I’m surprised at the detail in John Porcellino’s face.
It’s silly to expect an autobiographical cartoonist, particularly one whose style is as abstract as Porcellino’s, to look like the comic book character you’re used to spending time with, but the Porcellino of my imagination shouldn’t have as many lines on him as the real Porcellino does. There shouldn’t be pupils around his little black dot irises, his hair should be a jagged bowl atop the oval of his head, not individualized strands. He shouldn’t have a third dimension, or have any color other than paper-white to him.
But the pioneering zinester, mini-comic maker and autobio comics creator is, of course, a human being, and thus doesn’t much resemble the John P. I’ve gotten to know over the years from the pages of his long-running King-Cat Comics.
I got a good look at him this past Monday night, at the Columbus stop of his fall tour promoting his new book A Map of My Heart (his visit to Columbus, oddly enough, occurred on Columbus day). He was appearing at Wholly Craft, a shop that sells cool, handmade goods from a variety of local artists and designers. It’s a girly pink and blue store a few steps away from the city’s main drag, High Street, jam-packed with T-shirts, stuffed animals, magnets, pins, baby clothes, finger puppets, sock octopuses, cloth sculptures of cakes and dozens of other neat little things one could empty one’s wallet buying for loved ones if one wanted.
It also has a little rack of zines, and is one of the handful of places in Columbus where you can find ‘em these days. In the back of the store, a large, white wall was erected, and in front of that was a slide projector and stacks of Porcellino’s books. About ten chairs were set up in two rows just beyond that, and they never filled up.
Whether it was the fact that it was a Monday night or the seven o’clock start time or if everyone into comics in my home town just coincidentally had more pressing things to attend to that night, there were only eight people there for the bulk of Porcellino’s visits. Seven other people sat in the chairs around me, a lady who worked at Wholly Craft was perched behind the counter, and a few shoppers filtered in and out.
Attendance seemed largely composed of people who are also involved with making their own comics: Bob Corby, founder of Columbus’ annual Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, and Max Ink, Tom Williams, Michael Carroll and Aaron Miller.
Porcellino stood by a laptop set up on the counter. He wore a striped, long-sleeved shirt with jeans and black Converse All-Stars (or shoes that looked like ‘em), with a ball cap over his black hair. He spoke in a quiet but certain voice, and his delivery was often so dry it was sometimes hard to tell if he was joking or not—the subject matter wasn’t exactly side-splitting, although he joked about the downbeat nature of it.
He began by talking about how he found his way into self-publishing, beginning with his childhood love of books and how that translated into his desire to make books. He did so almost immediately, with his dad taking them to work and making copies for him to pass out to his friends.
As he grew up, he started making the copies himself, and he began making his own zines, and then editing a poetry and art zine and then, in 1989, he launched King-Cat, a mini-comic/zine that was all him. He’s still making King-Cat. Drawn and Quaterly released a massive hardcover collection of it in 2007, and the seventieth issue of it was just released.
“I was a really creative person and I found that I had a lot of things that I wanted to say and communicate, but I found that I was not all that good at talking,” Porcellino said of his attraction to zines. “But I found communicating through magazines a much better way to do it.”
Map of My Heat collects material from issues #51 through #70 of King-Cat, which Porcellino said covered the events of his life between 1996 and 2002 or so, “a kind of rough time in my life.”
Which is a bit of an understatement. Porcellino suffered many medical problems throughout this period, and would introduce them each by saying “So the next depressing thing that happened to me was…”
These included waking up one morning with an incredible pain in his ears. After three trips to the hospital in a month, with a different diagnosis and prescription each time, the doctors eventually told him, “Well, you’re just crazy and you’re making this up, because no one has the problems you’re describing and you should seek psychological counseling.”
Actually, he had a rare condition in which his ears became hyper-sensitive to sound, and the slightest noise—as slight as the sound of a light switch being flicked on—could cause him a few days of incredible pain.
Unfortunately, this took him three years to find out.
