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There's a Zen-like serenity to John Porcellino's self-published King-Cat Comics—but in 1989, you never would have seen it coming. When Porcellino founded the Xeroxed zine 18 years ago, he was an Illinois college kid bursting with self-doubt, anger, and punk-fueled sarcasm, all of which spilled onto the pages of King-Cat. It's almost funny then that his new book—a richly annotated, 384-page hardcover called King-Cat Classix, published by the high-profile Drawn & Quarterly—compiles the lion's share of the scratchy first seven years of the zine. While there are hints, especially toward the book's end, of Porcellino's emerging maturity, his early autobiographical sketches revel in crude surrealism and wise-ass humor—all while maintaining a profound sweetness that would come to dominate King-Cat.
Porcellino's work has been the subject of previous reprint collections, most recently the acclaimed Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man (published by La Mano an imprint owned by former Low bassist Zak Sally) and the high-school memoir Perfect Example (first released by the defunct Highwater before being picked up by D&Q). But Classix is by far his biggest book, and one that might prove a strange point of entry to new fans. Porcellino is also working on several new graphic novels, including Thoreau At Walden for Hyperion—all while photocopying and personally mailing each new issue of King-Cat Comics to his hundreds of subscribers. Now settled down and living the quiet life in Denver, Porcellino spoke with The A.V. Club and shared his thoughts about punk, art, brain chemistry, and his newfound "positive mental attitude."
The A.V. Club: When you sat down to start working on King-Cat Classix, what was your biggest worry?
John Porcellino: I don't know. I had so many. [Laughs.] Basically, I hadn't looked at some of these comics in almost 18 years. In my weird world I think these are good comics, but I was kind of worried: There's a certain amount of people out there who have only seen my recent stuff. I think the Mosquito book helps give people and idea of what to expect, because it shows that transition. But personally, it was weird going back. I'm a very different person now than I was when I was 20 years old. You can't help but wonder what people are going to think about this old stuff. It's like King-Cat in general; if you read one of the early comics, you might be like, "What?" But hopefully people will get a sense of how it progresses and changes if they actually sit down and read through the whole thing.
AVC: When you started doing King-Cat, did you have any sense that it was something worth saving? Did you consider that it would eventually take up so much of your life?
JP: I'm not saying that I ever thought, "These are the greatest comics in the world," but I always liked them. [Laughs.] Plus, I love history. Even back then, I knew that this was going to be the way that I documented my life. But I never imagined that there would ever be a book like [King-Cat Classix]. When I was done with an issue, I just put it in a box and started on the next one.
AVC: What did you leave out of Classix? When you were going through all your old comics, did you run across anything and say, "There's no freaking way this is going in the book?"
JP: There were a few things that I left out. I was pretty rash about my comics back then; I didn't edit or second-guess myself. My current self was like, "If I was this person who got depicted in this comic, would I be pretty bummed out if I saw it?"
AVC: You mean, friends of yours who were depicted in King-Cat?
JP: Yeah, just people I knew or met. There were a few comics where I used people's names or specific stuff like that. Maybe someday those will come out, but at the time I was putting the new book together, it just didn't feel right to me.
AVC: Has anyone ever gotten mad at you for how they were portrayed in King-Cat? Did you ever venture into Joe Matt territory?
JP: Not really. With my friends, it was always essentially true stories. That's how I always felt about doing King-Cat: This is something that really happened, whether it makes me look good or bad, or someone else look good or bad. This is what happened, and it's my job in life to write it down. Nowadays, I'm a lot more conscientious about it. I'm not out to attack somebody in print.
AVC: The whole tenor of King-Cat has changed. Were there any stories you excluded from the book because they were just too dark or bitter compared to what you do now?
JP: Not really, but there are definitely comics in there that I thought twice about.
AVC: Can you think of an example?
JP: This one comic, people got mad at me for. I wrote, "I live in shit, a house of racist, sexist, violent men." Of course, all the people I lived with read King-Cat, so [Laughs.] I think I write about that in the notes of the book: One of my roommates confronted me over that. All of my psychological garbage was in King-Cat. My dream comics are, like, the epitome of Freudian dream analysis. It was kind of hard putting the book together for other reasons, too. I really pay attention to whether a comic starts on the left page or the right page, the way it might read differently. Some comics have to begin or end on certain pages to be more effective. It's like sequencing an album. Honestly, some stuff got left out for that reason. And when I say that I left a few of them out, I mean, maybe two or three comics. And then there was a ton of stuff I left out just because it was no good. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've put your relatives in a lot of stories over the years. What's the relationship between King-Cat and your family?
