Julia Wertz’s first comic, the hilariously raunchy autobiographical strip The Fart Party, became a viral sensation shortly after it launched online in 2005. Wertz’s first memoir, Drinking at the Movies (Three Rivers Press, 2010), extended the rat-a-tat comic strip rhythms of Fart Party into longer narratives. Her next book, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories (Koyama Press, 2012), offered a collection of vignettes from Wertz’s childhood as well as a longer exploration of her health problems. Wertz branched out into beautiful illustrations of New York City buildings in an oversized hardcover from Black Dog & Leventhal titled Tenements, Towers & Trash (2017). Tomorrow, Black Dog & Leventhal will publish her latest and largest autobiographical comic, a book-length account of the end of Wertz’s young adulthood and the beginning of her life of sobriety titled Impossible People. Almost 20 years after the publication of her first comic, it’s evident Wertz’s early crude cartoons—crude in both senses of the word—were the foundation of a long and fruitful career in comics, including membership in the cartooning studio Pizza Island alongside influential cartoonists like Kate Beaton and Lisa Hanawalt, and frequent publication of her stick-figure autobio gag strips in the New Yorker. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our phone conversation in early April, 2023.
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PAUL CONSTANT: You have repeated your comics origin story quite a few times—you became ill with lupus and discovered comic books, which you read obsessively for months. The only title I've ever seen you actually directly reference was My New York Diary, by Julie Doucet. I've always been curious what else you read during that time. What were the other comics that you fell in love with?
JULIA WERTZ: I referenced My New York Diary the most because I think it's impacted me the most. But there was some Gabrielle Bell—When I'm Old and Other Stories, that was the one that got me. Vanessa Davis. I forget what Carol Tyler book I was reading. Roz Chast, there was some Lewis Trondheim in there. John Porcellino, obviously—a classic. Trina Robbins was in there, and Phoebe Gloeckner.
So there was an emphasis on autobio comics, but not exclusively. You ranged around, into fiction, too?
There was a lot of other stuff in there, but it was the autobio stuff where I was like, "Oh, oh, okay, you can do this." And it was mostly women because I grew up in a literature household, but it was just all male writers. Nobody really offered me anything else in school—any more than Barbara Kingsolver, and I don't want to read The Bean Trees.
So, that was when I was like, "Oh, look at all these women doing stuff.” I don't know if it actually fully dawned on me that that's what it was, but those are just the stories that spoke to me.
Okay, and what was it about comics that initially attracted you? The stories were obviously one thing, but was there something about the mechanism of comics storytelling that clicked in your head and made you want to do it immediately?
Probably attention span stuff. I'm still this way—I love reading, but my eyes constantly wander off the page. They don't do that with comics. The art keeps my eyes focused, and it's almost as if I use the art as a brain break, even though it's part of the story. It gives me just enough relief where I don't have to start looking at my phone or looking at other things around the house.
It was a method of storytelling that just inherently made sense. Why would we not be using both visual art and the written word? That's fun! And I realized that if I can tell adult stories in this more fun way, that just makes more sense to me.
It's funny—I worked at a bookstore in Seattle called the Elliott Bay Book Company, and I started the graphic novel section in 2000. It was a very literary store, and one of the first problems I encountered was that a lot of people didn't actually know how to read comics. There are a lot of people who find it challenging to follow the panels and the word balloons.
Oh, for sure. Yeah.
But for you, it was immediate? You probably had some experience with newspaper strips and things like that.
Yeah, because I grew up with the classics: Garfield, Tintin, and a lot of Gary Larson.
But I do remember as an adult when I would meet new people and there were a couple times where I was like, "Look, this is what I do," and they had no idea what comics were. One guy was reading the panels right to left, like you would Japanese comics. He read three pages and he was like, "Ah, I don't get it.” He showed me how he read it and I was like, "That's not like manga. Why would you read it right to left? That's not how... what?" And he was like, "I don't know. I guess just don't know how to read comics.” It turns out, he also didn't know how to read manga, so I don't even know why he did that. It was so weird. Why wouldn't you ask, though? If one page doesn't make sense, why would you read three before you said anything?
Actually, Drinking at the Movies was one of the comics that I would give people because they would understand intuitively, because it was pretty straightforward—more in a comic strip style, and so it was easier for people to get it, I think.
Yeah. And I still work in that format, the standard six-panel page, pretty much for that reason. I love it when people get weird with panels and I really appreciate that. It's a very lovely art form, but I am going for straightforward. I'm not trying to trick anybody.
We’re kind of getting ahead of ourselves here, but I think that as your art has strengthened, you've been experimenting more with these sort of big full-page shots of New York City streets and things like that. So, there's a little more variation in the rhythm of your comics now than there was for many years.
Yeah, a little bit. I think of those as pretty straightforward, too, probably just because they're straightforward to draw. But yeah, I see what you mean. Visually, it's changed a bit.
So, the first comic that you made, which appears in the back of a Fart Party collection, is a fictional story about a hobo spider. Have you experimented with doing fiction since then, or was that it?
God. Those comics might have been my only foray into fiction. And probably for a good reason—because they’re so stupid.
But I think that I don't have a good enough of an imagination. I need to work with events that are already outlined for me. And within the outline, I can find a way to tell a story. But I just don't think I'm clever enough to do fiction.
That feels a little self-deprecating to me. You're getting into narrative historical stories with Tenements, Towers & Trash. You're storytelling there. You're building a narrative out of historical events. So it's not a lack of cleverness.