In the meantime, he found he couldn’t go out much and was denied a lot of his former pleasures—like listening to music—so he ended up staying home and getting serious about his comics-making and his art, as drawing his comics was something he could do even while suffering from this condition.
He prefaced his first comic by explaining his concept of “real life.”
“What I mean by that is this whole thing of life,” he said. “I didn’t want to just focus on the really high highs and low lows that we all have, but what I call the in-between moments in life, the stuff you do every day without thinking of them. The bulk of your life is spent doing the dishes, making breakfast, walking to the grocery store or whatever.”
He then projected a two-page, eight-panel comic called “Late Bus” which was simply about getting ready to take the late bus home form school one day.
The “second really depressing thing that happened in my life” was when he got incredibly sick and ended up spending a month in the hospital. Apparently there was a tumor in his small intestine that was blocking food from entering his large intestine, and as a result, his large intestine was trying to digest his small intestine.
A few year later, he got really sick again, when his liver and bone marrow stopped working “And I turned green, then yellow, then orange.”
“So the next depressing thing that happened to me, well it starts out not so depressing,” he said to some nervous laughter. He had found a doctor who was able to diagnose his problems more quickly than others and was really starting to help him. “Lo and behold, I started to get better. I could eat apples again. But then, as is often the case with people who have been really sick for a while, once my physical health improved, my mental health started to erode.
Porcellino then developed full-blown, “textbook” obsessive-compulsive disorder, and became afraid to touch doorknobs and to throw his food away because he was convinced it was poisonous.
“The weird thing is that there’s this little rational part of your brain that says, ‘You’ve opened doors for thirty years and nothing bad ever happened, you know, you don’t have to wash your shoelaces.’ Stuff like that. But compared to this reptile, animal, monster part of your brain, it’s just never going to win.”
That lead to the next depressing thing: “It turns out my wife didn’t like me so much when I had OCD, and a couple of months after that she said adios and…I started writing poems about her.”
Porcellino broke up the depressing stories with the comics and poetry-comics—basically poems in which each line received a panel with an image of its own—inspired by the events.
“I should say this book isn’t a total bummer,” Porcellino said at one point. “It’s not.”
He considered a few seconds, and added “I guarantee it. In a weird way, I look back fondly on that period. It was just my life.”
“Even though by any ojective measuring stick this time in my life was terrible, there was a serenity to it. Just the day-to-day experience of being alive is really beautiful, or at least really mysterious. Even those parts that are really difficult, or frankly painful…Anyway, that’s my personal endorsement of the book.”
His talk wasn’t a total bummer either. He shared several sillier strips, including one about a “Busy Bee,” which read a bit like a picture book version of the concept of zen, and is illustrated with a big, bullet-shaped, child-like bumble bee, leaving a dotted line behind it as it flies. A few others featured his late cat Maisie, and he seemed to take great pleasure in enunciating her mews during his reading of those strips.
And he shared a pretty funny story about how un-funny his presentation is. In Baltimore, he found himself having to follow some younger cartoonists “who all had these stories like, ‘I got drunk, made out with a guy and fell down the stairs and slipped on a banana peel and my dog peed on my head,’ and I was thinking, ‘Great, now I have to get up there and read poetry about my ex-wife.’”
He said he was really sweating then, and was fast-forwarding through is presentation to get to one of his funny strips and, when he read that one, “No reaction. And so was thinking, ‘Wow, I really wish I could leave.’ So I just want to point out in advance that this is supposed to be funny. I think it may be Midwestern type humor, so maybe you’ll grasp it. I don’t think the East Coast people really got it.”
In the strip, the abstract, John Porcellino avatar fills his cat’s bowl with fancy bottled water, and he watches her lapping it up, while thinking and then finally declaring, “My cat is drinking water from France!”
Maybe you had to be there.
Being there is, of course, the beauty Porcellino finds in life, even as depressing and hard as his might sometime be, and it also happens to be the beauty of his work. He’s always there, in his life, and he takes the time to write it down, illustrate it and share it, so the reader’s always there with him too.