Newsarama | Daniel Robert Epstein | August 19, 2006
Newsarama interviews John Porcellino!
John Porcellino has been creating and self-publishing his autobiographical comic book, King-Cat Comics and Stories, since 1989. its only been in the past few years that he made the decision to collect one of the stories into a trade paperback. That book, Perfect Example, has just been released by Drawn & Quarterly and puts Porcellino into the company of creators like Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown.
Perfect Example is about Porcellino’s high schools years and specifically tackles his pivotal summer before college. John, at 17 years old, lives in Illinois and is trying to figure out how relationships with girls and even friends at work while also dealing with his chronic depression.
Newsarama caught up with Porcellino to discuss his books past, present and future.
Newsarama: So John, what are you up to today?
John Porcellino: I was at work and then I’ve been dealing with the printers that I’m using to print my comics.
NRAMA: What’s your day job?
JP: I work in a health food store and I’m actually doing nutritional consulting and things like that.
NRAMA: Are you trying to become a nutritionist?
JP: When I graduate in a few months; I’ll be a certified nutritionist.
NRAMA: How did Perfect Example get to Drawn and Quarterly?
JP: Perfect Example was originally released by Highwater Books in 2000 and Highwater is gone now. I believe it was one of the first books that they did. I’d been self-publishing for so many years and Tom had always been supportive of me, so when he started Highwater, it seemed like that it would be a good fit. Perfect Example was something I thought that might work as a book so I approached Tom about that in 1998 and we finally got it out in the spring of 2000. I’m still self-publishing, I just finished the new issue of King Cat and it should be out any day. But I’m definitely hoping to work with other people.
NRAMA: So you’re open to doing issues with a company?
JP: Honestly, I thought about it because it’s a lot of work. But for whatever reason, I feel comfortable self-publishing. I grew up in a do it yourself kind of thing, so having that kind of handle on things is pretty important to me. But working with the business end of things is also kind of enjoyable to me and also just practical. By publishing King Cat myself, I’ve probably earned a little bit better living that I would have it was published by an outside publisher.
The last time I thought about going with a publisher was last night when I was dealing with the printer. But at this point it just seems right to me to keep doing what I do.
NRAMA: Did you change or fix anything for the Drawn & Quarterly edition of the book
JP: No, I can’t say that I did. I think the cover design’s a little bit nicer and there’s an updated biography in the back of the book but otherwise it should be pretty similar to the Highwater version, just hopefully get a little bit better distribution. I really wanted the book to stay in print so I’m happy that Drawn and Quarterly was willing to do it.
NRAMA: Did you meet [Drawn and Quarterly publisher] Chris Oliveros at a convention?
JP: Yeah, I actually did approach him the first time about it in 2004. Perfect Example had just gone out of print I knew Tom was having difficulties with Highwater so it seemed like it would make sense to go with somebody else.
NRAMA: I read at one point you didn’t want to read other autobiographical comics.
JP: I was talking about specifically about American Splendor and when I first started doing King Cat, which was in 1989, there weren’t that many people doing autobiographical stuff. So a lot of people would inevitably say “Oh, have you read American Splendor, you should really read Harvey Pekar. You’d really like it, it’s kind of similar,” or whatever. I had my own thing going on and I kind of wanted to make sure it was my own thing and it didn’t get influenced by somebody else. But after a certain point, there are so many people doing autobiographical comics and now I read and love a lot of them.
NRAMA: You and Harvey are radically different from each other, don’t you think?
JP: Yeah it’s definitely two different things. Maybe I can see more of a similarity with my earlier autobiographical stuff but now it’s evolved over the years to what it is now. I like American Splendor a lot but it’s a different approach for sure.
NRAMA: Do you like the other Drawn and Quarterly guys?
JP: You can’t go wrong with the people that they do work with. I was a little bit hesitant when I first approached Chris because I didn’t know if he would like my stuff but I guess he does.
NRAMA: How would you describe Perfect Example?
JP: It’s the story of the summer after I graduate high school, before I went to college and that particular point in my life was crucial for me. I think that a lot of my personality developed at that point, a lot of my individuality and it was a pretty difficult time for me, and I think it was a difficult time for a lot of people, whatever generation you are in. So I had this true story which I thought was pretty good and I also felt that it was a universal thing where a lot of people could relate to my experiences and that was kind of my motivation for doing that book.
NRAMA: Is it a “Perfect Example” of who you are?
JP: Yeah and “Perfect Example” is the title of a song by a band called Husker Du. They called it post-punk at the time. They were a big influential band on my life at that time in particular. The story itself was “Perfect Example” of the things that people go through at that point and how they deal with it. But also when I was working on the story I really didn’t know what it was going to be called and that particular song was always kind of poignant for me. When it came on and I got the song stuck in my head, “Perfect Example is all the things it’s done for me, I think I might lose my mind but not my memory.” As soon as I heard those lines again, I was like “that’s what I should call it”.
NRAMA: How true is the book in terms of real life?
