JOHN PORCELLINO interviewed by Express

Practice Makes Imperfect: 'King-Cat Classix'

Express    |    Christopher Porter    |    August 27, 2007

INSPIRED BY PUNK ROCK and the personal 'zine revolution, John Porcellino opened an artistic vein in 1989 and began to bleed his life on the printed page with "King-Cat Comics and Stories."
Porcellino would crank out hyper-personal tales about his life and more, all in a rough-and-ready black-and-white style that echoed the honesty and energy of the independent music that inspired him. His open-book life stories have covered his failed marriage, suffering from depression and an ongoing bout with a hearing disorder (hyperacusis) to his interest in Zen, nature, animals, music and beyond. In between the tales of woe are celebratory, often humorous accounts about the everyday man and the world around him, including falling in love over snapdragons.
And along the way this middle-class kid from Illinois began to meet like-minded souls, whose ideas about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness didn't fit in with mainstream America.
Now 39, Porcellino is still writing and drawing stories about his life, and still publishing "King-Cat" in a classic 'zine style: white paper, copy machine, staples.
While contemplating questions from Express, Porcellino suffered a loss that will almost certainly be chronicled in "King-Cat" in the future: The death of Maisie Kukoc, his beloved 16-year-old cat, who made frequent appearances in the 'zine.
Readers who want to catch up with Porcellino's world — and possibly see their own reflected back in his universal work — can buy "King-Cat Classix" (Drawn & Quarterly), a 386-page hardcover collection that cherry-picks a huge cross-section of works from 1989 to 1995.
Porcellino spoke to Express about "King-Cat Classix," his health, Zen and his upcoming projects.
» EXPRESS: How did you go about choosing the stories for the book?
» PORCELLINO: Well, there were certain stories, like "Ed the Happy Trucker" or "Leaves," that I knew all along should go in. Then I went back through all the old issues and made a list. I wanted to give a true overview of the "King-Cat" 'zine, so I tried to view things that way. Certain comics that weren't necessarily my favorite all-time comics, but that showed some interesting aspect of "King-Cat" history, I tried to include. I tried also to have a balanced selection of stories. Some comics I included because, though they might not be the best comic in the world, they mention or present some person or event that gets referenced in a later comic. That kind of "flow of time" — recurring themes, events, people, places — is one of the parts about "King-Cat" that people enjoy, so I tried to let that come through. Finally, I just had to make strictly editing choices, in terms of page count and so on.
» EXPRESS: I know you've always done dream cartoons, but it surprised me how many were in the book.
» PORCELLINO: I used to dream a lot more than I do now, and as I mention in the "King-Cat Classix" notes, dreams always seemed intuitively important to me — the dream state. As I've gotten older I find it harder to recall my dreams, and consequently there are less dream comics in "King-Cat" now.
» EXPRESS: How did you go from an agnostic-seeming, punk-loving suburban kid to Zen-loving, spiritually-aware mountain man? Did you have a "eureka" moment with Zen?
» PORCELLINO: Although outside characteristics have obviously changed, I think inside certain things have remained consistent. Maybe my perceptions have changed, but the essence is the same. I was always questioning, looking for answers. And to me there are a lot of parallels between punk and Zen: They're both focused on open-minded awareness, the ability to see beauty and meaning in everyday life, in the essence of life. In both punk and Zen there's no sugar-coating reality — you just work with whatever you have.

