino forecasted some uneven sound and low light as he introduced the screening I attended at the Billy Ireland Cartoon and Library and Museum, I was surprised by the professionalism of many of the film’s shots. Sure, the occasional trains rumbles through in the background. In one scene, the top half of Porcellino’s face is obscured by shadow; it seems like neither a detriment nor an art-school affect, but simply the way things happened to be that day. Like Porcellino’s own comics, style in Root Hog or Die is a hidden engine. The most creative flourish in the film is the series of King-Cat readings performed by Porcellino at various live events and also by guest voiceover narrators. Sometimes the connections between the comics and the film’s narrative are obvious, maybe even too obvious, but they’re always powerful and adept interpretations of Porcellino’s deceptively simple, Buddhism-influenced comics.
Clocking at roughly an hour-and-a-half, Root Hog or Die has its lulls, some oddly placed digressions, and narrative ambiguity. While the interviews with Porcellino’s friends from Illinois and Denver are helpful—the story is told entirely through their intimate testimony and Porcellino’s—the chronology of the decline in the artist’s health is sometimes muddied. But if the timeline is obscured, the emotion is not. The scenes with Porcellino’s first wife, Kera, are touching and generous, but also excruciatingly honest. Porcellino’s contemporaries Ivan Brunetti and Zak Sally contribute astute and personal viewpoints on his work that make you understand what it’s like to have a friend whose trouble is just out of your reach to fix. The Hospital Suite makes the step-by-step progression of Porcellino’s illnesses much clearer, but it cannot do what the film does, which is to viscerally sink you into the sudden confusion and desperation of those years. This vulnerable middle third of Root Hog or Die was what urged me to write about the film—and that effect is maybe the highest praise I can give it.
Or maybe it’s this: Despite living in a culture where seemingly every iota of private thought is made public through social media, and where the story of the struggling artist has become at best an archetypal narrative and at worst a cliché, Root Hog or Die felt new. Yes, the film tells a familiar story, but the familiarity wasn’t reassuring or edifying, at least not in a typically romanticized way. It was discomforting. As Porcellino’s skirmishes with good health turned into one-sided brawls, the auditorium’s temperature seemed to drop. And that means it got at least one step closer to transmitting the discomfort if not outright agony Porcellino experienced for more than a decade. That agony is profoundly clear without being spelled out as it is in The Hospital Suite, and though it’s laced with humor and self-deprecation, it’s also unnerving.
That unnerving quality derives, I think, from a few things. Reading The Hospital Suite, you might find it easier to imagine being Porcellino, to transfer yourself into his point of view but remain at a safe distance. Watching the film, guided by so much testimony from his friends, you place yourself as one of those friends, intimate but just on the outside, wanting to help but not sure how to do so. This is also a simple matter of how we engage with a comic versus a film. In a comic, we control the pace of reading, while we view a film with no control over the rate of its profluence. So while Porcellino was continuously searching for new treatments, from the holistic to the psychopharmacological—what an enormous and distant word that is; thank God for art—he was nonetheless active. As passive viewers, our desperation is at the mercy of a story that already happened, even if we know Porcellino is alive and kicking and still making King-Cat.
On the other hand, the unsettling quality of Root Hog or Die comes from the mirror it asks us to hold up to ourselves. Not explicitly, of course. It’s way too subtle for that. But perhaps as much as the memoir—it remains to be seen—the film encourages a reflective response, or at least I felt that way. Allow me, at this point, to dodge an explanation of the “what” of that response and focus on the “why.” But there, in itself, is the rub. Just talking about such a film asks a person to decide what about his private life he will and will not discuss in public. In other words, how honest will we be to ourselves, and how openly will we speak to each other about the film? To ask these questions is to trouble the still waters of normal, everyday conversation, and what fascinates me is that such a modest, amateur film indeed troubles the waters. In the punk and post-punk that has so influenced Porcellino, in zine culture, and in his own comics, the blunt honesty expressed is rarely demanded in return. At least not explicitly, and not in public. But isn’t it implied that we should respond as honestly as we can bear?
That honesty is even more important regarding the subject of illness. Stories about mental and physical disability still aren’t being told often enough in a culture that fears and ostracizes both. Even in comics. With notable exceptions like Ellen Forney’s Marbles and Darryl Cunningham’s overlooked Psychiatric Tales, such stories are rare, and the discussions about comics’ distant-past and more recent depictions of disability, from Batman’s “crazy” rogue’s gallery to the fight against depression depicted in comics like Maus and Jimmy Corrigan, are marginalized topics of discussion. That’s changing, and a film like Root Hog or Die can help continue the change.
The progress of that cause might not be enough to sway some who, not unreasonably, ask why Porcellino’s story is remarkable enough for a film. I could argue that Porcellino’s career is emblematic of a whole generation of indie cartoonists who came of age in zine and punk culture, who made that culture or at least extended it into the 1980s and 1990s by sending out handwritten letters (what are those?) to their favorite bands, by championing unknown local bands, by following Factsheet Five, by publishing poetry and essays, by living by the DIY ethos and what James Moore, local cartoonist here in Columbus, calls a “do-a-little-bit-of-everything” ethos, and, finally—hell, let’s go for it—by giving voice to the American Midwest underground no-nonsense sensibility that doesn’t have time for pretentious bullshit like this lengthy sentence. I could also argue that the film makes clear the difficulties facing independent cartoonists: the demands of self-motivation, constant hustling, and inventiveness in the face of minimal resources and structure. No game plan but the one you create. That’s important for young cartoonists to understand.
But the better response is simply the assertion of raw emotion and story in Root Hog or Die. The aesthetic philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has written, essentially, that nothing has been done before. No work of art, no life is made or lived in the exact same context. It’s easy to forget that, and it’s up to the work of art to remind us. Root Hog or Die does.
Porcellino, as I said, introduced the screening. He took questions afterward, looking and sounding healthy, even if, as he reminds the reader at the end of The Hospital Suite, he’s still “nuts” and “weird.” But he’s also a perceptive and honest speaker about his own work, and at the Billy Ireland he talked as easily about the politics of his work as he did what kinds of pens he uses.
I hope that Root Hog or Die is a demystifying punch in the gut for those who romanticize “nuts” and “weird” into a hip and glorious live-fast-die-young aesthetic and, in doing so, belittle the dignity of an artist’s life. It’s easier to do when you’re younger. I know I did. Suffering seemed sexy, until I actually suffered. If you know someone who thinks this way, or, alternately, someone who is troubled and sees no light, take them to see this film. Because in the end, the most powerful quality about Root Hog or Die, and truly, the highest praise I can give it, is that it denies any glamorization of illness. Through its off-handedness and its disarming sequences, the film makes it clear that the quality of Porcellino’s art never justifies or redeems his distress, and neither does it slip into making Porcellino heroic. Instead, Root Hog or Die is a love letter to the courage and perseverance of any artist, and any person, really, who learns to “keep on keepin’ on,” as Marvin Gaye put it, by managing illness and creating art that’s true to his or her unique vision.
That modest goal is underscored by a scene near the end of the film, one that will stick with me for a long time. Porcellino is walking in the woods on another overcast winter day. The trees are bare, gray, and all the same. It doesn’t look like much. This, Porcellino says, is his favorite spot in the entire world.
Thanks to James Moore, Ken Eppstein and Lauren McCallister for their input, recollection and good advice.