No, you're right. That's probably over-self-deprecating. But the events have already happened. So I guess I'd be comfortable with fiction if someone else provided me with a rough outline of what has to happen and then I could work within that—even if it's a story that never existed. But I don't have the confidence to make the outline myself, I guess. I just prefer to do what already happened.
Have you ever thought about doing a longer comic about somebody else's story, a biography or something like that?
Maybe if I run out of stuff of my own to do, I would. I mean, this sounds self-deprecating, but I'm lazy—in the sense that I don't want to work on a story more than I have to, and if it's my story and it already happened so much of the work is already done for me. Then I can just fill in the blanks and turn my brain off and draw. It's just a comfortable space to be in.
I should push myself more, but real life is hard enough. I don't need to push myself in my work right now.
One thing I really enjoy about your work is, you have this pattern of alluding to something briefly and then eventually going back to address it in further detail years down the road. In Fart Party, you talked about being sick, and then in Infinite Wait, you write about the lupus in detail. And then in Drinking at the Movies you alluded to quitting drinking, and parts of Impossible People could almost fit in between a couple of panels in Drinking at the Movies.
Oh, sure. Those timelines overlap, definitely.
I was wondering if that's an intentional choice on your part, where you're sort of parceling out different narratives in terms of the way you think you could tell them the best, or if it's actually you just needing to emotionally process as a human being before you can put the stories into comics—or if you're even aware that you're doing that when you're doing it?
It is number three. It's not that I'm not aware of it. Now, I'm working with events that are a couple years back but when I was making comics in real time, I didn't have the foresight to know what was coming.
So in Drinking at the Movies, when I mentioned quitting drinking, that was just one of the many first times I tried to quit drinking. I didn't know that there was a bigger story coming—it was just what happened. And then as the years unraveled, more stuff would happen and I would put it in the comics, not realizing there was a bigger story later. And then once it was a big story, it made sense to make a book about it.
In other interviews, you've alluded to the fact that you made a couple hundred pages about quitting drinking, and I was wondering if that eventually became Impossible People. Does everything you do see print more or less eventually, or are you just always working on stuff that doesn't necessarily see the light of day?
There is a ton of stuff that did not see the light of day. Basically, I think in the end, I made 160 pages, and I used maybe five of them in Impossible People.
I know. It was painful. And with Impossible People I have 70 pages of work that we cut because I made too many pages, and it's just sitting in the folder on my desktop. Same with the New York book [i.e., Tenements, Towers & Trash]. But what came out of those 160 pages was, 10 years later when looking at those pages while working on the book, I was like, "Oh, I see. This was my thought process at the time."
The work was not good, but it was what I was thinking while I was trying to quit drinking. So I was able to take the feeling from those pages, and a panel here and a panel there, and then morph them into a more coherent storyline. Because those pages were not good. They were very bad. They're just messy, but not in a good messy way, and the story is kind of intentionally repetitive.
I actually pitched some of those pages to Eric [Reynolds, now VP/Associate Publisher] at Fantagraphics way long before I even knew this book was going to be a thing. He said something like, "We love your work, but with this one, it's just like, what's happening here? The character just keeps relapsing. What's the point?"
And he was totally right. They just weren't good because I was still living it and still struggling with all that stuff. So, it's not like it's lost work. It does hurt to think about how many months and years of work I've done that will never see the light of day, but that's okay because it's all part of the bigger story.
Is this your usual process?
Yeah, I think so. The Infinite Wait might be my only book where there were no extra pages. I sat down and I made that thing in six months. It was clean. But every other book I've done has a whole other book of just leftover pages. The New York book has a whole section about Greenpoint that's got like 60 to 70 pages of artwork that I didn't use. I guess that’s my method, to do all the work first and then go back and do more later.
It's a very inefficient way of working. I shouldn't do that. That's crazy.
Well, your process seems to have worked out for you so far.
Yeah. I think if I scripted everything before, which is what most people do, it wouldn't happen. But I can't do a whole script and then draw a whole book. That's just not how my brain works.
So, do you know how a page is going to end when you start it, usually?
I know sections. I work in chunks. I'll do one page, two pages, or four pages, and then I put them together into chunks and do the pages that tie those chunks together. Most people sit down and script out the whole book, and then you have a year of drawing and it's lovely. But I do the writing and the drawing and the writing and the drawing, and it's both all the time.
You used to work in a very straightforward strip style—6 or 12 panels and usually a punchline and you were out. Even Drinking at the Movies followed that pattern. By The Infinite Wait, the chunks seem a little bit longer and a little more structured in advance, and they don't necessarily end on a punchline. Was it that you started thinking of the story in terms of books, as opposed to just pages?
Yeah, I think you're very right. Fart Party is so simple, there's really no writing in it. But in The Infinite Wait, I was like, "I think I like to write, so why don't I try and expand a little bit?" That's what I tried to do with Impossible People—there's no standalone pages, really. But there totally are because I don't know how to break out of that rhythm. It feels, even when I look at it, that almost every page still has, if not a punchline at the end of the page, then some sort of ending.
You do this funny little thing in Impossible People where you've sometimes put establishing captions at the top of the page in the same spot where you used to put the title of the strip in Fart Party. So it feels almost like an appendix or a vestigial tail—it's in the title slot, but it’s a caption and not a title.
Yeah. That is me sitting down to then work on the next chunk and not realizing I can just drop the reader into it, because I'm starting over again as a writer. It's really—it's not good. It's just totally left over from the way I used to work because it's really hard to break out of that rhythm. Especially with comics because you're literally working in boxes, and it's so hard to just let that go.
So over the last week or so, I've read everything that I have of yours in the order of publication.
That's a lot of me. I'm sorry. Do you still like me?
Because I wouldn't.
I have to say, I was surprised because it's been years since I reopened the Fart Party books and I was like, "Oh my god, the art is so much rougher than I remembered." Reading it all in order, you're learning on the page, which is really exciting to watch.
The reader can actually watch you progress as an artist from page to page. I think a lot of young cartoonists could learn a lot from reading these books like that.
Yeah, which is, don't publish your first work.
Uncivilized Press is reissuing [Fart Party]. I haven't looked at it in decades, and I just looked at it again for the reissue and I noticed that, too—the art was so bad. But then I was like, "I like it more. I like how goofy it is."
I've lost that in my work, which is why I do the stick figure strips, because I feel like it kind of has that feeling. There's something lost—it's so polished now. It's like it's not as fun.
There is one thing that I love that you used to draw in the Fart Party days, which was you jumping on something, like a tray of cookies or something like that, and your legs are doing this weird curlicue thing--
And I haven't seen you draw that in a while, and I don't know if it's because you're not lunging at things in your life anymore, or you're a better artist now and you don't feel like you could draw that pose specifically.
Yeah, see, that's what I'm saying. It's fun, but it just doesn't fit the narrative of the stuff I'm working on anymore. But I wish it did. I don't know—I wish I could kind of tap back into that silliness sometimes, but somewhere along the line I lost it.
Since you’re revisiting the old stuff for this new collection, you’ve probably noticed as I did that some of the humor has aged a little poorly.
No, I know. Don't say any of it. I know what it is. It's not good.
And also, I'm a couple of years older than you, but there is kind of this late-Gen-X, early elder-Millennial sort of detachment from politics in Drinking at the Movies that I sympathize with but that I think would be hard to explain to a Gen Z kid now. You’re watching the debates between Obama and McCain in that book and you’re talking about how you don’t feel as excited as your friends.
That question’s a two-parter. I identify more with Gen X than I do Millennials, but that page haunts me because it's not what I meant. It also comes across throughout the whole book as looking as if I didn't vote for Obama, which I did. I never say this in the book, but what I was seeing with all my friends and everybody being like, “Obama's going to fix America. Like, this is it, we're going to get it right.” And I was like, “That's not how politics work. That's not how civilizations work. I wish it was, but it's just not like this is going to fix all the problems.”
So it was more railing against that sort of blind optimism that I was seeing everywhere—that's what I was cynical about. I was just like, “This isn't the celebration that people think it is. It's great, I'm super happy you won, but you didn't fix all the problems.” And I did not convey that in the book at all.
I mean, I thought you did. I wasn't trying out you as a McCain voter or anything. I thought you wrote about it pretty clearly, and I read it a couple of days ago.
Maybe I did. Just sometimes I think of that page and I'm like, no, that wasn't the point.
People can read things badly and take things out of context, but I never got that impression. I was alluding to a little bit more of a jaded sense that feels very dated today. I didn't see an actual political protest that was significant until the WTO protest in ‘99, right? To a lot of people around our age, protesting seemed like something that old hippies did, and it was not effective. But that’s very hard to describe to someone who came of age under President Trump and Black Lives Matter protests.
And having grown up in that era, apathy was definitely a big part of it. Because I just didn't know any better. It was a comfortable, regular middle-class upbringing. Also, my parents, who were very religious when I was young, were intentionally apolitical. That was their whole thing until the whole church got caught up in being Republican, and then that changed everything. But my mom was not bringing politics into the house, so I was raised in that sort of environment where we didn't talk about politics. I didn't learn about feminism and all of these things that came later or earlier. They were for other generations to worry about, not mine.
So now when you're revisiting your older work, how does it feel now that this stuff is so firmly rooted in a place and time that maybe doesn't reflect—and I'm making an assumption here—that doesn't reflect your current values?
On one hand, I'm kind of embarrassed by that stuff. But on the other hand, who cares? That was my story. That's how I was at the time. And that was honest for me at the time. And any embarrassment—and I feel this way about all embarrassment—that's just me being upset with myself for something.
I don't care if other people don't like it or find it embarrassing. Who gives a shit? Nothing matters. None of this really matters. It's just telling stories, entertaining people. There's no point in carrying around embarrassment or shame about anything because none of it matters.
As I mentioned before, your art evolved over time. The buildings and backgrounds obviously got more detailed, and that became a major part of your work. But your character acting is excellent now. And maybe some of that silliness that you were just thinking wistfully about has just been replaced by nuance. But with all that in mind, your own character design has not changed much. You can take the first panel of Fart Party and put it up against the cover of Impossible People, and it's very clearly the same character.
And also the same setting. All of my covers are messy rooms.
Oh yeah? I didn’t notice that.
Like, nothing has changed.
Is that intentional or is that just how it worked out?
That was a thing I did not even realize until I did the cover for Impossible People. And then I showed my friends and they were like, “Oh, it's like all your other books”. And I was like, “What?” They're like, “Yeah, you have three other books with you sitting in a messy room. That's your thing.” And I was like, “Yep, definitely did that on purpose.”
So, whoops. They say, write what you know. So that's what I did.
Are you making an effort to stay on model with yourself at this point? Or is this just how you perceive yourself in comics form? It seems like, if you were to start drawing yourself now with the level of skill that you have now, you would probably look different.
