Drinking at the Movies

A Graphic Memoir

Julia Wertz

Three Rivers Press: 192 pp., $15 paper

"On the day I turned twenty-five," Julia Wertz tells us at the beginning of "Drinking at the Movies," her charming graphic memoir, "I came to consciousness at 3 a.m. in a twenty-four-hour Laundromat in Brooklyn, New York, eating Cracker Jacks in my pajamas. … To understand how I got there, we need to go back one year… "

For Wertz, this admission — accompanied by a full-page black-and-white self-portrait, dazed and confused — operates as both entry point and metaphor, a bold yet subtle statement of her displacement in the world.

What does it mean to find oneself in such a situation? Or to reveal it in such offhand terms? Wertz explores these questions with a vivid sense of self-exposure, tracing, in drawings and language that are direct, even blunt, in their lack of affect, how she came to that particular pass.

Wertz — creator of the ongoing first-person comic "The Fart Party" — works well in the short form; she can be silly and irreverent, and understands the power of the punch line. Yet, in "Drinking at the Movies," the saga of her move from San Francisco to New York, she's after something more expansive. This makes for an interesting tension: a full-length work that presents itself as a series of vignettes, many just a page or two in length, adding up to an impressionistic year-in-the-life.

For Wertz, humor often yields to gentle desperation as she seeks in physical distance (she grew up in the Bay Area) what she cannot find within herself. This makes for a story comfortably without resolution, one that subtly subverts the expectations of the memoir even as her drawing style — blocky, simple, with a deceptive lack of polish — speaks to the rough-hewn intimacy of the form.

In that sense, "Drinking at the Movies" reads as a sketchbook, a quality Wertz enhances with her matter-of-fact headings: "Just Another Monday," one declares, while another, "Living in Greenpoint," introduces six panels that evoke her Brooklyn neighborhood.

Such an aesthetic, to be sure, has long been a staple of autobiographical comics. Without it, there would be no Harvey Pekar or Joe Matt — both of whose work Wertz's resembles in a way.

Like Pekar, she can find the narrative in the most vestigial activities (job hunting, apartment sitting); like Matt, she is laceratingly self-revealing, exposing her failings with a glee that borders on the perverse.

In "Nothing Turns Out Right," she describes her inability to do anything according to plan: "I should have done laundry …" she notes, "… run errands and eaten a healthy dinner … but I just ordered take-out and didn't get anything done."

Wertz, though, isn't satisfied merely to record her self-indulgence — she means to comment on it too. "Oh please, like there was any other way to end this comic," she snarls in the final panel, addressing us directly, her tone familiar and resigned. Such a moment suggests that we are in it together, artist and reader, person to person, sharing the dirty details of her life.

That this is an illusion goes without saying; even the most casual art is still art. Wertz highlights this by occasionally slipping the bounds of realism altogether.

In one sequence, she imagines her brain literally abandoning her, popping open the top of her skull when it has had enough. In another, she portrays herself ambushed on the street by human-size bottles of liquor, which beat her up, then "go trash her apartment … and burn some bridges … and hit 'Reply all' instead of just 'Reply.' We'll show her who's boss!"

It's funny and outrageous, but also serious, since what Wertz is tracing is the difficulty of knowing how to live. That's a universal conundrum, and for all that the particulars are different for each of us, the essential condition, the tension between our best and worst instincts, remains the same.

Ultimately, Wertz gets herself straightened out — for the most part — as we knew she would. It's not giving anything away to say that; title to the contrary, this is not really a book about alcohol. Rather, it's about her development, her transition into adulthood ("Well, sort of"), which Wertz reveals with acuity and grace.

It is this that makes "Drinking at the Movies" such a quiet triumph, a portrait of the artist in the act of becoming, a story with heart and soul.

david.ulin@latimes.com