JP: For most of that time, my parents never saw an issue of King-Cat. Then I got to a certain point, around 6 or 7 years into it, where I realized I wanted to share this with my family.
AVC: You didn't keep it a secret from them, did you?
JP: No, I just didn't talk about it. They knew that I did King-Cat, but honestly my mom didn't want to see a lot of it. She would tell me, "I don't want to know any of what's really going on." [Laughs.] Nowadays, when I put out a new issue, my mom will say, "Is there anything in there that will make me upset?" So I have to sit down and screen it.
AVC: Did the old stories upset her?
JP: Yeah. Man, there's sex stuff in there, drinking. I was always drunk, and there were all these four-letter words. My mom doesn't want to read that stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about the more emotional stories where you're talking about how unhappy you were as a kid?
JP: I think my parents understood. People go through that kind of stuff. Everyone already knew what happened, and it's probably pretty typical for kids growing up to have points where their parents are yelling at them to get a haircut or whatever.
AVC: Did you ever reach a point where you started to become conscious of the way your readers perceived you?
JP: Yeah, totally. I can tell you exactly when it was: King Cat 44. In '94, me and Zak [Sally] and Mr. Mike [Haeg] went on a road trip up the West Coast, and we went to Seattle. Seattle at the time was where all the cartoonists were. We met all these guys and hung out and talked comics, and it was like, "Wow, these people kind of take this thing seriously."
AVC: Which cartoonists?
JP: Tom Hart, David Lasky, Ed Brubaker, Megan Kelso. I met Julie Doucet there for the first time. A lot of them I had been writing to for a while, but there was a real different vibe there. These people lived comics. The way I grew up, I had a lot of personal issues with art. It's an individual thing, but I also think it's kind of Midwestern: You do your thing, but you don't talk about it. You make sure it's not such a big deal, and keep it very low-key. Not that the people in Seattle were jumping up and down, but they got together every week to draw and critique each other's work. Outside of art school, I never did that. There was a community there. When I came back from that trip and sat down to do King-Cat 44—it was probably the "Chicken Lady" or the "Shovel Lady" story—I had a physical, palpable sense of being self-conscious. It was the first time out of all these pages of comics I'd drawn where I was like, "Holy cow, people are going to read this. They're going to like it, or they might not like it. Maybe I really should make my drawings a little more solid, or really think about what I'm doing. Maybe this shouldn't be so sloppy."
AVC: Obviously Drawn & Quarterly believed in doing Classix, but did you ever doubt whether your early material should be released again at all?
JP: Oh, definitely. [Laughs.] That's one of the things I'm working on with my new positive mental attitude—my own self-worth or whatever. That sounds extreme, but it's kind of true. But there's a big part of me that thought, "Who's gonna want to read this?"
AVC: Was there any point in the process where you said to yourself, "I've got to call Drawn & Quarterly and tell them I can't do this"?
JP: Mostly what I was afraid of was that they were going to call me and say that. "You know what? We took a look at the actual artwork, and, you know, maybe we need to think about something else." [Laughs.] But actually, I do believe in my art, as self-effacing as I am. This is just what I do, and it's okay
AVC: You mentioned your "positive mental attitude." That's like "PMA" from the Bad Brains song "Attitude."
AVC: Have you seen the documentary American Hardcore? As someone who grew up listening to Bad Brains, was it strange to watch the film and learn that the band got "PMA" from some believe-and-achieve, self-help book?
JP: Yeah. But through my life and my experience, I believe it's true. Your brain has certain pathways in it, and if you feed those pathways with certain types of thoughts, the blood goes to those neurons and nourishes them, and they grow and develop. That's how you build habits. Physically, I think that's how your brain works. If you have certain habits that are negative and causing you problems that you want to change them, you can actually change the blood flow and stuff in your brain by thinking a different way.
AVC: That's pretty punk.
JP: Yeah. [Laughs.] It's totally hardcore. It's DIY.
AVC: Hardcore is usually stereotyped as a negative reaction to society, but some of the best hardcore songs are totally triumphant and positive, like "Attitude" or Black Flag's "Rise Above."
JP: Punk rock was the first thing I found in my life that made me feel acceptable. The thing that got me into punk rock was the idea, "You're fine just the way you are." It sounds kind of dorky, and the bands wouldn't have put it like that, but you don't have to make excuses for who you are or what you do. I was probably kind of a weirdo. I felt isolated, like, "Wow, there must be something terribly wrong with me." When you find something like punk rock, not only is it okay to feel that way—you should embrace that. Embrace your weirdness. The world is totally messed up, and punk rock was a way to see that and work with it without candy-coating it or sweeping it under the rug. It was saying, "Yeah, the world is this way, but you can still do something about it. Take energy from that."
