John Porcellino recently published issue #70 of his long-running minicomic “King Cat Comics and Stories,” which he began in 1989. Earlier this year, Drawn and Quarterly released “Map of My Heart,” a collection of his comics from 1996-2002. With a minimalistic style, in terms of his artwork and the dialogue and descriptions he crafts, Pocellino’s work conveys the most essential information of a scene with a meditative beauty that is hard to find in comics.
While his early work has a very different sensibility and the influence of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening can be more easily seen, it’s his most recent work and its focus on the natural world, rethinking and revisiting his own youth, and meditations of the present where Porcellino has really found his voice and subject matter. In more recent issues of “KIng Cat Comics,” Porcellino’s depictions of nature and the quotidian aspects of daily life could make the argument for him being one of the great American Zen artists and writers.
Porcellino continues to produce King-Cat, photocopying and mailing each new issue to subscribers and select stores. He also runs Spit and a Half (spitandahalf.blogspot.com) which distributes comics and zines by Gabrielle Bell, Lilli Carre, Dave Kiersh, Zak Sally, Tim Lane, Rina Ayuyang and others.
In between two lengthy book tours, Porcellino took time out to speak with CBR over e-mail about minicomics, Henry David Thoreau and the influence of Zen on his life and work.
CBR News: “Map of my Heart: The Best of King-Cat Comics and Stories 1996-2002” was just released through Drawn and Quarterly and I’m curious, just how much of a selection is the book and was it a complicated process of assembling the book?
John Porcellino: In this case, it was mostly a matter of getting the pages set up and in the right order, as there were only a few stories from the original zines that didn’t make it into the book. Of course, there was still a lot of tweaking, proofing and decision making, and the back of the book required assembling all the extra material, writing and editing the notes and transcribing journal entries etc. So it was still a lot of work. But compared to “King-Cat Classix,” which involved a lot of editing, this one was pretty straightforward.
“Map of my Heart” is the second major collection of “King Cat Comics” after “King-Cat Classix,” which you just mentioned, and was released a few years back. Had you read most or any of the comics since you wrote and drew them?
I haven’t really read them that much since they were published. But by the time I finish drawing and writing them for King-Cat, they’re pretty indelible to me. There were a few in there that I had kind of forgotten about, though.
“Map of My Heart” contains issues 51-61 of your comics. Is the plan or the hope for D&Q to publish a collected edition of the comic every few years like this?
Yes, the next collection will be called “From Lone Mountain” and will contain material from King-Cat issues 62- 68 or so. We plan on beginningÂ to intersperse the release of the collections with books of all-new material as well.
How has your style as an artist developed and how did you settle on this minimalist style?
I’ve always tried to make King-Cat as true to my vision as possible. What I try to do as an artist is bring out the comics asÂ I see them in my head. I don’t know exactly why, but this is the way I see comics. Sometimes I see them with more detail, or crosshatching, or what have you, but mostly I see them in this clean, simple linework style. So I trust that, and try to bring that out on the page. I’ve always been attracted to simplicity in art, whether it be writing, painting, music, film or whatever. So I guess it’s only natural that my own work developed its own kind of simplicity.
You have a very simple style which leads me to wonder how much editing and revision you do during the creation of your comics.
I doÂ a lot of editing and revising. Most of the work I do on comics happens before I ever sit down to draw. I keep a constant trail of little ideas, stories, titles etc, in my notebooks, and, over time, I try to pare those down to something that makes cohesive sense to me. Then I begin writing and whittling that down. A lot of the work ends up “on the cutting room floor,” so to speak.
Is the editing more a question of simplification – fewer lines in a drawing, less dialogue, less description – or is it a question of “getting it right?”
It’s a matter of both. Often what I do when I start writing is throw everything I can into the mix. Then I need to pare that down to what’s essential. What elements add more to the story than they detract? What am I really trying to say here, and how do I accomplish that in this instance? For me, it’s, as you said, an attempt to “get it right,” which is a constantly shifting and mysterious thing to me as an artist. I want the comic to be what it wants to be, and the creative process is the way that’s accomplished (hopefully!).
You began “King-Cat Comics and Stories” in 1989 . What is it about minicomics that has kept you creating them for so many years?
I love the independence of it, I love the ability to connect on a more personal level with readers, I love being closely involved in all the aspects of production. It’s just the way my mind sees this work.
How has Buddhist thought and practice affected your art. There are references to zen practice and illustrated poems, of course, but in what ways has it shaped the way you work and how you think about your work.
When I discovered Zen, the things that attracted me to it were its humor, its simplicity and its emphasis on everyday life. These were all things that I was working with in my comics already, but Zen kind of gave a form to these somewhat amorphous ideas I’d been kicking around for a while. Zen practice is the practice of everyday life, so, as a cartoonist, my comics are an important part of that. Practice is finding out who you are and working out your place in the world. So to me, these two things go hand in hand.
I know you did a book about Henry David Thoreau a few years back for the CCS Biography Series from Hyperion. What is it about Thoreau that speaks to you?
The same sort of things that attracted me to Zen – simplicity, directness and self-awareness. As an artist, I learned from an early age that Thoreau could be an important role model for me. He was involved wholeheartedly with nature, and his own idiosyncratic work, in living frugally and in finding a way to focus on the things that really mattered to him. He also understood that his work was a socio-political statement. These are all things that I’ve been interested in, as well.
