Talking comics with Julia Wertz
I first encountered Julia Wertz with her 2010 graphic memoir “Drinking at the Movies,” a relentless and, at times, lacerating self-portrait of the artist as a young woman wrestling with alcohol.
“Drinking at the Movies” was not Wertz’s first autobiographical comic — her earlier work is gathered in two collections, “The Fart Party Vol. 1” and “The Fart Party Vol. 2” — but it represents a bridge between the narrow form of the comic strip (many of its chapters are a single page) and a more long-form approach to storytelling, as well as a very funny and moving exploration of a troubled time.
Wertz’s new book, “The Infinite Wait and Other Stories” (Koyama Press: 228 pp., $15 paper) continues her investigations, collecting three extended narratives — first person comics about work, the lure of libraries, and the artist’s struggles with lupus (she was diagnosed at 20) — that grow out of the material in “The Fart Party” and “Drinking at the Movies.”
Recently, Wertz and I corresponded by email about the book, the art of comics and the challenges of self-expression in a culture of commodification.
In “The Infinite Wait,” you describe getting into comics when you were first diagnosed with lupus. Had you been a writer or a reader before that?
I was really into comics as a kid, but comics like “Garfield,” “Calvin & Hobbes” and even bad newspaper comics. But it never seemed like something I’d be interested in doing, or even interested in reading as I got older, until I discovered the whole world of alternative comics for adults. When I was 20 and was diagnosed with lupus, I had to spend a lot of time in bed, and that’s when I found a few graphic novels by Julie Doucet, Will Eisner and others at the San Francisco Public Library. I’d always been an avid reader and a writer of many terrible short stories and poems, but I’d felt like something was missing in my writing. It wasn’t until I saw how imagery could help construct and condense written narrative that I realized my problem with writing was rambling and odd tangents. I could not self-edit and my writing skills were dubious to say the least. But once I tried telling stories with drawings, the art did the editing for me and I was able to see what was important and what was nonsense, and suddenly the stories I wanted to write came much easier. Well, easier in the writing sense, not in the time sense. Turning writing into a comic is the least time efficient way to tell a story.
Your drawing style is rough-hewn, unpolished, which makes it more intimate, as if we are looking at a diary or a sketchbook. How did it develop?
It’s unintentional in the sense that I never went to art school or learned any technical skills, so the roughness comes out of just not being very good at drawing. But the simplicity of the art is intentional. I don’t remember who said this, but the more simplistic a drawing, the easier it is for readers to project themselves into it. When the art is overly complicated, it might look pleasing, but it isolates the reader, making them feel as though they’re reading a story that is completely someone else’s. My stories are personal, but they’re also ubiquitous experiences that I want people to identify with. The stories that mean the most to me as a reader are ones where I share a common thread, so I wanted that to be an element of the way I portrayed my world through comics. Autobiographical work is inherently fairly self-centered, but hearing that it helped someone get through something alleviates the guilt, which is also a self-centered thing to say, but it’s true.
I’m struck by your use of the phrase “comic novellas” to describe the three long stories in “The Infinite Wait.”
I used that phrase in jest. I never meant for it to stick. I said it with the intention of making fun of myself and the various labels comics are given. It’s way too pretentious for me to use in earnest. I went with the theme of the title, which is also a joke. I was riffing on nonsense titles, which I define as any title that’s a turn of phrase, a cliché or a poetic coupling that tells the reader absolutely nothing about the content of the book. Patton Oswalt has a great bit about this, in which he claims “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to be the best title ever since it tells you where, what and how. These vague titles are pretty common right now in the literary world, especially in New York, and I roll my eyes every time I see one. I wanted people to pull this book off the shelf, thinking it’d be one of those books and then get a comic book instead. So when I use a phrase like “comic novellas,” you have to imagine me saying it in a really high pitched, fancy voice. If it becomes a phrase that sticks, I will refuse all credit and denounce it profusely.
And yet, “The Infinite Wait” has its writerly touches. The text is as essential as the art.
I know I’m better at writing than I am drawing, but I do consider myself both, since the drawing part takes up 90% of the time it takes to make a book like this. My art is often criticized but since I care more about the writing of stories, it doesn’t bother me. If it were the reverse, I’d be devastated. I’m much more apt to forgive bad art if the writing is solid, but if the writing sucks the art is meaningless to me. One thing I love about comics is the blurring of that line between writing and art when the two work in tandem.
