Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Beauty of Sloppiness: Julia Wertz's Museum Of Mistakes

In the original introduction that Peter Bagge wrote for the first Fart Party collection, he said of the webcomic proliferation of the early 2000's: "Some are professionally drawn, others cleverly written. Fart Party is neither...Yet both in spite of all that AND because of it, Fart Party is the best! It's very direct and funny and honest in a way that very, very few other comic strips ever are, and once you start reading Julia's strips, it's hard to stop."

As per usual, Bagge is right. Wertz breaks tons of rules with regard to what good cartooning is. The way characters relate to each other in space is awkward. The use of gesture is either underdeveloped or ham-fisted. There is frequently way too much text in a given panel. The thing is, none of that matters. This collection of Fart Party strips, unpublished strips, and assorted ephemera over the years is a document of how a young artist develops over time--not just with regard to drawing, but also their unique authorial voice. And no matter how sloppy her strips were, no matter how many typos there are (and there are many in this volume, including modern strips, and even on the title page!), none of that mattered. There is an enthusiasm and an immediacy in her drawings as Wertz shares her world with the reader, and the reader can't help but get swept along. Wertz world is an interesting place to be, and the hostess never runs out of stupid jokes, embarrassing anecdotes, hilarious stories, and glimpses of her pain. Her "definitive" Fart Party collection, Museum of Mistakes, includes the two original volumes and a great deal of additional material, including a note or two from 2020, updating her relationship and status as an expectant parent.

The one word I'd quibble with regarding Bagge's assessment of Wertz's comics is "honest." The concept of "honesty" in memoir is kind of a marketing device that allows for "authentic" voyeurism. It is meaningless. There is no such thing as "truth" in memoir, as the author's job is to tell a story, not recite every memory verbatim. And even if they did, it's only from one person's point of view. And Wertz herself noted that while all of the stories here are accurate, they are far from the complete picture of her life in her early 20s. She elides things like her lupus diagnosis, her older brother's addiction issues, her own alcoholism, and more that she hasn't been willing to share. Which is not to say that she should, but it should also be understood that memoir, like anything else, is a genre that demands something of a coherent story or well-threaded series of gags. In the parlance that Alex Hoffman coined, Wertz's autobio material is definitely "closed," meaning that Wertz only provides enough context to the reader to understand her jokes. 

Still, stuff bubbles up. Wertz writes about her tendency to isolate herself and her general social awkwardness that she masks with humor, attitude, and deflection. This give-no-fucks attitude is the essence of her humor, but it's also the core of a coping mechanism that went a few rounds too many. It's that need to keep others at arm's length that led to the extreme isolation that she touches on at the end of this book and details in Impossible People. The result was a whole lot of people who liked her, but few that she let in enough where she felt comfortable going to them. It reminds me a bit of reading John Porcellino's book The Hospital Suite, which reveals the true story behind his years of struggles with his physical and mental health that he just alluded to in the pages of King-Cat. When the artist is ready to share this different kind of story, it recontextualizes their entire body of work. For Wertz, it adds a weight to her silly comics that wasn't there initially but doesn't neutralize what people liked about them in the first place: a small, perpetually indignant malcontent who hilariously rails against the world, but one with an inherent sense of delight regarding so many things. 

While Wertz mostly lets things stand, warts and all, she does add context to a few things here and there. Mostly, she's content to let the book be what it is: funny, obnoxious, sloppy, and a portrait of a young person trying to figure things out in public. One can see not just her drawing and storytelling improve, but also her writing in general. In the chapter featuring strips for what might have been a third volume of Fart Party if Wertz hadn't chosen to do Drinking At The Movies, Wertz maintained her silliness and sense of enthusiasm, but there was clearly a different perspective as a humorist. "Perspective" is the keyword here. It's what made Drinking At The Movies and The Infinite Wait such excellent books, as Wertz had had a few years to consider the meaning of certain events in her life, unlike the immediacy of the Fart Party strips. I also think it's why it took so long for her to write (and finish) Impossible People; she needed time to process the events surrounding her initial rehab, struggles with sobriety, and the eventual lessons she learned about how reaching out to others is so crucial for one's mental health. 

In a sense, this is something she's done for a long time with the stories she's told in public, as they've clearly resonated with a number of readers. If immediacy was what made her early work stand out, it's her willingness to go all-in on providing context that makes her later (and current) comics so different from most memoirs. While there are any number of things that drive me crazy about Wertz's drawing (especially character design outside of her and a couple of other characters) and proofreading, her emphasis on storytelling and the complexity of her authorial voice make her a unique figure in the world of comics memoir. Museum Of Mistakes is a welcome document that allows the reader a chance to see how this voice gained its coherency and how talented she was as a storyteller even as she was still figuring out her style.

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