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The ABCs of Autobio Comix

 

Nothing But the Truth

Fleener followed underground comix during their heyday but didn’t get into the cartooning racket herself until after the movement had peaked and moved elsewhere. She was more interested in being a musician, she says, and didn’t really know how to break into comics.

“The first time I ever sat down and did cartoons was in 1978. I was living with a band, two guys and a girl, and they were starting to get on my nerves. One night we went to a nightclub and it was the start of the Punk era, and I was so amused by the ‘new conformity’ I came home and did a buncha sketches making fun of the crowd and my roommates. I showed them to my boyfriend, Paul (now my husband), and we both cracked up. I was surprised how I was able to capture the facial characteristics of these people and I started showing some of these cartoons to other people and they liked ‘em. Ever since seeing Zap Comix I’d always secretly wanted to do UG comics but the whole scene was a mystery to me.”

In 1984 she saw a copy of LA Weekly with an article by Matt Groening about the “new comics”, and addresses for Weirdo and Raw. “I wrote Crumb and he wrote back with encouraging words about the comics I sent him. He almost used ‘em in Weirdo but Pete Bagge just became editor and didn’t use them. There were some autobio stories in Weirdo that inspired me – Carol Lay’s ‘A Midwestern Wedding’ and Pete did a story about a nerdy kid in high school. I thought to myself, ‘Shoot, I got stories that’ll knock people’s socks off!’ so that’s probably what got me going.”

Once she began submitting strips to comic magazines, Fleener didn’t flinch from recounting dumb mistakes and dangerous encounters involving casual sex and copious drug use. That’s how it went down, she says. “I guess it’s a Catholic thing. Maybe it’s all that confession shit, baring your soul to an unknown stranger behind a screen in a hot cramped cell-like enclosure. A formal situation whereby, if you spill your guts convincingly, you get absolved and go on to sin another day. A bit of storytelling is what a confession is, isn’t it? People like to read about the so-called naughty things that other people do. And I do, too, as long as it’s not pathetic. The bottom line is, if you tell a good story and are enjoying yourself, the reader can tell. Same thing with playing music.”

However, other cartoonists from the same period took a very different approach toward telling their life stories. Instead of Charles Bukowski style rampages, they leaned more toward Revenge of the Nerds.

Joe Matt, who often appeared in compromising positions in his own series Peepshow, openly admits to pornography addiction, peeing in the sink, and other appalling personal habits. His stories are the opposite of the wild and wooly adventures from Fleener and Eichhorn. No parties, no brawls, no confrontations with authority. Matt is an introvert who blissfully wallows in selfish fantasies of wooing women, pinching pennies, and amassing the world’s greatest collection of comics, toys, and dirty movies.

He calls it selective journalism, using specific events in his life to make a good story, with a protagonist who is self-centered, self-indulgent, and sexist, presented in a starkly unflattering light. He exploits his friends and relatives for personal gain, and mocks the “suckers” who actually buy his books.

“What appealed to me?” asks Matt. “The honesty appealed to me. The ease of looking into your own experiences for material, it seemed like a natural thing for me. I don’t know. It was just a very liberating decision. I don’t know what to chalk up to Catholicism. The need to confess? The therapeutic value of confessing, and exposing oneself?”

Matt was too young to read Zap Comix the first time around, but the work of Crumb and his contemporaries was still available in print when he did come of age. He began keeping a visual diary in 1987, which eventually led to the first of his Peepshow comic books in 1992.

“Robert Crumb is easily my most dominant influence,” says Matt. “His auto-biographical work in Weirdo as well as in his sketchbooks, (the German editions) were really the catalyst that got me started. Here was a guy completely exposing himself, in every way, and a true artist to boot. He seemed unashamed, uncompromising, angry, self-deprecating, hilarious, sex-crazed … I just related to him in every way, except in courage. And his work gave me that courage. It truly did.”

“Spiegelman’s Maus was another major influence. The object of a cohesive graphic novel was really the most inspiring aspect. I was too young at the time to fully appreciate or understand exactly what went into producing Maus, but this ignorance was probably a good thing. I wanted to have fun making comics. I had no idea that the process could be as difficult as you care to make it. If I truly known how high Spiegelman’s perfect graphic novel had set the bar, I never would have been able to start. I constantly refer to Maus as the Citizen Kane of comics. I still considerate it the pinnacle of the medium.”

“Pekar was inspiring for a number of reasons. First, he cast a light on primarily the writing of comics, and this was a major eye-opener to someone like me, who grew up obsessively collecting comics primarily for their art. Pekar was also inspiring for his approach. He self-published and actually lost money producing his comics and yet he continued making them. Art for art’s sake is always inspiring and no one persevered like Pekar.”

Matt began doing autobio comics, not because he thought his own life was particularly worthy as subject matter, he says,” but out of a conviction that anyone’s life is equally viable as subject matter. We’re all human beings with common reference points. Pekar’s work, more than anyone’s, made this painfully clear. Also I may have simply been taking the path of least resistance when I began doing autobio comics. I’m certainly lazy enough. Still, the genre did call to me.”

