Comics as Social Media: On Julie Doucet’s “Time Zone J”
By Laura PaulMay 14, 2022
Time Zone J by Julie Doucet
Doucet famously quit comics years ago; she didn’t stop creating art, but rather ventured into an array of alternative media. In this light, the release of Time Zone J is a historical marker. Up until now, the arc of her career could be read as ironically inverted — just as more women were coming into the scene, Doucet, by her admittance, was facing severe burnout. By the time the floodgates had finally opened for a much more diversely populated graphic reality, Doucet’s Tampax-filled bloodletting (as displayed in her comic book series Dirty Plotte [1991–’98]) had run dry for her as a creator.
As autobiographical as Doucet’s new work is, it isn’t an objective documentary of the time. Dreams and surreal situations abound, and the text is rich with symbols (an early reference to “vending machines that didn’t want to vend anything” particularly stands out). The creator is not an industrialist, in case we need reminding. The intimate and uniquely female-centered experiences she depicted back in the 1980s and ’90s make some of the more alternative independent releases today look conservative by comparison. As a taboo breaker and standards rearranger, she’s deserved much more credit. Thankfully, this March she received the prestigious Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême lifetime achievement award.
Younger readers — or those for whom Time Zone J may be the first foray into her rich and decorated body of work — may not realize how past technologies shaped not only comics but the communities that sustained them. In the period before mail was electronic, magazines, periodicals, DIY zines, and fan rags provided the proto-online forums that now make so much information easy to find. Doucet and Dirty Plotte were at the heart of one such community. The connections were bodily. People sent the names they gave to their genitalia and secret fantasies for her to read and publish. Doucet’s stories often show the progression of how someone who asks you out on a date becomes a roommate, or how a pen pal turns into a romance.
It was media. It was social. And it was before most people carried an internet-connected device. Doubtless, instant digital communication is part of why conversations over belonging, identity, and appropriation garner so much attention now. