PRINT Summer 2014

Hillary Chute

Page detail from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (Drawn and Quarterly, 1999/2010).

JULIE DOUCET looms large in the pantheon of contemporary cartoonists despite not having published comics qua comics for more than a decade. (Her groundbreaking, often autobiographical comics were produced between 1987 and 2000.) In her current art practice, Doucet, based in Montreal, has not so much left comics as moved to the far edges, focusing on linocuts, collage, and papier-mâché sculpture, along with artist’s books that mine the language of graphic narrative even as they exceed it. Her earlier urge to document her own life hasn’t disappeared. Her book 365 Days (2008) is a drawing and collage account of each day of one year. And in 2010, she released, with director Michel Gondry, My New New York Diary, a collaborative “film book” (which includes a DVD component) in which she is an actor placed in the world of her own drawings—another nod to the personal and quotidian. Doucet, filmed by Gondry, drinks a drawn beer and is massaged by drawn hands at a strip club.

From her beloved comic-book series Dirty Plotte (Dirty Cunt, 1987–98), initially self-published, to her best-known work, the long-form memoir My New York Diary (1999), Doucet’s darkly witty comics offer an aesthetic at once loose and dense. Her stylish line is controlled and masterful, while the rich spaces of her frames, with their heavy inking and deep perspective, teem with details and seething objects that seem as if they are about to burst out of the picture. The bodies in her work are simultaneously exuberant and seething. In the classic “Heavy Flow” (collected in Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art [1991]), the Julie character at the center, menstruating, grows into a Godzilla-like monster, bleeding and crushing buildings in search of Tampax.

Doucet is central to our understanding of comics as a particularly vibrant platform for telling and showing women’s stories. Her work in the 1990s ushered in an era of comics as a feminist art form—a shift we can note throughout the past twenty years, marked by the success of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). Doucet became part of a wide-ranging punk- and Riot Grrrl–inflected cultural uptake—even getting a shout-out in Le Tigre’s 1999 song “Hot Topic,” alongside the likes of VALIE EXPORT and Carolee Schneemann.

Doucet’s comics reveal an intense focus on embodiment, where possibility and fear commingle in equal measure. We see this in her many surreal fantasyscapes, such as her collection of dream comics, My Most Secret Desire (1995), with its abundant stories of swapped and morphing genitals: of Julie growing a penis, of eating someone else’s penis, of taking someone’s penis and returning only part of it. Rereading Doucet, I am reminded of when cartoonist Lynda Barry recounted with delight that she had always been curious as to why male cartoonists so often drew themselves “with giant dicks, jacking off and then looking really depressed after,” until she drew herself with those body parts doing the exact same thing and “felt so much better.” This is the kind of free exchange contained within Doucet’s vividly realized vignettes, a delight edged with horror. The genius of Doucet’s comics world lies in how textured autobiographical realism is entwined with giddy fantasy. Both visualize an unruly psychic landscape that, for most, only exists inside.

Hillary Chute is a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010).