The alternative comics scene has frequently been closely allied with the punk rock and zine scenes. That’s especially true of minicomics and other hand-made publications with low print runs. As long as there are enough young people and venues in an area to support a music scene, other forms of culture inevitably spring up around it. In this sense, the youth and DIY nature of punk has never died out. Instead, it simply gets passed down to new generations on a regular basis. The participatory nature of these scenes has always meant that newcomers with little skill but a great deal of enthusiasm found encouragement not only to start their own band or do their own zine, but to do both if they felt like it. The barriers from initial interest to actual production or performance are few, especially if there are readers or listeners around.
While zines and minicomics are ideal for young artists, there are still plenty of artists who prove to be lifers. John Porcellino just reached his 25th anniversary with King-Cat Comics, for example. Brontez Purnell and Janelle Hessig are two more artists who have been publishing zines for quite some time. Hessig started publishing Tales of Blarg! back in 1991, was the subject of Riot Grrl band Bratmobile’s “The Real Janelle” (and appeared on the record’s cover), and has had her own bands like Panty Raid. Hessig wrote for Punk Planet and then got a degree in animation, and that sense of intellectual and artistic curiosity and adventurousness pervades her work. In her autobio stories, Hessig is clearly influenced by the manic style of Peter Bagge and she comes across like Lisa Leavenworth’s cooler but still frantic sister.
Purnell is also a zinester (his best known being Fag School), musician (Panty Raid, Gravy Train!!!, and other bands), dancer, and writer. He’s written for Maximum Rock ‘n Roll and also works as a DJ. He’s been doing this for nearly fifteen years. Purnell and his old friend Hessig have combined to create what is hands-down the funniest and filthiest book of the year, The Cruising Diaries. Here’s an animated preview of the book. The format of the book is text from Purnell on the left-hand pages and an illustration (sometimes in comics form) from Hessig on the right-hand pages. Each anecdote concerns young Purnell’s anonymous sexual exploits “told in the style of anti-erotica.” Each encounter has a title; the first is called “Sweet Talker”, and it ends with the following three sentences: “I went to his house where he had pictures of his wife and kids everywhere and every solo-male jerk-off film ever. We spent three hours in the shower pissing on each other and he bought me a burrito later. PERFECT DATE.” This gives the reader a pretty good idea of what they’re in for: total honesty and a heaping of irreverence.
Hessig’s accompanying illustration zeroed in on an earlier detail: the “sweet talker” wondering if Purnell’s shorts indicated that he was a real mailman. It’s an absurd pick-up line, but not for a kid like Purnell who had an opportunity for a better time than he would have had at a bar. Hessig adds a great deal of detail to some of the encounters; a blow-job in a bathroom stall is greatly livened up with the absurd character expressions and graffiti, for example. She’s also not afraid to go to gross-out images, like a man rejecting Purnell and showing him his genital-wart laden penis (“He made me say things I never thought I would (“Put it away!”)). The huge, leaky and wart-infested penis that she drew even has little scar lines on it, and it has its own thought balloon proclaiming, “Kill me.”
Purnell shows zero restraint in what stories he chooses to tell, and this is to the reader’s benefit. Whether it’s being fucked by what he thinks is a ghost, blowing a homeless man behind a taco truck (and subsequently being told to lighten up about someone being homeless) and ranting about the stupidity of semen (“It smells like the inside of a dick”), or getting the urge to rip out a partner’s spine while fisting him on shrooms (a la Mortal Kombat), Purnell digs into his back pages with a great deal of glee. Hessig’s own unrestrained style makes her the perfect collaborator, and she knows just what elements of his stories will make the best single illustration.
What separates Purnell’s anecdotes from other sex diaries is his fierce intelligence, a lack of shame and an acidic and trenchant sense of humor about himself and those he comes into contact with. While these are id-powered stories, Purnell is also frequently reflective on his roots, his family and the culture around him, even if it’s in a sarcastic, dismissive manner. He even questions the role of ideology in the gay rights movement. In this book (which borrows its text liberally from his old zines), he concentrates on telling it like it was and doing so in as funny a fashion as possible. For artist and publisher Hessig, her job was to make it look even better, and she succeeded in spectacular fashion. This is a short but potent read that doesn’t outstay its welcome and brings the underground punk zine aesthetic to a larger audience.