Monday, March 15, 2021

Checking In With John Porcellino

Let's take a look at some of John Porcellino's output from the last year. The long-time force between highly influential mini King-Cat Comics and Stories, Porcellino has been publishing it continuously since 1989, although a host of health problems and struggles have slowed his output. Indeed, he published 50 issues of the comic in just seven years and only thirty more in the past 24. However, Porcellino's mastery of his art makes each new issue an event. Along the way, Porcellino also completed several books apart from his minicomic, including his epic memoir The Hospital Suite. Readers of his work will know just how difficult it became for him to draw and how part of his journey as an artist has been finding his way through mental and physical illness.

Before I review the most recent King-Cat, let's celebrate the welcome news that his previous collections from Drawn & Quarterly are being reprinted in a slightly different size and format. The first volume has already been published: King-Cat Classix, covering King-Cat #1-50. The new version is in softcover (as opposed to the original's hardcover) and slightly smaller page size. Neither of these changes has much of an impact on the material; in fact, Porcellino's work feels more natural in a softcover collection. The actual comics see the author as a young man finding novel ways to express himself. Many of the strips were about his experience as a mosquito abatement technician, and they were also collected elsewhere. Some of the strips about high school were collected in Perfect Example, which is also getting reprinted by D&Q. 

From a craft perspective, it's fascinating to watch his line and style evolve with relentless drawing. Like many young cartoonists, he didn't have a real sense of what he was doing in his early years, and the result is a lot of wonky drawings that he attempted to support in his earliest years with some over-rendering and spotting blacks. Eventually, he abandoned that approach and simply let his drawings be as she slowly refined and simplified his line. By the end of the volume, Porcellino is close to his modern style, creating an almost serene line ideal for his more frequent zen and poetic strips. While his best work was certainly yet to come, the raw enthusiasm on the page is exciting to follow. Fans of the artist who haven't examined this work should certainly take a look, understanding that in the early 90s, these comics were a powerful influence on a network of like-minded young cartoonists.

It's fascinating to compare it to King-Cat #80, the most recent issue from November of 2020. Porcellino's absolute mastery over his line is evident on every page, even in an issue that has a relaxed pace. Porcellino has noted that each issue has its own character, understanding that some might not have as many emotionally powerful stories as his most memorable work. Those issues aren't filler so much as a way of documenting and respecting quieter times. 

That's especially true since Porcellino is in a pleasantly domestic and quiet period of his life. He notes in the beginning that he married Stephanie, his partner of nearly a decade. The ups and downs of his relationships have always been a part of his work, but Stephanie's presence has always been more subtle. Indeed, King-Cat now is much less about relationships than it is about what they share together on a daily basis, especially their many pets. Porcellino has always been interested in nature, but his reports on the flora and fauna of South Beloit now occupy a significant amount of his attention as an artist.

In this issue, for example, the opener concerns a beloved Porcellino staple; the changing of seasons. The dawn of spring, the jack-in-the-pulpits blooming are typical of the sort of thing Porcellino always appreciated, but there are extra little notes about appreciating the smell of the kitchen after Steph made coffee and taking his dog Iris outside to listen to the birds. There's a powerful sense of belonging and gratitude evident in this story, as he spends a few moments outside before starting his day. Listening is a key element in this issue; there are strips about listening to nature and trucks with the same ears, and another strip about hearing his cat purr on his chest while they listened to the mice scratching in the walls. His line is especially spare in that latter strip, yet it's still powerfully evocative--especially as part of the larger theme.

Porcellino's love of animals fills this issue up. There's a brief note about the death of he and Steph's dog Gibby--an event so painful that he wasn't ready to draw him again just yet. However, that segued into them getting a new rescue they named Arlo, who fit right into their menagerie of cats and dogs. There are the usual "nature notes" of animals he spots, specifics about their pets (like their beloved toys), a fascinating list of dreams, letters, and his usual Top 40 list. This is a long-held part of the rhythm of the typical issue of King-Cat, and the way he arranged so many features around the death of a pet and how he coped with it tell their own story in a tacit manner. It's a familiar Porcellino trope, but it's also clear how comforting embracing nature in its most sublime manner is healing for him.

There's a moment in a story about setting up bird and squirrel feeders in the yard where Porcellino stops and acknowledges, "During the quarantine I move even slower, pausing to breathe, to feel fresh air, to let the sunlight warm me." That's what this issue is all about, embracing and leaning into that slowness. That includes a very funny anecdote about warming his cold feet in bed with Steph; Porcellino rarely does gags but has always had a sly, observational sense of humor. That's preceded by an observation and memory of his sick mother, as well as a childhood memory of a neighbor who used to give them ice cream--a pleasantly visceral memory. Porcellino deliberately spends very little time on the past in this issue, but it's as though the warmth he built up prior to this gave him permission to do so. The issue ends in fall in a story that echoes the opener--smelling the seasons changing and spending time with his dog while doing so. The final image is of a one-page comic celebrating the plants on the hill being born, being greeted by the hill, and dying, mourned by the hill. It's a bittersweet grace note that acknowledges the inevitability and fleeting nature of beauty and mortality. 

Porcellino's other recent mini was Christmas Stories, from January 2020. This comic is exactly what it sounds like, with three short stories. "From A Buick '66" is about one of his oldest memories at Christmas time. There's an absolutely perfect panel depicting the wild child energy he felt of him with his mouth and eyes wide open, agog with anticipation. The actual memory--of seeing Santa pull up in a big car and go across the street--is funny and full of awe at the same time. "Mysterious Gift" is all about outsmarting yourself when you think you know what you're getting at Christmas, with a wonderful full-page punchline. The final piece, "Ho, Ho, "Ho" is a now somewhat infrequent memory of his college days when he was partying pretty hard. He had promised to play Santa for a bunch of kids on Christmas eve and promptly forgotten about it, but he showed up extremely hung-over and did the job. These wilder tales are as matter-of-fact as any kind of memory Porcellino writes about, but it was clear that the humor involved made it a pleasure. It also gave him another chance to do drawings of children unhinged by Christmas. It's a genuine pleasure to isolate specific Porcellino images on the page as well as see them in their larger context. That speaks to his understanding of a cartoonist on how the micro and macro moments interact with each other, and how even the smallest moments accrue into larger truths. 

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