Yeah, I wouldn’t go with the cartoony face. I would draw it more. My other characters in the book don't have faces as cartoonish as mine. And I know that that's a weird juxtaposition that people tend to point out in reviews and they're not wrong, but I'm stuck now. I can't... I've thought about it, like, what if I just changed the whole thing and start from scratch? And then again, I don't care. It's fine.
Scott McCloud talked about that in Understanding Comics, how the main character is often more cartoony so it’s easier for people to put themselves into the character.
And I used to pretend that's why I drew it that way. I would even say in interviews that that was my intention. But no, it was just a funny-looking character—a doodle I did at one point: “Oh, I'll draw myself like this. It looks funny.” And I did not put as much thought into it as I pretended I did.
But you're sticking with it.
And at this point, you've got to say it's kind of a choice, right?
Yeah. Yeah. It's a choice. I used to do these diary comics where I would draw myself more serious and it just wasn't fun to draw. And if I'm going to spend my whole day drawing, I want it to be fun. And if it’s more fun to draw in that cartoony way, then that's what I'm going to do.
I would say you had kind of a level of viral fame on the internet with your early work. From the outside you've pretty organically expanded into longer memoir pieces that address more serious subject matter. Have you thought about your evolution? I mean, you have this sort of awestruck are-you-people-here-to-see-little-old-me? kind of an attitude in your comics and some of your interviews, but you seem to be pretty ambitious. You don't wind up in the New Yorker by accident. Did you think your career was going to go this way, that you were going to wind up making longer books and things like that? Or is that something that has happened to you as you've gone along? That's a terribly messy question. I'm sorry.
No, no, I got it. And I know exactly what you're saying too, especially with the "Aw, shucks." It's a hard question to answer because it sounds very unambitious to say that a lot of these things just came to me. And on one hand they did.
I got in the New Yorker because I met Roz Chast and we hung out and we had fun, and she talked to Bob [Mankoff, former New Yorker cartoon editor]. But then I got into the New Yorker because I had worked so hard. I had done all this work. So the doors that were open to me are like, my agent found me, my publisher found me. These things happened because I worked really hard, but they also were very easy because other people kind of did it for me. A messy question has a messy answer.
And one thing too that my partner and I argue about is he's like, “You work so hard and then you don't do anything. You don't do enough self-promotion beyond what's comfortable,” which is me posting stuff on Instagram. And he's like, “If you promoted yourself or pitched to other outlets and stuff, you could do so much more.”
And I'm like, “But I don't want to, I just want to sit in my office and do my work.” And then I don't want to do that other part of it, which is part of working hard. But also I'm pretty happy with how things turned out anyways.
I still get rejected all the time. The New York Times just rejected a big piece from me. And it's like, yeah, it's not like it's that easy, but because I do feel very lucky that a lot of things kind of landed in my lap. That's kind of where the aw-shucks attitude happens—it's almost just me feeling guilty about it. But I guess I shouldn't feel guilty, because I got them because I put the work in. I don't know. That's a tough one.
I think that in the old days this was maybe called the Old Boys Network and it had a negative connotation. But Roz Chast isn't dropping people into the New Yorker all the time. You had this body of work that was interesting, and you consistently produced work that they liked. I'm not here to give you an inspirational speech or anything. I'm just saying, I think that's--
I think what it is, is other people open the doors for me, but then my work got me through the door. I have some guilt about other people opening those doors. But then, yeah, if the work's not there, that doesn't matter. People can open a thousand doors and it doesn't matter if you can't deliver.
But I think a lot of stuff caught me by surprise, which is why I have trouble parsing out how it all happened. The internet fame caught me by surprise. I had no idea that anyone was going to like that stuff. Having an agent reach out to me and being like, “Have you thought about making a book?” caught me by a surprise. I’d always thought about making a book, but now that someone's saying I can, I'll do it. So I think that's the element of it where, I'm ambitious with no end point until someone gives me the end point. Does that make sense?
Yeah, yeah. You're not careerist, but you're ambitious about being a cartoonist.
Yeah, I'm here to do the work. I'm a workhorse, but I need someone to dangle a carrot for me to move anywhere. Otherwise, I'll just sit and work all day and put it on the computer and be like, “I'm done. I did it.”
And obviously the industry has changed a lot since you started. It'd be much harder for somebody to publish their own comics on their own site, not on a platform like—oh god, I'm drawing a blank on the what the kids are reading these days—like Webtoons and stuff.
Yeah, I think about that a lot. Another element to my success was that it was such a small pool back then. We were a big fish in a small pond. And my work, had it come out now, I don't think it would've gone anywhere. I think it would've completely fallen flat.
Because there was not a lot of work in the field to compare it to, my work seemed, like, funny and original. But now freaking everybody does that. It was luck of timing and just the ability to produce more on a consistent basis.
And that also sounds too self-deprecating, but I do think timing did have a big part to play in it. It wasn’t just timing—a lot of people had to drop out of comics because they weren't able to make a career out of it. So, yeah, skill does play some role.
But then maybe skill doesn't play a role because I see so many cartoonists who are better than me who weren't able to make a career out of it. And that feels unfair. But I guess that's every art form.
You have to have the talent and the ambition, and you also have to be in the right place at the right time. And you also have to be at a publisher that's not going under.
Which I still deal with even at this level, though. My first two, Drinking at the Movies and Infinite Wait, are forever out of print. No one wants to reprint them. I have new books coming out with a big publisher, and I can't even get my old stuff into a small comics press. It's weird. It's like, no matter how high you go, there's always something reminding you, “Hey, no one wants to read this shit that you did, so don't get too cocky about it.”
Do you have the rights to those two books, though? If somebody were to reach out to you, you would be able to run them?