AVC: Even if punk seems negative, making music is an inherently positive, creative act.
JP: When you watch American Hardcore, you see that there were a lot of things about the original hardcore scene that weren't great. But in essence, for me, it was a massively positive thing. It gave me energy. In the '80s in suburban Chicago, I wasn't part of any scene. To a certain extent, I didn't even fit in with the punk rockers. But it didn't matter. The whole point was just to be yourself, no matter what that was. You didn't have to fit into a certain punk-rock cliché. Create whatever your compelled to create. People were putting out their own records, and it just seemed natural to put out my own magazine. When I was really young, I started making magazines and little books, just folded-over pieces of typing paper, so when I discovered punk rock, it really blew my mind. I played in bands and stuff, but making my own zines seemed like an inherent part of that scene.
Another great thing about punk was this: Not only was bad okay, bad sometimes was better. Look at Flipper, one of the major influences on my whole life. The early issues of King-Cat were really influenced by Flipper and Butthole Surfers. Those are the bands I really got excited about. The Minutemen would play these hardcore shows, and people would get mad because they played guitar solos. Mike Watt would say, "I thought you guys wanted no rules. Well, this is what 'no rules' looks like. You can do whatever you want."
AVC: Being so entrenched in self-publishing for so many years, what was it like to work on a huge book with a prominent publisher like Drawn & Quarterly?
JP: I won't lie: I've done it myself for so many years, it was tricky for me to relinquish some of that grip. Drawn & Quarterly essentially let me do whatever I wanted to do. It wasn't like there were people telling me, "Hey, you can't do this and you can't do that." They made suggestions and comments, but that's it. Still, it's tough. I don't know how to make a book like this, so I trusted that they're good people, and they are. I just took that trust and went from there. I could never have made a book like this without Drawn & Quarterly. I've been so freaked out about it. It's just amazing that it exists now.
AVC: Did you ever feel like you were on the clock while you were making Classix?
JP: Yeah, the whole time. [Laughs.] I'm really not used to doing that. When I'm doing a regular issue of King-Cat and I come across some dilemma or decision I have to make, I can just put it aside and wait a week, come back to it with a fresh mind. Usually at that point, the answer just presents itself. With the book, it was like, "You've got to make this decision, and you've got till 4." [Laughs.] It was stressful for me, but I feel like this particular book just had so many details that I wanted to get right. But I'm happy with it. It was a learning experience.
AVC: You're also working on more books for outside publishers. Do you think you're getting more comfortable with the process? Do you think it's a necessary next step as a cartoonist trying to make a living?
JP: The way I look at it is this: King-Cat is what I do. The other stuff is part of it, but King-Cat will always be my focus, because that's where the new work is. Whatever's going on in my life at any given time is what's feeding that issue. The books are good because they put my stuff in a format with wider distribution. Those individual issues of King-Cat aren't going to be in print forever, and the books are chunks of that history done tastefully, so I'm comfortable with that.
AVC: Besides the changes in your writing style, your artwork has undergone a refinement over the years. You were studying art in college when you started King-Cat—were your early comics a reaction against that training?
JP: There were certain things about the fine-arts world that I didn't like, but I loved painting. As an expressive medium, it was great, but I did my comics at the same time. My paintings were all autobiographical, and the comics were just another layer, along with the music I was playing at the time. At some point, I realized there was something about the fine-arts world I was uncomfortable with. It just occurred to me that comics were the best thing I could do. It's not this unique object that somebody gets to have, like a painting. What I liked about comics is that I could make 50 copies or 1000 copies or however I needed to make. Anybody who wanted one could have it. It was very accessible. I could do one of these old comics and give them to the people I worked with at the warehouse. It wasn't like, "Hey, here's a flyer for a show I'm having at a gallery downtown." A lot of people don't feel comfortable going to a gallery.
AVC: Is that really what you used to do? Hand out copies of King-Cat to your coworkers at a warehouse?
JP: Yeah. It was at a warehouse that made country-craft things that would say, like, "A house is not a home without a meow." I'd bring my comics in to work and say, "Hey, you're in the new King-Cat, here's a copy." [Laughs.] That was the thing: You could give it to anybody. There are some people who don't get comics, but for the most part, if you give someone a comic, they know what to do with it. They just sit down and read it. It's just a story with pictures, whatever. That's what felt really good; it was this direct communication. It was unpretentious and accessible to anybody. I was selling them for 50 cents.
AVC: What are you up to now, $2.50?
JP: Three bucks. Hey, man, times are tough. [Laughs.] I always think about bags of pretzels. A bag of pretzels is three bucks. Is this chunk of my creative life worth a bag of pretzels? Eh, okay. It probably is.