The way I use art is actually a form of writing. I use the imagery to fill in the places where I can omit narrative, or to portray two different times in the character’s life on one page. Art in comics should always be intertwined with the narrative so that neither can function on their own. If the art only compliments or shows what the narrative is, it’s pointless. If a story can exist without the visual or the word bubbles in the visual, you might as well just write a novel.
I like the length of these stories. How did you come to it?
I decided to do “The Infinite Wait” as a series of short stories. I didn’t want to do a book entirely about having systemic lupus because to be honest, it wasn’t all that bad. I had one terrible year, but stretching that year into 200 pages would have been very tedious. And I like books that don’t have a solid tagline, or a nice neat beginning/middle/end. Comics is a much more lenient medium because it’s a small industry run mostly by small presses that allow cartoonists to break the rules far more than would traditional book publishers.
There are points of overlap between “The Infinite Wait” and your other books. Where you concerned about revisiting material readers might know?
I put in the references to the old books mostly as a way to tell long-time readers that I was aware I was covering old material, but I needed to put the new story into context. Sometimes I referenced a panel that basically summed up an entire book, so I figured I might as well note it so readers could read it if they wanted. It might have been a frivolous and/or distracting choice but I’m not concerned with that.
I see my books as an ongoing series, but I like to make sure each book can stand on its own. I certainly don’t expect people to have read all four books. Most people read just one or two. Sometimes I feel hesitant to cover old material but I try to write as though the reader has not read the previous books, since most of them haven’t. At the same time, all the books are intertwined and definitely create a clearer picture of my life when read together. But I don’t want to put the responsibility of that onto the reader. It’s my job to figure that out in the narrative.
In “The Infinite Wait,” you write about letting go of publishing and just doing your work. This is the only strategy for an artist — and yet, in a commodified culture, it can seem groundbreaking.
Doing one’s work and eschewing more financially beneficial options might seem groundbreaking to people who are used to consuming mass marketed things, but in the world of indie comics, it’s incredibly common. Comics, for the most part, are weird and nonsensical and have no place in a commodified culture. When I tried to work within the parameters of that culture, I felt restricted. I needed to go back to working without deadline restriction and having complete freedom to do the kind of book I wanted. I realized it’s more creatively beneficial to work on a book without any publishers or restrictions looming over me. It frees me to take the story wherever I want, and it’s under those conditions that I work best.
Where are you publishing lately? Do you have plans for another book?
I can’t really answer any of these questions since I’m sort of adrift right now, not working on a specific book and not publishing online, but instead working on side projects that may or may not go anywhere. It’s not a gratifying or financially stable place to be, but it feels right for the time being.
I have a lot of unpublished work. I actually spent over a year writing and drawing an entire 230-page book that is a follow-up to “Drinking at the Movies,” and then I shelved the whole thing and did “The Infinite Wait” in seven months and put that out instead. I still haven’t decided if I want to revisit it or not. And I have a bunch of short stories about my childhood that remain unpublished since I haven’t quite figured out where to put them. The danger of sitting on unpublished work is that as you grow as a writer and artist, it becomes an albatross. You want to have put it out already but you don’t want to put it out now, as it might appear a step backward. Also, my old work is embarrassing to read sometimes, especially when it covers a hardy chunk of my 20s, which is just an embarrassing time in general.
You expose a lot in your books: alcoholism, recovery, serious illness, sexuality. What are the risks and rewards of working so confessionally?
I think the confessional aspect is just an effect of doing autobio work. But I’m very careful about what I present and what I leave out. I omit a lot. I’ll let the reader into my head for a while, which seems very intimate and confessional, but then I’ll leave out huge chunks of time or difficult experiences I don’t want the public to know. Sometimes I find certain information doesn’t complement or complete the story, and can instead drag it down. For example, the story “The Infinite Wait” — about being diagnosed with systemic lupus — covers eight months, about four of which I spent most of my time in bed in pain and I fell into a deep depression. But I felt lingering on that was unnecessary. Everyone knows being sick sucks. I wanted to cover the subject with more humor because it’s tedious to read pages and pages of a person lying in bed and being boring and sad.
And there is plenty of family drama I’ve been asked not to include in the books. I try to honor my family’s wishes at least most of the time.
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