Oh, I would love that. No, they're mine. They're all mine. And if someone wanted to reprint them, my email is my name at gmail.com.
Again, I could ask around a little bit more, but I just kind of haven’t. So that's the part where I let the ambition just escape me—where I'm like, “Oh, I should send out some emails about these books.” But then I just don't, because I have work I want to do.
Do you have any advice for, say, a young woman who's doing autobio gag strips starting out right now?
Ooh, it's such a different landscape. I have no idea. I mean, the advice I tell every young person starting out is what everybody says, the whole “write for yourself, edit for an audience” thing.
I see so much work where I feel like it's immediately made for an audience, and I don't see the character in there. I'm like, where's the voice? Because I've heard this voice a thousand times, in a thousand other comics, where's this person's voice? You can tell they were like, “How am I going to get the clicks?” And then they tailored it that way. Unfortunately, that seems to work.
I would be more inclined to read something, even if it's just a regular autobio, here's what I did today comic, if it has a voice.
I just need things to have a voice. With TV especially, there's so many shows that are turned out and they all have the same voice. And you can tell, “Oh, that one was written in 2011, when everyone had that sort of inflection.” Everyone was like, “I don't know what that means,” and that's what everyone was saying. It’s so boring. So when there is a show with an original voice, it's just so refreshing.
And that's all I want. I don't care if the art's good, I don't care if it's bad, I don't care if the TV show's shot poorly. It's just, voice is all I need.
Voice is one of your strengths for sure. I don't think I've ever spoken to you before, but I can basically see the word balloons around what you're saying because you talk just like you do in the comic. You've said in interviews in the past that you have, not a photographic memory, but a really good memory for dialogue and conversations that you've had.
Yes. That's been a curse in my marriage.
I'm sure. I'm sure. But one day everybody will have things recording everything in their house at all times anyway, so.
Oh god, like that episode of Black Mirror, where you can replay events. Did you ever watch that one?
Yes, I did.
Everyone else would just be replaying the good moments but I would just replay arguments and then we'd be divorced in a week.
And have you ever encountered a time when your account was deeply wrong?
You've talked about how going back and seeing different cries for help in your work about your drinking, in retrospect.
Yeah, like “someone help this person.”
At the time I was drinking and I thought it was super cool, but then I quit drinking, and I'm like, “Oh my god. That’s not cool. That is awful. It's so embarrassing.”
But yeah, of course I've been wrong. Memory is so malleable and wrong all the time. And I will have sworn up and down that that's what I said, and there's no way I'm wrong, I hear it in my head. And then a friend will go, “Actually, I was there and that's not what he said.” And I'm like, “Shit, well, okay.”
I have learned, being in a serious relationship where we married and had a kid has definitely shown me the fallibility of... is that a word, fallibility?
Yeah, the fallibility of memory. I would go to my grave swearing that I said that and then I totally didn't. So, whoops.
Do you ever feel the need to correct the record? Is there anything that you put out that you feel like was wrong in your books that you want to correct?
Stuff that goes into the books usually comes straight from notes. If something happens, I immediately make a note. And if there's a note of it, then it's usually, I assume, correct.
I’m more likely wrong about stuff in real life I said and did not write down, because it's of no consequence to my work—it's just real-life stuff. But if it's on paper, I'm like 95% confident that it's accurate.
I think it's super interesting how the Pizza Island group has found different types of success with Lisa Hanawalt with TV shows, and Kate Beaton now with Ducks, and Sarah Glidden is doing this really excellent comics journalism and all that. With the variety of their careers in mind, is there anything you haven't done that you want to do? You've written about flirting with adapting your work into a TV show and things like that, but are there any ambitions that you have yet that you're comfortable talking about in a public space?
Yeah, I would actually like to do TV. In 2018, I spent a month in L.A., actually, working with Lisa's partner, Adam Conover. He has a production company because of his show [Adam Ruins Everything], and we put together a pitch packet and we pitched it to all the big networks. And that was an experience.
I thought what we had was pretty good, but it was at a time when they knew they were about to massively cut back on animation. I don't know. There's really tons of reasons why it didn't work out, but at the end of that process, I was like, “Okay, I would like to work in TV, but not at this level.” I was pitching a show where I would be the showrunner and the art director, and I don't want that much involvement. I want somebody else to take my work and let me be involved in some context, but I don't want to be at the helm. That's not the world I want. And also, I don't want to live in L.A.
But I would, on some level, love to be involved in television. Because also I want that money, if I'm being honest.
It is where the money is.
I wanted the experience of it, but I also just want to make some money. But other than that, I just love making comics so much, and I still do. And I've never stopped loving making comics. I've taken breaks, but I see no end in sight. I still have material lined up for the next 10 years.
You must meet people who've been following your work for your entire life, your entire creative career. Is there anything that you've noticed about people who read your work?
Yeah. They tend to match where I was. In the beginning it was a lot of young 20-somethings who led messier lives. And then as they aged into their 30s, it was messier in a different way. My audience has mostly tended to match where I am.
That'll change, hopefully, a lot because my next book after [Impossible People] is about becoming a parent and having a kid and being responsible and having my shit together. So that's a totally different realm of people that I would like to connect with and have read my work, besides just people who are like me.
I’m interested to see you write about parenthood and responsibility. In the new book, you're dealing with a kind of earnestness that I think you probably wouldn't have been able to embrace in your earlier work. You deeply care for a friend’s baby in Impossible People, and I can't see Julia from Fart Party spending any time thinking about babies. Is this maturation process in your work just organic?