When Matt moved from Philadelphia to Montreal, he met two men whose autobiographical work would become entwined with his own – Chester Brown and Seth (Gregory Gallant). Before long these three cartoonists were not only mining similar material in the same city but they also featured each other in their strips. Was this incest or encouragement? Chester Brown laid out his masturbatory fantasies. Seth lamented the dearly departed past. Joe Matt found company in misery. It was a match made in a pictorial paradise.

Seth and Brown met when they each worked for Vortex Comics in Toronto during the 1980s and soon became friends. Dissatisfied with helping to create superhero cartoons, they began publishing their own personal work in small press comics.

Chester Brown’s portrayed himself in Yummy Fur as a lonely misfit. Pornography, masturbation, and unrequited love during his teen years were the inspiration for his debut autobiographical work, he says. “It’s the intense emotions of the period, as you’re figuring out sex and love and everything. Later on, you develop a bit of a better handle on that whole world, but in those early days you make so many mistakes, and you don’t even know, you’re still confused by it all, so it’s bound to produce rich material for stories.” Brown’s subsequent work also found fresh furrows to plow in sexuality, including his upcoming book about prostitution, Paying For It.

Seth’s Palookaville series began with a recounting of a beating he took from a bunch of homophobes on the Toronto subway. His attackers called him a “fucking faggot” and chased him from the train when he blew kisses at them when embarking. His recent transformation from small town naiveté to big city flamboyance had included embracing a punk persona with bleach blond hair and leather outfits, which made him a target for bullies. He decided to adopt a new name for his new identity.

“I picked the most pretentious, scariest name I’d heard, and it was Seth. I liked the Egyptian connection, too; Seth was the brother of Osiris. I was very determined about it. I always corrected people if they called me by my old name, and within a year I was Seth. It worked well for separating myself from my younger self, but it’s not the name I’d pick if I were choosing now. It really seems pretentious to have a single name.”

By the mid 1990s the trio had created a new platform for autobiographical comics that offered an attractive model for many up and coming cartoonists seeking an alternative to superheroes. The fact that they were close friends who shared many interests outside the comic medium added to their reputations as diarists of their generation. If and when they appeared in each other’s comics, their relationship was presented with a mixture of affection and professional rivalry.

Brown, for instance, didn’t always agree with Matt’s portrayal of him as a mostly silent giggler. “It’s a tough thing to do, when you’re dealing with other people,” Brown says. “It’s inevitable that you’re not going to get everything exactly right, and people are going to be a bit miffed if they think that you are portraying them inaccurately. Yeah. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people out there who do think that the person in Peepshow is me portrayed accurately. They don’t take into account the fact that JOE MATT IS A LYING BASTARD! I think the reason that I don’t get as many lines is because Joe and Seth have this kind of antagonistic relationship, and therefore they’re good foils for each other. And I’m kind of in-between. Sometimes I’ll criticize Joe, but I’m as likely to agree with him as disagree with him, so I don’t provide the same thing that Seth provides for him. It’s easier for him to write dialogue for Seth because of the relationship that they have, where they’re going to disagree on almost everything. When the three of us are together, I’m as likely to be talking as Joe is, although Seth, Seth is a blabbermouth, he’s going to be talking no matter what. In any social situation, Seth is going to be talking. When the three of us are together, I do plenty of talking.”

Dramatic tension is an important part of story telling, insists Matt, and fortune favors the bold. “Taboos have to be broken before you can really determine what’s of value and what isn’t,” he says. “And in retrospect, it’s usually the way something is handled that’s of more value than the thing being handled. I guess it would be like a musician getting over stage fright the first time he goes out on stage. He just has to do it. The first time is always the hardest, and you just do it. You decide you want to do this thing, you’re in it for the long haul, and you’ve got to start sometime.”

The boys may have set new benchmarks for soul baring, but they could only realistically represent the male side of the sexual equation. Fortunately for the comic reading public, a French Canadian female cartoonist, Julie Doucet joined the self-expression movement and provided some gender equality in Canadian comics. Her feminist point of view recalled the underground work of the Wimmen’s Comix collective, the Twisted Sisters, and other earlier female artists including Dori Seda, Carol Lay, Carol Tyler, and Phoebe Gloeckner, but added a new dimension. Doucet was more like a female Candide, ridiculing the “best of all possible worlds” as more complicated than it first appears. She wasn’t aware of her predecessors before she began self-publishing Dirty Plotte during art school in the late 1980s, she said. Her inspiration came from French sources.

“I grew up reading French comics – Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke and a lot more. I had been exposed to French humor magazines that were quite wild.” Pilote published some of her favorite artists including Moebius, Mandrika, and Enki Bilal. She says she only saw a few comics from the American underground before she started drawing her own, in particular some pirate editions of Crumb comics in paperback that were translated into Québécois slang.

“My earliest influence I’d say is a French writer, Christiane Rochefort. The first time I read a book of hers was when I was 12. It was the first time I could 100% relate to a female character. Rochefort wrote in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, was very angry in a positive way and a funny feminist and anarchist. She was not afraid of writing about sex. That’s where my humor comes from.”