JP: Well it’s interesting. I actually contacted a lot of the people who are in the story and there were a number of them who I had not spoken to in about ten years. I basically interviewed a lot of people about specific instances I was writing about in the book and asked for their take on things. Then I took pretty copious notes on what everybody wrote. I was kind of surprised that a lot people remember things completely differently than me. They would remember the same events but would have a different perspective or a different take on it. They would emphasize some detail of the event that I kind of glossed over or forgotten. That’s a long way of saying that it’s true that these events really happened but it’s also my individual perspective on those events. Everybody involved could have written a different book with the same events and that’s just the nature of writing your life. I don’t know that you could be completely objective. In the process of telling a story too, I try to be truthful and be accurate but I also realize I owe myself a certain creative flexibility with how am I going to tell this story and deemphasizing or emphasizing certain elements of it to make a larger point or things. I could say it’s true up to a point but what that the point is, I’m not sure.
NRAMA: What made you decide to go that route of asking people, did you want to get it accurate?
JP: Part of it was that this was a true story. I’m an autobiographical cartoonist and when you’re interacting with me you run the risk of becoming a character in King Cat. In this case it was a pretty big story and there were parts to it where I thought maybe I want to approach people and give them the option of having me use a pseudonym for them. It was just out of respect for the people who are involved and that’s probably the only time I’ve ever really done that and that’s what prompted me to hunt those people down after all those years.
NRAMA: Did going over this depressing time, depress you?
JP: No because no matter how rough the moment is, my experience is when you get to a certain point, it’s not exactly nostalgia or looking at it through rose colored glasses or glossing over the negative parts. But you can kind of see things with a little bit less of the emotional kind of thinking and see the bigger picture of how these things relate to all these other events in your life. So although at that point in my life I was struggling a great deal with depression and confusion but it was a turning point to deal with those parts of my life and another impulse for me to do the book is that I felt Perfect Example had a happy ending. You ultimately grow or change for the better and that’s kind of what the point of the book is.
NRAMA: I spoke to Jeffrey Brown not too long ago and he purposely draws in this crude style, can you draw better than you draw in this?
JP: It’s a common reaction for people to see my artwork as intentionally crude or childish. I’m fine with the word child-like but not childish it does have a certain simplicity to it. To a certain extent, the way I draw now is just a natural progression. It’s like a content refinement of the way I DREw when I was eight years old. These roundheads with a simplified nose and a couple dots for eyes and of course after doing it for 30 years or whatever, you can’t help but get better at it. So to a certain extent it’s just naturally the way I draw. On the other hand I can also say that I’ve always been attracted to things that were simple and graceful and kind of understated in art, whether it’s music, drawing, painting, film or whatever kind of creative expression. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of simple, distilled, essential expression, so I think it’s only kind of natural that my own artwork is that way. Whether or not I can draw better, I don’t know how to answer that question. I just try to do what comes natural.
NRAMA: Does King Cat still come as Xeroxed paper then stapled?
JP: Yeah, I still Xerox it although I’m getting to the point where it might be more cost-effective to have it offset printed but for now I’m still Xeroxing it. I like Xeroxes; I like the quality of a good photocopy so for now that’s what I’m still doing. I feel like King Cat is a ‘zine. It’s comics but it’s also rooted in that do it yourself self-publishing world, and I just love it.
NRAMA: Do you still have the record label?
JP: No, I gave that up. That’s a tough nut to crack, the record business. But probably about eight or nine years ago I decided to focus on my comics. I always had a lot of things on the stove. I had a record label, I would play music in bands, I was doing a distribution company, a mail order catalogue, I was doing my own comics which was great for a while but at some point I thought I want to do one thing and focus on that.
NRAMA: What made you call it King Cat?
JP: You know, I can’t say there’s any real reason except it sounded good. Somehow the idea popped into my head when I was started my new magazine.
NRAMA: Is the book therapy at all for you?
JP: For sure. I mean my background is in fine arts. I studied art for years and years. I started seriously looking at art and thinking about art probably in junior high or so that’s kind of my background and for sure when I was a painter of things, it’s very cathartic. Art is the way I process my life and try to make meaning out of my experiences. That’s always what it was whether it was music or painting or comics so in that way it’s definitely therapeutic.
NRAMA: This next issue of King Cat seems like it’s going to be one of the most therapeutic. A lot of other comic artists would wait a little while to tackle father stories, especially since he recently passed away. What’s making you jump right in there and do it?
JP: In some ways that a little surprising to me even because historically I let some time go past and I’d let things settle a little bit before I’d write about them. In this case I was working on other stories when my dad passed but I wanted to express this in this way now. In a lot of ways the issue is about my dad’s passing but it’s about a lot of aspects of that experience. I don’t think it’s so focused on trying to be a certain thing or trying to make a certain statement or trying to be the final statement on my dad’s passing. What it is this is what happened and this is how I feel right now basically. You know, my dad died at the beginning of April so it’s pretty fresh. But I’m sure it’s not going to be the final word from me. I’m sure this is something that I’ll deal with and that will affect my life and my art. But all I can say is that it felt right at the time and I wanted to follow that impulse wherever it led me.
Perfect Example is 120 pages and priced at $16.95