I was just talking about this with all the Pizza Island girls, actually. So my character in the beginning was always a little harsher than I actually was in real life, even though I still was mostly that person. I've actually always been fine with babies—I just thought it was funny to pretend to hate them. I'd never wanted one. And having my own? I was like, “No, no, thank you.”
But definitely as I got older and had more life experiences and a lot of very difficult shit has happened that has not made it into the books, that has definitely softened me. Especially parenthood. And so it was a natural progression to put that stuff in there.
But now that I'm working on these parent strips, I'm coming up against a different wall: is this too cheesy? Parenthood is so cheesy sometimes, and I sometimes don't know if I've gone too far.
So I'll show the girls and be like, have I gone too far? Is this too cheesy? And then we'll have a discussion about it. It's almost like I embraced the earnestness a bit too much, so now I kind of have to reel it back. But luckily no one's seen that work yet, so I have time to edit it.
I don't have kids, but I have a lot of friends who do. And it seems like a lot of parenthood is about being more emotionally vulnerable, if you're doing it right. And some of the best moments a parent can have are the good moments that every parent has. And so it's very challenging as a reader for me to read parenting narratives sometimes, because it is kind of the same story over and over. But I think that's also true of recovery also.
I mean, I've always toiled in narratives that have been told a thousand times. That's my whole jam. So I'm not worried about telling original stories, because I can't.
But yeah, the parenthood one does throw me for a loop in that way because I'm keenly aware of how boring a lot of parenting stories can be, and repetitive in a way that's just not fun. I struggled to read them too. I didn't read any of the parenting books. Oh my god, they're so boring. I'll just look at Reddit—I don't need to read this shit.
But when I was talking to the girls yesterday, I was saying there's that pool of “every parent can relate to this.” And it's cheesy and it's sweet, and I'm constantly circling that pool and dipping a toe in, but I don't want to jump all the way in because then I'll lose what's special to my work. So it's a fine line to walk with the parenting stuff.
And also, I don't want to always be making comments about the funny stuff my kids said. But my kid says really funny shit and I want people to know.
And the subtitle of your new book is A Completely Average Recovery Story. So you're kind of leaning into that, the idea that getting on and off the wagon is something that happens to everybody in recovery. Is your bullshit detector doing the same work for parenthood as it was with the recovery narrative?
It's doing the same work, but I have to recalibrate it. That subtitle, though, it's funny you bring it up. I had to fight for that subtitle. My editor did not like it.
Oh, I'm sure.
She was like, “That's just not compelling.” And I was like, “That's the point.”
I didn't want a subtitle. I was very adamant. I was like, “It's obvious what it's about on the cover.” And she was like, “No, for marketing, we have to have a subtitle.” So then I just gave them the subtitle they hated so much, and then I refused to do another one.
I love my editor, she's great. But with the marketing stuff, we clash. Because like I said my whole thing is doing stories that are normal, and that's what I do—so lean in with me. And marketing was like, “Ugh, fine.”
I wouldn't call it an inspirational book exactly, but I think the title does point to the fact that if you can do it, then anybody can do it.
Well, I also wanted it to be not even really about drinking. The whole thing was, I didn't want to put out a recovery book. I just wanted to tell this story. But then of course, to sell the book, you got to spin it. So that's what happened there.
Once I got past that part, I was like, "Woo-hoo, we're done."
And my editor was like, "You haven't talked about drinking in 200 pages."
And I was like, "Yeah, what's the problem?"
She's like, "It's a recovery book."
And I was like, "Well fuck. Okay."
But I mean, also, you can't really recover without taking stock of everything, I think. I'm not an AA guy, and I get the impression you're not an AA guy either. But there has to be a little bit of self-reflection in there, I think.
Yeah. I mean, I learned a lot from AA. That's a whole other thing. I don't abide by it, but a lot of tools that I still use today in my normal life I learned there. So there's some good stuff.
I wanted to ask you how you got started on the architectural drawings and the buildings and street scenes. I was wondering if that was also tied in with the urban exploration part of your life, or if they're two separate strands.
Oh no, they're really tied together, because during that time of urban exploring I took a big step back from comics. I don't think I really made anything for about two years. And that's when I got really into history and all the places I was going to. So then I started really walking around New York and looking at buildings, and I was like, “I really want to draw these buildings.” And I kind of put that on the back burner, did the urban exploring stuff, and then when that naturally died down a little bit, then I started drawing the buildings.
And then I went insane, and I drew nothing but buildings for two years straight. And then I was like, “I never want to draw a building again.” And I haven't.
It's funny because the buildings are so detailed and meticulous, they look like they should be at odds with the simplistic characters in the book. But I think that your character line work has gotten a little smoother and they've developed together a little bit, or one's informing the other.
I do think the buildings have surpassed the drawings because sometimes when I show friends my work they’ll say, "Why don't you work a little bit on the people? Because you don't have the anatomy quite right. It's still a little bit weird."
And I'm like, "I could, but I don't want to, so I'm not going to." And then I just don't.
Sometimes I'll be like, “I've been making comics for 20 years. What if I just took a one-hour drawing class—just one hour?” And I just fucking won't. “What if I looked at this book that showed me how to draw people and I read it for 15 minutes?” And I just have never done it.
And at this point I'm like, “Well, what's the point? I might as well just double down on not learning it.” Because it's sufficient, it does the job. No one's picking my work up now being like, "Ugh, god, I can't stand that these figures are slightly incorrect." That's the part that's fun with comics because it doesn't really matter.
I kind of love the idea of picking up your next book and it's garbage, but all the hands are immaculately rendered.
