365 DAYS reviewed by The Gazette Books Section

Julie Doucet is more engaging than ever

The Gazette    |    Anne Chudobiak    |    February 9, 2008

St. Lambert native Julie Doucet first came to international attention while she was still in her 20s.

In 1991, only six months and three issues into its official run, her alternative comic book series, Dirty Plotte, got a plug from one of the most unlikely places: the mainstream U.S. magazine Entertainment Weekly.
Sixteen years later, people are still talking about Doucet, who has long since expanded her repertoire. Her newest English-language book, 365 Days, (first published in French in 2004 as Journal) is an illustrated diary chronicling one year in her life, post-comics. It showcases a lot of the same storytelling and drawing skills as did her earlier work, but is being billed as an all-new hybrid art form.

Although she has done away with some comic conventions, e.g., thought bubbles, the real change seems to have been in sensibility. The most memorable scenes from her early work are the most outrageous. What stands out now is her restraint.

Doucet once drew herself spilling her own guts onto a sidewalk in a strip called The Artist. This level of drama and gore was typical of her early work. In 365 Days, she turns her focus to the more literal, less obviously dramatic challenges of both the artistic life and life in general, as in this entry about housework from the first day of spring 2003: "I took my courage in both hands and went to the Laundromat to do my washing. I had to use three machines." In hands as skilled as these, everything, even laundry, becomes entertaining.

It would seem that, over the course of her career, "courage" has taken on a new meaning. Before, in the notoriously male-dominated world of comics, she was a girl beating the boys at their own game, with some of the rawest comics around. She often drew herself naked and exposed. The new Julie still has some of her old vulnerability, but the way Doucet draws her nipples - which are made painfully apparent to the reader from beneath Julie's cotton camis and wool sweaters - also signals a new toughness: this is no pushover.
Although it must have taken Doucet, the comic book artist, a lot of courage to tackle all of the taboos that she did in seminal collections like Lift Your Leg, My Fish is Dead! and My Most Secret Desire, Doucet, the graphic memoirist, is bolder still: she's not afraid of any topic, no matter how small or unassuming. She has to trust that her readers won't balk at her domestic details, that they will see the humour in a monumental trip to the laundromat.

What makes this all the more courageous is that 365 Days is essentially an improvised book. Doucet had to take it on faith that she'd be able to make something readable out of her daily life in the year she set aside for this project. (Every morning, she'd write about the previous day.) This uncertainty about where the book was headed gives it a momentum that's unusual for a diary, as Julie confronts various obstacles with potential French- and English- language publishers.

In one entry, Doucet deadpans: "It's still raining.
I caught a cold and didn't have time to work on my autobiography." An autobiography in itself is a pretty big project, but, in Doucet's case, it's even bigger. The autobiography of her childhood,
J comme je, which has since been published in France, was written, beginning in 2003, with words cut out from magazines. Will she have the further audacity to translate it into English herself, as she did with this diary? That must have been quite the task, not just because of the difficulties of translating into one's second language, but because of the technical constraints of working with hand lettering. The English text had to take up exactly the same space as the French - not easy!
But Doucet is no normal diarist. Her dreams, as big as they are, tend to come true. "It's not because I'm lucky," she said in a 2006 interview. "I work very hard."

The Julie persona has grown up over the years, and Doucet, now 42, has honed her skills along the way. Her early work was brilliantly out-there, but the plain-Jane detail of 365 Days is, surprisingly, more engaging.

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