Drawn & Quarterly picked up Dirty Plotte, and her work began to find fans who welcomed her feminine viewpoint. Her depiction as a menstruating monster who ran out of tampons, which was reprinted in Weirdo #26 as “Heavy Flow” caught the attention of a broader American audience and elevated her status as a wild woman to watch. Julie Doucet the cartoon character spoke for the artist so she didn’t have to, recounting tales of artistic struggle, falling in and out of love, work, and play, and other true encounters in the real world. “I always try to avoid describing my comics. I just say it’s autobiographic and not for kids. I hate to talk about it. I do everything I can to not have to get into a long explanation. It’s too complicated. The character talks, not me. Drawing myself I don’t have to ask myself too many questions. I know every dimension of the character I’m working with.”

Her panels are packed with the baggage of her stories, the tools of her trade, and an amusing array of flotsam and jetsam. Will Elder did a similar thing with his “eyeball kicks” in Mad Comics, with countless gags and visual puns in the background of the action, but for Doucet, this custom came from another inclination. “I had this compulsion to fill the panels with as many things as possible. It’s just pure artistic fun.” She continued producing Dirty Plotte over the next ten years while making her home in New York, Seattle, Berlin, Paris, and then back to Montreal where she now lives.

Although she gained prominence as an artist who lays it all out there, her private self remained private, she said. She strived to be honest, but the real Julie Doucet still has a few secrets that she keeps to herself.  “There are many things I would never talk about. Sex is only sex. It’s not intimacy. I think autobiographical comics should be 100% autobio. Of course you use only one aspect or two of your own life story. You can’t put everything in, but I don’t think it’s right to make up things here and there. I personally wouldn’t do it.”

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8 Responses to The ABCs of Autobio Comix

  1. catpooptv says:

    Nice article. Glad to see mention of Dennis Eichhorn who is, for my money, the best of all of these auto bio creators and that is really saying something for me as I enjoy and am familiar with almost everyone mentioned in this article. Even though Eichhorn is an Eisner and Harvey award winner I have always thought that he was one of the most overlooked writers in this genre.

  2. JonathanBaylis says:

    Great article Patrick. Makes me want to search around for more auto-bio, particularly Peter Pontiac's Kraut. Do you know if it was ever translated into English?

    Great job!
    Jonathan

    P.S. (and please feel free to delete this part, mods) Slight typo in Gabrielle's name at the top of Page 5. You start out right, but then add an extra letter soon after.

  3. Tim Hodler says:

    Typo fixed. Thanks.

  4. Tim Hodler says:

    According to Patrick Rosenkranz, Peter Pontiac is still waiting for an American publisher to translate Kraut into English. Sparkplug had plans for a Pontiac book at one time.

  5. MADdelaRosa says:

    This was cool and a great start to these extensive features. I've gotten a bit burned out on autobiographical comics over the years but reading through a dissection of their history had made me remember what I liked about them in the first place (and pointed out a few that I must track down now). I like the inclusive definition of autobiography used by Patrick here, even if it's not one I completely share. For example, I would not call Sacco's work straight autobiography as much as it is comics journalism. Campbell's Alec stories are more semi-autobiographical (not so much his work post-How To Be An Artist), too. However, I can see how including even these peripherally-autobiographical works gives a more cohesive sense of history.

    One last thing: I believe she's known (at least for purposes of Persepolis) as Marjane, not Marjorie Satrapi. But maybe I'm wrong and ignorant of how she prefers to call herself…any help from someone who might know?

  6. JonathanBaylis says:

    I wonder if Fanfare/Ponent Mon might be a good choice of publisher. I thought they did a nice job of Years of the Elephant.

  7. DanSteffan says:

    A highly informative and thoughtful piece, Patrick. I enjoyed it, but I think I'd add another item to your list of autobiographical undergrounds. Ted Richards did a very touching story in a book called, TWO FOOLS, about the death of fellow cartoonist, Willy Murphy. It has some real emotional depth and is easily the best thing Richards ever produced.

  8. steven samuels says:

    Harvey Pekar, whose long career as a file clerk for the Veteran’s Administration formed the center of his comic world, supplemented with monotonous domestic chores, meandering internal dialogs, encounters with nerds and schlemiels, and tedious accounts of his appearances on David Letterman’s show

    Well, mileage may vary, but considering he basically transcribed his appearances on the show to the comics page I thought they were as uproarious as they could be. Easily the most amusing stories of Pekar’s output, especially for someone so dependably glum.

    Perhaps I’m hopelessly old school and my criticisms are quaint and obsolete. Maybe the young comic reader today values spontaneity and unpretentious self-expression more than artistry.

    I think Brown’s work does have its share of detractors. Probably more than its share. Though one would think that as time goes on, just like with the “Mumblecore” film movement, the extreme navel gazing will be leavened out with a good measure of improvement in craft.

    Laurie Sandell, I don’t know about her. The book is a breezy read, she’s certainly capable, but it’s the flip side of the insular masochistic comic geek autobio. The chatty, masochistic Oprah-version of the genre is definetly not a step forward.

    One artist not mentioned is Ted Rall, but the less said about his work, the better. {shudder}

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