I'm just drawing Craig Thompson hands all over the place.
Just seems so lovely.
I’ll be like, “It’s because Paul suggested I go in a different direction and expand my audience. So I did.”
I seem to recall there was a point where you wrote that you might be done with cartooning and getting into urban exploration almost exclusively. Does that ring any bells?
I'm sure I posted that, because I really thought it was. I think I had finished The Infinite Wait and I felt... oh my god, I don't know why I'm just remembering this now, but I have made a whole other book about childhood stories. So we can add that to the piles of work that I have never published.
Wait, you have a whole unpublished book of childhood stories?
It's not a big one. It would be like 120 pages. I don't know how this has escaped my memory for 10 years. I feel so crazy right now. Oh my god.
So is this after Infinite Wait?
Yes. Now just the rest of the day is going to be spent looking for that work. Okay.
Do you think you still have it?
I do have it. It's on my old hard drive. I have to move past this, otherwise, I'll get lost in the fact that I forgot a whole book… okay. Anyways, I did all that. I wasn't sure what to do with it. And I felt like I needed a break from comics.
I got so into urban exploring. I worked really hard at that. I was doing all this research and writing and I was making money selling shit that I stole from abandoned buildings on eBay. There's always a thread of “How am I paying for any of this?” Because I've paid for everything my whole life and it's always been half-legit, half-not. And then I was like, “You know what? I think I'm done sitting at my desk staring at paper all day.” So I didn't do it for two years and I just leaned into urban exploring stuff.
And then what brought me back actually was an opportunity to illustrate Eden Sher's book, The Emotionary. And it was cute. It was fun. It feels very disparaging to say it was of little consequence to me, but it was. It wasn't my book, it was just something I can do that's fun. And that brought me right back—I remember how much I loved doing comics, and I have never quit since.
That sounds like the opposite of a recovery story.
And then I rode that wagon all the way.
When I read that post about quitting comics, I was so disappointed! It was like, “Well, I bet I'm never going to hear from this person again.”
I lost a lot of readers over that. Sometimes people will come back now and they're like, "Oh my god, I saw you quit and you've been actually making books!” And I'm like, "Yeah, I came back."
I'm probably the only person who's come back to comics for money as opposed to going into animation and leaving comics for money. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else say that.
That's great. That's got to be a Comics Journal first.
Yeah, I was like, “I could keep selling these Thunderbird ball bearings that I got from an abandoned car shop for $60 a pop on eBay, or I could accept a check and have rent for X amount of months.” So I did that.
You’re living in a more rural area now, and I was wondering if that's going to affect the architectural side of your work.
I hate drawing nature. I hate it so much. It's like I hate it even more than drawing people, which I also hate. I can't stand it. And I've tried to make myself like it, but it's just so messy. And I work very neat. So yeah, luckily my work after Impossible People, the one about parenthood, has no need for architecture or background. It's all people, so that won't really matter as much.
It's interesting that you negatively described nature as messy when you just said three covers of your books feature messy rooms.
Well, that's a controlled mess. That's a mess I have made, so it’s different.
Were there any recovery memoirs or relationship memoirs or anything like that that you read that you think informed Impossible People?
Yes. Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember much of it now, but I remember it really blew my mind. And I like her work a lot. I’m struggling to remember, what did I read? [David Carr’s] The Night of the Gun. David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy was such a painful book to read because my brother has also had terrible addiction struggles, and his stories are unlike anything that's ever been written—they go so above and beyond and are horrific and incredible. But I, on the other end of that, in the role of the parent in that book - it was just devastating to read. Because I was like, “I know how this guy feels.” And then I was like, “I don't want to do this to anybody else.” So that wasn't a recovery book, necessarily, but it's in the same realm of books that hit during that time.
I actually didn't read a bunch of recovery books. I looked at Amazon the other day and I was just like, oh my god, there's so many. They have titles like "Blazed" and "Blitzed" and I'm just like, “Oh god.” Even if it's a good story, it's so unappealing to me.
And also, again, most of them follow the same narrative where it's just like, “Everything was so chaotic and then I got sober.” And my whole thing was, I did not live a chaotic alcoholic life. I was sitting at home. I don't have a fabulous, terrible story to tell—that was the whole point of it.
And you alluded a couple of minutes ago to having 10 years of material to work with. And I think that's something every memoirist gets asked all the time is, do you see a time when you're going to run out of material?
I don't think I will. I'm not saying the material will always be high quality.
But after I do the parenting book, I want to do a book about urban exploring, but then I could also see taking all this other unused material and kind of turning it into a book about a woman getting older. And also, I can't account for anything else that's going to happen in my life that I might need to make a book about. Like, what if my parents die, you know?
I would like to make a book about my dad someday, possibly, because he's a fucking lunatic. And then my brother's like, "Well, what if you make a book about us as siblings? All the shit we've gone through with dad." If nothing happened in my life from here on out except that I sat at my drawing desk, I don't think I would run out of material for 20 years.
I would say your dad is definitely one of those things that you kind of just allude to a little bit, but feels like there's a bigger story, for sure.
Oh, yeah. I haven't even shown readers the tip of the iceberg of my dad's story, because it's so big and it's not over. And same with my brother's story. It’s like I can't even begin to think about how to address it until there's some sort of natural ending. My dad dies, and my brother's okay, or something. It has to have an ending before I can even think about approaching it. That's why I do comics about myself, because it's easy. I know what the story is, and it's nothing that fantastic, so it's easy to write. I don't have to struggle with the narrative.
