Julia Wertz's "The Fart Party" is one of the last decade's most influential and respected autobiographical comics. After a long life online, the strip was collected into two print editions, and this past September, Atomic Books brought the entire series -- along with a helpful serving of strips intended for a potential third book and several formative pre-"Fart Party" cartoons -- back in a single serving under Wertz's preferred title: "Museum of Mistakes."
We spoke with Wertz about learning to accept the missteps -- personally and creatively -- of our younger years, the importance of sticking to your creative vision, and the freedom to be found in exploring the world outside the artist's studio.
CBR News: Looking back at the comics in "Museum of Mistakes" -- and it's closing on ten years since the earliest strip -- what is your biggest takeaway?
Julia Wertz: Wow, that's a huge question! Possibly one of the more significant ones to attempt to answer -- I'm not sure I can do it justice. I feel like I need to go on a sabbatical and lock myself away in a cabin in the woods somewhere and do nothing but think about it for at least a week in order to give you a good answer. But off the cuff, I'd say that two big takeaways jump out at me.
First, I was right to not pursue an education in art and writing -- not that it wouldn't have been helpful with my work, but overall it proved unnecessary and would have put me into debt, which comics would have never gotten me out of. As it is, I was able to make my way in the industry without going to school and without going into debt. But I also realize it's because my comics don't aspire to be much more than simple autobio comics. They never needed to be artistically informed or well written; they work better in an uninformed format, so I lucked out in that sense.
Second is, I made the right choice to do the work I wanted to do, even when being told it was not a good idea. When big press was picking up indie cartoonists, I had some ideas that were shot down because they weren't mass marketable. But I knew I wanted to do them, so I turned back to indie publishing, where those ideas were not only accepted, but encouraged. Big press ended up mostly dropping comics (not all of them, though), so I think I made the right choice, and I was happy with the work I did. I know I would have been unhappy trying to tailor my work to fit what other publishers wanted. I have no problem doing that if I'm working on a different project, like illustrating someone else's book, but not with my own work. That's been one of the most important aspects of making comics to me.
You suggest in your introduction that the "Fart Party" strips are sometimes immature, or embarrassing to have out there, and maybe you'd have chosen a different name for the strip if you'd thought anybody would read it, but there's also a sense of pride in the work -- a satisfaction in seeing a young cartoonist unleashing an unedited worldview on her readership.
I used to be dismissive of my early work just because I've passed that point in my life and career. There were a few years where I refused to look at my early work and I wrote it all off. Then, once enough time passed, I was able to appreciate how rough it is. That work was done quickly, spontaneously, and was never intended for an audience, which can make it hard to read at some points, but also make it highly amusing and entertaining at others. Although it was really raw, there's something good about that, something fresh that has been lost in the process of progression, which is a good thing, but also kind of sad. You only get one shot at making "a first" of anything, and then there's a very specific energy (for lack of a better word) that is lost for forever after that. I think all artists experience that loss, and it needs to be faced, addressed and appreciated.
As your comics, both here and in later books, have maintained a heavily autobiographical tone, do you ever feel that your cartoon alter-ego influences your actual choices, as you can imagine the future strip version being better if you go one way versus another?
I wish I could say yes, because I feel like that might make my real life more interesting, but unfortunately, my life is both disastrous and entertaining enough on its own without the strip's influence. Real life always comes before the strip, and I do not let it influence what I do, because I don't believe in manipulating experience like that. Just like how I will never make a joke on paper and then say it in real life, like comedians might. A joke has to have come out of my mouth in real life first for it to later appear in a comic.
That said, I've certainly made a conscious choice to do entire events for comic fodder, like attend a strange convention or party or go to a weird art exhibit I'd normally never see, but then the whole day exists because of that comic and solely for the comic. But in that context, I'm operating like a reporter, which doesn't happen in my daily life.
Most of the events in "Museum of Mistakes" occur in your early and mid-20s. Looking back with some distance and hindsight, do you see considerable differences in your approach to cartooning and the events you choose to reflect in your work?
The work I did in my early 20s was highly censored, in regards to what was really going on in my life at that point. It was much more flippant and focused on funny jokes, amusing non-events or flights of fancy. As I moved into my mid-20s, I began to reveal more, but still held back a lot of personal stuff. But now that I'm in my 30s and working on a book about my late-20s, I'm holding back less, because I have the gift of hindsight now, and I see that it's okay to talk about something difficult since I'm not currently living it, like I was with my early work. I don't think my work has ever been dishonest, but it gets more and more honest as time goes on, and there's more space between my current life and past events that I'm writing about.
