My New York Diary
Drawn & Quarterly ($14.95)
by Gary Sullivan
On The Comics Journal's ill-fated online bulletin board, a thread started up concerning women cartoonists and influence. Someone posted what seemed a fairly interesting, but hardly controversial, question: Has there been any appreciable influence by the ever-growing number of women participating in "underground" or "alternative" comics? A few names were suggested: Lynda Barry and Aline Kaminsky-Crumb being the most obvious. At first the responses were positive: women, several people wrote in to say, were largely responsible for at least one popular strand of the indy comic: the "autobiographical." Aline, for instance, had "obviously" gotten Robert to delve more into his personal life. But this was quickly and loudly disputed (Harvey Pekar, among other males, was brought up), and within a week the discussion disintegrated into name-calling and insult-topping. Clearly, a nerve had been hit.
The debate wasn't ever really what I'd call "settled." But I do have a sense, having spent an almost embarrassing amount of my days digesting comics (and comix) over the last quarter century, that women cartoonists do tend toward the confessional. Phoebe Gloeckner may be the first cartoonist--"though I'm certainly no historian"--to have dealt explicitly and seriously, using the mode of autobiography, with childhood sexual abuse. And no male cartoonists I can think of can match either Sharon Rudahl or her more popular heir Jessica Abel in getting beneath and really exploring the depths of what on the surface seem to be "simple friendships." Women--Jane Austen comes immediately to mind--have always had a keen sense of "the social." Compare Crumb's social complaints with, say, the late Dori Seda's. Crumb is consistently despondent, hurt, simultaneously insulting and self-deprecating. Seda is infinitely colder; she knows very well what's expected of her, and really of everyone; she simply refuses to conform, and willingly accepts the consequences.
Assuming you buy this admittedly gender-determined premise, it's likely that some part of Julie Doucet's charm--when she broke on the scene in the late '80s--was her absolute rejection of the autobiographical mode, of that kind of social examination and critique. She was a punk, the Kathy Acker of the independent comic book world; she drew pictures of herself cutting men up. Her drawings were primitive-looking, but intensely intricate, heavy on the black spaces, with lots of marginal characters (animated hotdogs, beer cans, even fire hydrants"all with arms and legs). Like Samuel Beckett she translated her French into English; unlike Beckett, her native tongue wasn't English (and it showed). She became a kind of cult figure, but her "quarterly" comic book, Dirty Plotte, appeared with less and less frequency. And in Dirty Plotte #7 she made a confession: "it is very hard and stressful for me to come up with new inventive ideas all the time . . . that's why I asked some of my favorite fellow friends cartoonists to help me fill out those 24 pages." In Dirty Plotte #8 we saw the results: Doucet's dwindling output was buffeted with contributions by Brad Johnson, Brian S., Spit, Fej Noznihoj (Jeff Johnson?!?), and others. This obviously wasn't to her fans' or her publisher's satisfaction: the next issue, Dirty Plotte #9, was purely Julie. But the issues were now coming a year apart. Had Doucet dried up?
Thankfully, no. With Dirty Plotte #10, Doucet began serializing her "New York Diary," a first-person account of 1991, the year she spent in New York City. Newly released in book form, it's an extraordinary document--especially for anyone who has attempted to get a foothold in the Big Apple since rents skyrocketed in the '80s.
Doucet moves from Montreal to Washington Heights, Manhattan"specifically, 75 Fairview Avenue, Apartment 3B. "The road goes up a hill," Doucet writes, "and on one side of it is what looks like a dump . . . it's actually the people living up the hill who are throwing their garbage out of their windows!" She's moved, like numerous women have over the years, to be with her boyfriend, who"as the serial goes on we're told--refuses to leave New York City. Just north of Harlem, Washington Heights--though it's become at least somewhat fashionable in the late '90s--was, at the time of Doucet's move, racially mixed, but largely lower class. (Okay, so I'm being politick: People I know who lived there then tell me it was a crack zone.) The apartment is a dump: Doucet's boyfriend tells her that "somebody broke into [the mailboxes] just a few days ago . . . the mailman won't deliver letters anymore!" Though this no doubt sounds like hyperbole to anyone who hasn't lived here, mail service, depending on where in the five boroughs you live, is not something New Yorkers necessarily take for granted.
Doucet and her boyfriend quickly begin to establish unhealthy relationship patterns. Instead of mutually working on their cartoon projects, they watch TV and do various drugs (LSD, cocaine, alcohol, and "whippets," which they get in boxes of 20 from their local bodega). They almost never go out (she's afraid to walk around in the neighborhood alone), spending most of their time home together, intoxicated. Deadlines encroach; the drugs and stress trigger a number of Doucet's epileptic seizures; her boyfriend is seemingly understanding, though he waves off any culpability. The serial becomes quickly and increasingly claustrophobic. When Doucet expresses a desire to go out to a RAW party, the boyfriend dismisses it--"it's at Limelight--that place really sucks"--though they both wind up going, thanks to Doucet's insistence. She becomes pregnant, and almost instantaneously miscarriages. The boyfriend becomes increasingly jealous: of Doucet's "success," but also of the most innocuous infrequent phone calls from her Montreal friends. Slowly but surely, Doucet realizes she's got to get out of this situation.
Her dream is to live in the East Village, something she never winds up doing. Instead, an acquaintance at the weekly New York Press finds her a share in Brooklyn. She leaves without telling her boyfriend, who's now given to sobbing fits--"I can't take it anymore! I'm going to start shooting heroin again!"--and stays in Brooklyn with literature students she "doesn't have much in common with." She stays there for about five months, then leaves for Seattle. It's a shame Doucet didn't stay in Brooklyn. There have been at least two recent Xeric award winners in this borough, not to mention Ariel Schrag, Bob Fingerman, and Rebecca Levi. "This city," Doucet writes, "is not for me. It's too much of a big scary and merciless place to live," which is, I'd argue, all the more reason for Doucet to have stayed here. It's odd to think of a woman who became famous for graphically cutting up men finding New York City "scary and merciless," but, of course, we are not necessarily the fictions we disseminate. The Julie Doucet of Dirty Plotte's #1-9 might be a fanciful version of the Julie Doucet of Dirty Plotte's #10-12, or My New York Diary.
Which, as a fan, is a little hard to swallow. It's an odd sort of irony that the Julie Doucet I fell in love with is much tamer, and much more damaged, than what I used to imagine was the "real" Julie Doucet. I still love her: if nothing else, for taking one of the great Boston poet John Wieners's dictums: "Write about the most embarrassing thing you can think of," to its obvious conclusion. Doucet abandoned in "My New York Diary" her more fanciful impulses--there's not a single animated hotdog, beer can or fire hydrant--but I suspect we'll see, in her future comics, some return. It's the highest compliment you could pay any creative person and I really do wonder: What's next?
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999