Does your family take issue with any of this?
A little bit. I run it past them now first, because at first my brother was like, "Yeah, put in whatever you want." And then he was like, "Eh, let's reel it back a little, because shit's getting weird in real life." And then there were two panels about my dad in Impossible People that my brother called about. He was like, "You’ve got to take those out, because that's a much bigger story that involves legal issues. Is it really that important that readers know that? Let's not go to court over two panels." And I'm like, "Okay. Fair."
But yeah, so we're at the point where I pass everything past them first. I know a lot of memoirists are like, "The truth comes first, even if it hurts people." And I don't believe that at all. Not for my work. I don't want to hurt anybody in my life. For a book, that just does not seem worth it. So I would prefer to ask them first.
You're not overtly cruel to anyone who is identifiable in any of the books that I can recall.
I was intentionally cruel to exactly one person in Impossible People. And even then, I feel like I could have been meaner.
Is this the boyfriend story?
Yeah, the breaking up in Puerto Rico. I wasn't as mean as I could have been. I learned a lot of stuff after the breakup where I was like, "Oh, I could fucking ruin him." But I was telling the story as I was experiencing it, so I didn't do that. I was just like, "You know what? It was bad enough as it is. I'll just leave it be, and the reader can draw their own conclusions based on just events."
Going back and revisiting this stuff, does it cause issues for your current life? I imagine my wife would not be very happy if I wrote a book that a significant portion of it was about a detailed relationship with an ex. Not that it would start a fight—I just think it would just be uncomfortable.
Yes. Especially the beginning of it where it's sweet. I could have rewritten that in retrospect, but I didn't want to—I wanted to the reader to go along with me, thinking this was a good thing. So I had my partner—my husband, I have some trouble saying “husband”—I had him read it, and then later, he was kind of frosty. And I was like, "What? What'd you think?" And he was like, "Did you not think about what that would be like for me to read those pages?" And I was like, "Fuck. I didn't. I didn't think about it, because I'm an asshole, and I just was like, 'Read my work. Look what I made.'"
So that was a mistake. And I still feel bad about it. And he has to read the new version, because there was a lot of editing, but I'm going to rip those pages out for him, because it's not necessary. So yeah, he wasn't happy.
The way you set up that relationship was definitely worthwhile for the narrative impact. We went along with you in the story.
Yeah. You think it's going somewhere. Stuff's getting better. Yay. And that's what I thought too. So I wanted people to think that.
And just because we haven’t brought it up so far, it does bear mentioning that the spouse I keep referencing is the boyfriend in Fart Party.
That is something that I was wondering. You and Oliver dated in Fart Party and broke up several times in your earlier books, and then you reunited and married years later. But the way you talk about it in the book feels almost begrudging—in your bio in Impossible People, I think it says, "Yes, that Oliver,” so I almost didn't bring it up, because it seemed like you didn't want to talk about it.
No, I guess I was hoping that came across as more cute. Because he's in the book a little bit. I redid the ending of Impossible People, because I originally ended with me going home to visit him, and we got back together pretty quickly. But I didn't want suddenly to pivot to that, because that wasn't really part of the narrative of the book—it’s what happened in real life. But I do like people knowing it, because it is a very sweet story.
It is a very sweet story. And I was wondering how you were going to incorporate that into your work, because it seems almost too clean a narrative, or too sweet for the world to you’ve created.
Well, luckily, I found a way to it fuck up real bad, so it's not too clean a narrative. After we got back together, I left him for a month in a fit of midlife crisis nonsense. And then there was a lot of unpleasant stuff, like abortions and miscarriages. So I'll find a way to make it not that sweet. But it is overall a sweet story.
So that was another thing that kind of hit me with the earnestness question. The character who you were writing about in Fart Party, the somewhat fictional autobiographical character--
She would be a little uncomfortable with this situation. I can envision some snarky asides and all that. So I'm interested to see where you go with it.
Yeah. that part of me is still in there. I'm actually very happy to be settled down. But we had a baby first, and then we got married for tax reasons. We got married on the couch over Zoom. None of it's terribly romantic. So I feel like we went through a lot of things in a classic way. Whatever. I was like, "I don't want a big wedding. A marriage is just a piece of paper," all that bullshit that I used to care about and believe.
But now that all that's passed, I'm like, "I want a big-ass wedding. I want people to be flying from other countries to go to this wedding. I want them complaining about how much they're going to pay. I didn't get any of this stuff, and now I want it."
I don't really want it—we're just going to have a big pizza party. But there's some stuff that, yeah, Fart Party Julia would be appalled at now that it’s happening.
Do you do any urban exploration now that you're not in the city?
Not so much, because most of it was East Coast. That's where the resorts and asylums are. Also it's dangerous, and I'm much more aware of that. I want to say, "When I was young, I didn't care," but I was like 33. So when I was doing all this, I would go into a building, you'd see a wall of black mold or broken asbestos tiles, and you'd be like, "Well, life is short. Ha ha ha." And now, I'm like, "No. I'm not doing that. I'm not going into there. I have a son now. Life is not short. It's really long, and I don't want it to be long and painful, so maybe don't go get mesothelioma." So I don't do it as much anymore.
But yeah, it's also more of a location and time thing. I can't be running off to the Catskills and sleeping in my car for a week so I can explore a resort, because now I have a family. They wouldn't want that.
Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that you were hoping to discuss?
Being that we just uncovered the fact that I have a whole book I forgot about, I'm sure there is more to talk about. But on the spot, I can't really think of anything. No, I think we've covered it pretty well.