Your fictional self doesn't look at all like you. Does this give you distance or a sense of anonymity when writing about yourself?
It's mostly cartooning shorthand. I wanted a character that was easy to draw and looked very simple. I didn't put any thought into it when I made it; it didn't even occur to me to make it look like myself. The way I drew before my current style, and sometimes in unseen diary comics, does look like my real self, but I don't find using a realistic face to be necessary or relevant to my work. But once I saw a blog where someone had taken a bunch of cartoonists' real photos and compared them to their drawings and analyzed the styles, which was mortifying. They were noting that many artists drew themselves uglier or prettier than their real selves, very few were accurate. I was relieved to see that all they could say about mine was that it looks nothing like me.
Your tribute to San Francisco, right before you move to Brooklyn, is quite beautiful. Is it surprising that you've now been in Brooklyn longer than you lived in SF? How has your sense of the two cities, your place in them, and their role in your cartooning evolved since 2007?
Yeah, I just realized I've been in NYC for about eight years now, which was never the plan. My plan was to stay here for no more than five years and then split. I don't know what happened. I feel very distant from the current SF since it's been taken over by Google, but there are plenty of neighborhoods that I used to spend time in that are mostly unchanged. But it's not the gritty SF I used to live in, and I miss that, and I feel like that city is very much in my past, and preserved in my memory as how it used to be and how I was at the time. Life was a lot more chaotic and unmanageable back then.
My life in New York is not stable, not at all, but I, as a person, am much more stable and present, and the issues that made life hard in SF have mostly resolved themselves. Sometimes I feel much more in touch with New York as a city than I did with San Francisco, because although I felt like SF was my home, I wasn't able to take much time to appreciate the city itself, and to stop and think about my life there. I was too busy plowing through it, as one is wont to do in their early 20s. But I try to take the time to appreciate living in NY and what the city has to offer since I realize how important that is; however, I'm guessing it also has to do with knowing my life here isn't permanent. I feel like I'm starting to go on an unrelated and existential tangent so I'm gonna stop answering this question now.
You include many of your comics that predate "Fart Party" in "Museum of Mistakes." They're very raw. What compelled you to include such formative strips?
I never intended to show those comics until I put together the anthology and I realized they were incredibly important to my current work. They were my first attempts at cartooning, and the only comics I made without any idea anyone would ever see them. The regular "Fart Party" strips had the same rawness, but I knew they'd be on the Internet, at least. The ones before that, I never intended for those to ever leave my sketchbook, so they're as raw and uninformed as they could possibly be, which I think it fascinating. And as raw as they are, they still have the same tone to them, so you can see how I've hardly changed the writing at all. It might have been a self-indulgent mistake to put them in there, but then again, like I said, I do what I want and what amuses me, so that's all that matters in the end. If readers don't like those pages, they can rest assured there are only a few of them.
These days you seem focused on Adventure Bible School, your urban exploring blog. For those who are new to it, what is Adventure Bible School? And why that name?
Adventure Bible School is a blog about urban exploring (exploring abandoned places) that includes photographs and the history of the location, and occasionally comics about my experience exploring a place. I've always liked abandoned places, but only got seriously into photographing them and going on a regular basis in the last few years when I took a break from comics after finishing "The Infinite Wait." I was burned out; I needed a break, but I also needed to keep creating something, so I started that blog. There's never been point in my life where I wasn't making something, even if "on break." Even before I got into comics, I'd always be working on some craft thing, or playing instruments or building a janky Rube Goldberg in my room. So Adventure Bible School is my "break" from comics, but it's a very elaborate, difficult break. It requires a lot of time and hard work. It's very physically demanding to explore some of these places, especially asylums, where you spend all day crawling through tunnels and dilapidated buildings. It involves travel, hiking, camping, being out in the cold or the heat for fourteen hours straight, being dirty, miserable and on your feet all day. It's the antithesis of cartooning. It's great, I love it. The name comes from a bible camp I attended every summer as a kid. I just took it and repurposed it for my own amusement.
Your last book, "The Infinite Wait and Other Stories," came out in 2012. What can fans look forward to next?
Right now, I'm illustrating someone else's book for the first time, which I believe will come out a year from now, but I'll finish working on it in March. I took the job because a) I needed money b) I like the girl whose book it is, and c) it's a fun challenge and I wanted to do something different for a change.
I'm also working on some of my own stuff, a few different projects at once, one of which will be released in 2016, but I can't say which one because I don't know. I'm working on three different things at once, it just depends on which one I finish first, and right now I have no idea.