King-Cat needs no introduction, really, but for completion's sake: John Porcellino’s long-running diary comic, King-Cat, is a veritable institution in the North American cultural practice known as “auto-bio” “comix”. Though it is possible to contend with where and how this series has influenced other contemporary memoir practitioners like Gabrielle Bell or, more recently, Angela Fanche, the influence of Porcellino’s graphic personal narrative has debatably exceeded, in terms of style and influence, the roots of this tradition more popularly located in the works of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, or other beloved '70s luminaries. Porcellino’s work—its chronological consistency, ethos, and scope—has influenced a certain corner of the comic book matrix so fundamentally that I absolutely cannot articulate its aesthetic reach in the review of a single entry in the series. What’s more important to the task at hand is to tell you a bit about myself and my relationship with this comic book, and perhaps my evaluation of this discreet King-Cat, number 81, will be either clear or irrelevant.
Here’s a story. In the summer of 2020, before vaccines, I was struggling under the common COVID-related loneliness that so distinctly marked that hazy period of social disregard for the rules (that is, when there still were rules) of pandemic safety between the first and second wave of the novel coronavirus. It was a frighteningly beautiful time marked by remarkable civil unrest and a swelling up of deep conviction that, despite the violent encroachment of state power and the existence of a crippling viral contagion which was consuming every moment of popular media coverage, strangely felt like something resembling life was returning to the world. Anyway, I'd recently made a friend. His name was Tom, and I would walk through the shaded trees of Prospect Park along Ocean Avenue to his apartment where we would trade comics. During one of our usual conversations he asked me if I’d “ever read King-Cat.” I hadn’t. He shuffled around his robust collection and prepared issues 75 through 79 as well as a first printing of Porcellino's From Lone Mountain and The Complete Strange Growths by Jenny Zervakis. I am almost sure that during that conversation I ventured a hasty generalization that resembled something like: “I can’t stand auto-bio comics.” Now, Tom is a much more temperate person than myself. I am personally afflicted by the desire to make sweeping statements about pieces of art I do or do not like. I don’t know how I developed this sensibility, but at a certain point I have justified this behavior by calling it “punk”. Tom said, “I’m sure you’ll like this.” I believed him.
As soon as I got home I read King-Cat #75. I immediately texted him thanking him for lending me the comic, and that it was one of the most beautiful comics I had ever read. Over the next two weeks I sat in my stiflingly small apartment which, to its credit, had beautiful natural light, and I read the King-Cat Starter Pack that Tom had prepared for me. It presented me with a radical reconfiguration in the way I perceived comic art, and how one’s life can intersect, overlap, and correspond to the form of putting images inside of boxes that correspond to each other sequentially. I was, as they say, completely converted.
King-Cat 81 is a new entry into the series. It includes the King-Cat mainstays of letters (“Catcalls”), a Top Forty List, flora and fauna sightings, and short comics that vacillate between Zen Buddhist meditation, poetry, quotidian observances, and remembrances of the past. Issues conventionally start with John Porcellino’s characteristic letter that serves as an introduction to the material. Sometimes the issues are longer, and sometimes they are shorter. Usually, they are between 36 and 52 stapled, hand-folded pages. The letter that introduces King-Cat 81 is a brief anecdote about Porcellino’s attendance at a spoken-word event hosted by Henry Rollins in 1992. After noting that he might feel second-hand embarrassment at such an event because he might see his childhood hero in a somewhat washed-up capacity, he reveals that this event inspired him to pursue absolute personal autonomy in his work. He quit his job, packed up his shit, and moved to Denver to work on drawing comics and his distribution business Spit and a Half: “This is the Golden Age.” He continues by noting his age, the strain of his body weighing on him, and the constant waking struggle of taking in the good times and moving through the bad. Alas, spring is here, and the earth is waking up.
It would be ill-advised to demarcate this letter as the establishing thematic of the issue. It’s there, and it could arguably be used as an analytic yardstick for the longest comic of the selection—“Saturdays of My Life...”, which gives a brief explanation of how Porcellino has passed the Saturdays of each representative period of his life from childhood to now—but it doesn’t fit. It ties things down too much. Most of the comics are one- to two-page poems. Their ease and simplicity bristle against any desire I might have to interpret them. “I love the way / the sparrows hide / under the eaves / when it’s raining”. More appropriately, the introduction to issue #81, and these introductions of King-Cat more broadly, tell us the conditions under which the issue was created. They offer the backdrop that subsequently colors the art and grants a reader access to the emotional life of the cartoonist in a moment in time. In this mode, the comics in each collection of stories called King-Cat become distinct and temporal. The stories are, moreover, marked and dated both “happened” and “drawn”. The distance between these dates, as well, presents discursive material that stands in negotiation with the work. Time alters and communicates with every aspect of King-Cat. It is the meticulous organization of time that gives every figure its ground. There’s no need to narrate the context of the engagement. It merely was, and, with a measure of time and labor by the cartoonist, it now is. It is rendered observable through time - captured. It can mean whatever you want it to. It is as simple and open as John Porcellino’s characteristic style.
The kind of DIY ethos presented by King-Cat is made all the more potent by way of anachronism. It becomes a place out of time. When I read in issue #81's introduction that the rent in Denver was $172 per month in 1992, I briefly winced at the impossibility of that in the year 2022. The reality shaped by the financial landscape of impossibility we currently inhabit makes people like John Porcellino making projects like King-Cat almost inconceivable. The aesthetic conditions of possibility present in the contemporary DIY mentality have constructed an entirely different set of principles that are much more hostile, social, and consumed with our own imminent demise. We can’t even talk about selling out anymore. It’s just a fact of our social lives. A matter of when rather than how. Debatably, we live in a pre-existing condition of having always already sold out. This is not, however, to say that Porcellino, or anyone else working in his early-period, had an easy time. Rather, it is really quite magnificent to have someone like John Porcellino and something like King-Cat as a model. Something that makes you feel less lonely in your stupid little desire to make and accumulate pieces of paper that you and your friends spend the better part of your health and artistic life-force to produce for less than $10 a pop. In fact, it makes you feel like it’s not stupid at all. King-Cat is a diary comic not in the sense that it details every moment of Porcellino’s existence, but in the sense that it grants the reader access to the texture of one person’s experience. This person just happens to make art, and that art just happens to sustain him both spiritually and financially. The dream is autonomy. The ability to look at a groundhog or to feel the “first day the air smelled warm.”
When I receive a new King-Cat from Porcellino’s Patreon, which is the only Patreon I am subscribed to, I feel the same sense of meditative self-reflection I felt when I read Tom’s copy of King-Cat 75. Life’s different now. I live in a different apartment. Tom moved to Denmark for work. The social fabric has a different, perhaps more annoying texture, and, indeed, it is the spring. As I read John Porcellino’s reflections on his life, I want to reflect on my life too. I want to go outside and smell the air. I want to think about how the coffee tastes or how the time of day looks - its color and its form. When I read King-Cat it feels like midwestern spring. Life is coming back to everything, but it’s not ready to live yet. It stretches out to be born, unstably shivering by the pale light of the morning, inhospitable to its growth. King-Cat 81 is no different. As I sat on my couch last night, the first night of spring break at my university, I drank beer from a glass. I silently read the comic. It felt like waking up.