In addition to your “King Cat” work, you have a graphic novel coming out from Drawn and Quarterly next spring, “The Hospital Suite.” I don’t know how much you want to say about or where you are in finishing it…
It’s one of those “all-new” books I mentioned earlier – Â my experiencesÂ from 1997-98, when I was very ill. That period was the hinge of my life thus far, and when I look back, things are clearly divided into Pre-Illness and Post-Illness. The story has been written for a while now, I just need to draw it.
How does your process of creating longer works like “Thoreau at Walden” or “The Hospital Suite” differ from how you put together stories for “King Cat?”
Well, longer works are a different animal. For Thoreau, I was working with his writing directly, so what I did was create notecards with little anecdotes, quotes etc on them, and arranged them by theme – animals, weather, the pond, independence, etc. I knew I wanted to present the book as a passing of seasons, like the original Walden. Then it was just a matter of finding some kind of narrative thread, or progress, in terms of presenting his thinking in an evolutionary way.
For “The Hospital Suite,” it’s obviously based on true events, so there’s an automatic narrative arc to the material. In these kind of longer autobiographical works, I have an idea or theme I want to get across and I try to find some way to make that work in a narrative form. I give myself some flexibility in terms of “accuracy” – I may combine different experiences, or edit things out, or slightly reorder things if it helps the comic read better. I’m not after some kind of “pure truth,” but a moreÂ “narrative truth” – one that respects both the actual events and the story.
What’s your relationship like with D&Q. Obviously it’s a good one, but is it sometimes frustrating as a self-publisher to work with someone else or is it a relief to give up a lot of work and responsibility?
In certain ways,Â it took me a while to get used to working with an outside publisher, I’d done things on my own for so long. But they respect the work, and they support me wholeheartedly as an artist, and I really appreciate that. They have certain skills and abilities that I don’t have, so it’s great to work with people who can bring those different elements to the process. They help meÂ out a lot. It’s a relief to have that kind of help. Hopefully I also bring something to them, in terms of my commitment to work hard as a self-motivatedÂ artist.
You recently finished a month long tour. What was it like and what was your thinking behind such a lengthy tour schedule?
This last tour was fantastic. I went out to Chicago for the new Chicago Zine Fest and the SAIC Comics Symposium, and then worked my way down south to Florida and across the Gulf states into Texas, then back up to Denver. I met so many great people and saw so many great things. I’d never really been down south before, so it was especially exciting for me. I love traveling and I love meeting readers, shop-owners and other artists, so touring is something that is really fulfilling to me. So far, I’ve driven over 15,000 miles on this tour, and I still have the west coast coming up in August!
At this point in your career, are you able to support yourself and make a living through your comics work?
I make a living as an artist, and a good portion of my income comes from comics. I mean, I’ve existed the last few years mainly due to sales of my original artwork, commissions, illustrations and the like. Of course, the royalties and “King-Cat” sales are a big part of things, and without the comics themselves, I doubt many people would be interested in commissioning work from me. So I’ve come to view it all as sort of one big project. I should clarify, when you say “make a living” – my living is very barebones, and very simple. (See Thoreau, above!) But to have the freedom to work as an artist is a great privilege, and at this point I wouldn’t trade it for the alternatives.
As you’ve gotten older, has what you’ve wanted to do with comics – not just even in terms of subject matter, but your thinking on creating them – shifted over the years?
Of course. Things do change over time. When I began drawing comics, I had no idea that they would turn into my life’s work. I still think it’s kind of funny whenÂ IÂ considerÂ it now.Â As for creating them, I would say things have gotten more complicated in some ways over the years. I spend the bulk of my time taking care ofÂ King-Cat “business” stuff now, much more time doing that than drawing. But to survive as an artist, I think that’s a requirement (for me).
And, yeah, the way I look at creating them has also shifted a bit. That’s kind of due to circumstances, etc. changing, and having to adapt to changes in my life. But I still feel the same way about them that I did at the start in a lot ways – I just want to do what comes natural, to let “King-Cat” be what it wants to be. So it changes, gradually, subtly, at this point. I just want to follow it wherever it leads me.
Who were the cartoonists who really inspired you when you were younger and who do you enjoy reading now?
I loved all kinds of comics as a kid, but mostly I read the newspaper funnies. As a teenager, it was Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, whom I read in the weekly “Chicago Reader,” that inspired me to start drawing comics again and to start looking at all the possibilities offered by the form.
Nowadays I read all kinds of stuff. I love most of the old reprint collections that are coming out – Walt and Skeezix, old Marvels/Jack Kirby stuff, Little Orphan Annie etc; I read a lot of European and international comics; zines; I really love the new comics coming out by people like Gabrielle Bell, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga…I have pretty eclectic tastes.
As far as the connection between life and art, it really feels as if that’s fairly rare for artist. One gets a sense of you and your thinking through reading your work in a way that most people wouldn’t from most artists’ bodies of work. Do you think that’s true?
I think it’s true to a large extent, but also can be a little misleading. I think sometimes people who only know me through my comics have the idea that I’m a super quiet, refined kind of guy. But I’m actually kind of dopey, and I like stupid humor as well.Â Â The fact is,Â not everything in my life goes into “King-Cat,” for various reasons. But hopefully, over time, it can paint a pretty accurate self-portrait. I strive to be personally and emotionally honest in my work, and I think people understand that.
What is it about Denver and Colorado that you love and that keeps you there?
I love the sense of space, the vast sky, the light. I love the openness and independence I feel in the West. Denver is a great city, and it’s very livable. You can lead a pretty simple life out here. That’s important to me.