As for a "eureka" moment, no. I always say when I discovered Zen it was like finding an old pair of shoes in your closet, that you'd forgotten you had, and you put them on — and it's instantly just a perfect fit. They're already broken-in, ready to go.
» EXPRESS: Did your ear illness contribute to your search for serenity?
» PORCELLINO: Well, the hearing thing definitely forced me to slow down, kind of go within, maybe withdraw a little. So, yeah, it did kind of cause me to make some lifestyle changes that I'd wanted to make for awhile, but had kind of lacked the willpower to actually follow through with.
» EXPRESS: Has the hyperacusis ever gotten better?
» PORCELLINO: Yes, definitely, though I still need to be careful. No rock concerts or Harleys, but I'd say the hearing is about 80 percent improved. I've also gotten better at avoiding the situations that bother my ears, so that helps, too.
» EXPRESS: Since music is a huge part of your life, how did you deal with the hearing problems? Can you listen to music now?
» PORCELLINO: Well, it's certain tones and sounds in music that are worse than others. So, for awhile I listened mostly to old jazz, old country, Sinatra, etc. It took awhile, but now I can listen to rock and roll again, as long as the volume isn't too loud, or I push it too long. My old band actually just reunited for a one-off acoustic show here in Denver, so that was really nice.
» EXPRESS: Did you have other illnesses in addition to the hearing problem?
» PORCELLINO: The hyperacusis appeared in early '95. In '97 I got severely ill, with a benign tumor blocking my small intestine. It took a long time to diagnose, and I got very sick. This will be the story I cover in "The Hospital Suite." Although the tumor was removed successfully, I've never fully recovered from the experience. Since then I've dealt with numerous, complicated health problems — someday of course I hope to write about all this in "King-Cat."
» EXPRESS: When you look back on your early work, do you still feel connected to it? Or do you feel somewhat removed since the comics are from 10, 12, 15, 17 years ago?
» PORCELLINO: I feel connected to it, definitely — it's my life. It shows the movement of a life through time. That said, looking at a lot of that old work — it surprised me at times how uninhibited I was, how willing to throw it all out there, whatever it was. But despite the changes in attitude and styles, it does all feel like one thing to me.
» EXPRESS: Your comics are so personal and honest — sometimes shockingly so. Have you ever regretted publishing something personal in your 'zine?
» PORCELLINO: I don't know I've ever regretted something, no. I probably have looked back at times with a little embarrassment, or a sense of "I could've done this better or differently," but it's not regret. I think I've always felt this sense of "that's what it was at the time" and that the honest acceptance of things, of my own expression, has value in itself.

» EXPRESS: I know you had a bit of a manifesto about making your drawings quickly and not worrying too much about them. But I also know that you've improved greatly over the years. Have you ever thought about doing a more polished version of "King-Cat"?
» PORCELLINO: I guess, you can't do something that long without improving, or at least evolving. The drawings have certainly refined themselves over the years, sometimes I think at the expense of some spontaneity — it's a fine line there — that I always struggle with. But again, part of what I'm doing is just trusting the process — letting it lead me where it goes, So, now it's led me to this more refined approach, and that's OK; the unedited style is where I was supposed to be back then. I suppose that's what I believe.
» EXPRESS: Between 1989 and 1996 you published 50 issues; since then you've published 17. Why the slowdown in production?
» PORCELLINO: Some of it is just practical reasons: early issues were, like, 12 pages, including the covers. And there was no second guessing or self-editing going on. I'd simply write out the pages as fast as they came out of me, photocopy them and move on to the next thing. I think I did two issues a month for the first year or so. So they stacked up pretty quick.

Over the years I just naturally began to take more time with things, reworked things, drew a lot of comics that didn't make the final cut, so it took longer between issues. Plus, the issues became 20, 24, 32 or more pages long. So each "King-Cat" just had a lot more going into it. And finally, as I got older, and life got more complicated, that took time and energy away, too. I just wasn't an up-all-night madman anymore.
» EXPRESS: I connect with these stories on a personal level because we're the same age, have similar interests, backgrounds and points of reference, but how do you think a 20-something today — the age you were when most of the book's stories were written — will relate?
» PORCELLINO: Well, doing what I do — self-publishing and distributing the "King-Cat" 'zine — I'm fortunate to have contact with a lot of my readers. Many readers have grown up along with me and "King-Cat" — that's so great to me. But there are always new readers, and I hope that — even though "King-Cat" is about one guy's particular life — it's universal enough that lots of other people can relate. And that seems to happen. Circumstances and times change but that universal essence of being alive remains the same. So I think people of different ages and backgrounds can somehow find that, and relate to it. It's an amazing, humbling feeling when it happens.
» EXPRESS: Do you have a day job now? So many of your stories focused on the soul-destroying nature of grunt work.
» PORCELLINO: I've managed to get through the last year or so without a day job, but I'll probably have to give in sometime soon. I pay the bills now, barely, through selling "King-Cat," book royalties and making artwork for people.

» EXPRESS: What projects do you have coming up?
» PORCELLINO: "Thoreau at Walden" is a reflection of Thoreau's time at the pond, in comics form. For the text, I used all actual quotes from Thoreau's published writings. Thoreau is one of my biggest inspirations, so the opportunity to work with that material, in comics, was something I could never pass up. Due out Fall 2008, from Hyperion Books for Children.

"Map of My Heart" is an upcoming collection of the "King-Cats" I made while living in Elgin, Illinois, 1998 to 2002. "The Hospital Suite" is a long story about the illness I experienced over the summer of 1997. "Through the Year With Gordon the Fox" is a 2008 calendar published by Little Otsu of San Francisco.

And the next "King-Cat," No. 68, will be out shortly, within a couple months or so.

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