To understand how I got there, we need to go back one year…
-Julia Wertz, Drinking at the Movies
Julia Wertz was a cartoonist living in a walk-in closet in San Francisco until guripped with wanderlust she packed up and moved to Brooklyn. It would be a romantic journey of discovery in a new and exciting city were it not for the terrible apartments, troublesome street bums, and succession of crappy job after crummy job. It would be a dark, harrowing tale of substance abuse and self-destruction were it not for the black comedy, snappy retorts, and sarcastic bon mots laced through out. It’s Drinking at the Movies; and it’s the sort of story that could only come from the Dorothy Parker of mini-comics, Julia Wertz.
Drinking is now her fourth book, following the anthology I Saw You… and two collections of her autobiographic comic, Fart Party. Published by Three Rivers Press, it collects Wertz’s strips about her new life with new material to tell the story of her new life, with all the pitfalls and pratfalls laid bare on the page.
“It could have easily been Fart Party vol 3,” said Wertz, “except that I tried to make it more of a linear story line than the previous collections, and the overall tone is different. But none of the differences are significant enough to separate it completely from the others. I basically took a bunch of sketchy diary comics and fleshed them out to 9 panel pages that, together, make the story of the first year and a half I was in New York, without jumping around in time or the nonsensical tangents that appear in the Fart Party books. It’s all a learning process for me. And it works for what it is, and to illustrate how I was processing things during that time of my life, which was scattered and boozey. Maybe that’s why it works though, because the format reflects my mindset at the time.”
“Or maybe it doesn’t work at all,” she adds, “I don’t know!”
Although presented in a humorous tone, DatM has a number of dark elements to it, such as Julia’s brother disappearing back home and her rising awareness of a drinking problem. Despite this, the book coats the pain in a wry comedic voice like a smooth gelcap. “Seriousness and comedy go hand in hand to me. That’s how I function in real life, so that’s how I use them in the comics. There is usually something funny in everything shitty, even if it’s just the ridiculousness of the situation itself.”
In the past decade, autobiographical comics has boomed in the indy comics world. Among those she considers her contemporaries, Wertz names Corinne Mucha, Liz Prince, Gabrielle Bell, Vanessa Davis, Ken Dahl, Sarah Glidden, Joe Matt, Domitille Collardy, Ariel Shrag, and Jeffrey Brown “ …Oof, there are so many, it’s a constantly growing pool and it’s interesting to see how each cartoonist does it, since comics have more elements than literature. Although it seems that for every great autobio comic out there, there’s an equally horrible counterpart. But I guess that’s how it works in any medium.” “Ugh,” she gripes, “what I just said is like saying nothing.”
Despite her self-deprecation and candor, the Fart Party creator’s perseverance and productivity have landed her in the coveted position of drawing funny pictures for a living. But drawing cartoons about eating poorly and not doing laundry is not the laid-back leisure activity it might seem. “I’ve learned that I’m only good at writing in the morning, drawing in the afternoon and at night, I’m not good at anything. I’ve got a window of about 3-4 really productive hours right after breakfast and about 5 hours of spaced out drawing/inking after lunch and then as soon as the sun goes down, I’m basically useless. Unfortunately that’s also when I do most of my socializing.”
Besides just making the pretty pictures, setting up the pace of her biting satire takes equal work and dedication. “I’ve also learned that if I want to delve into more linear comickery, I need to work a lot harder. Doing 4 panel, gag style Fart Party comics is easy. Doing an onrunning narrative takes a lot more skill than I currently have, so I need to buckle down and start writing more before I draw. I have tendency to just jump right into a comic before really thinking it through. It’s served me well in the past, but not so much in the direction I want to take it.”
Although the move from California to New York had major impact on her life, Wertz sees her creative development continuing on a steady progression, uninterrupted by any sort of hiccup of craft. “I don’t particularly think that the move itself has changed my writing and art. It looks different from when I started, but that’s just the natural progression that comes from doing something constantly. The only thing NY has really provided me with material wise is a more colorful background for my exploits. I actually didn’t start to have any new perspectives on my life until I STOPPED looking at my work or infusing it in everything I did or the way I processed events and situations. I had to separate from it entirely for awhile in order to really take a look at what I’d done and what I was doing with my life.
The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the self-awareness that comes from producing an autobiographic work is not all cotton candy and roller coasters. “I looked back at my work and mostly was just sort of appalled at the person I was just a few short years ago. It’s exhausting to read my own work. I just want to punch my character in the face and tell her to knock it off and get her shit together. That might be the pitfall of doing diary comics though, because I document things as they happen without time to look back and reflect. It might feel good to just get it down on paper, but it doesn’t really provide any insights or new perspectives when I’m dealing with immediate material.
However when I’m working on material from my childhood, I definitely see things I didn’t see before,” adds Wertz. “I start to relate to my parents more, and see how difficult things must have been for them at times. I’m constantly bowed over by my mother’s resilience and making comics about my story helps show that. And it helps to just open up a more general, non-self centered picture of my childhood, which is the basis for who I am, so in the process I learn quit a bit about all the hidden elements that were in play that made me the person I am, that previously might have languished in the obscurity of memory had I not put them onto paper.”
Wertz hopes to continue producing work in mini-comics, the format she got her start in. “I like minis, they’re just really time consuming and financially inefficient. Although, that is the nature of comics, so I can’t really complain.” Also in the works is another linear book like Drinking, continuing on with the next year’s worth of events. “The next book has even more darker elements but I also think it might be funnier. Even when I’m going through something really hard, I recognize when things arise that are funny, and I never take myself too seriously. And I just fucking love to laugh. That’s all.
Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago, the Petticoat Junction to Brooklyn’s Green Acres. His writing has appear in print internationally. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org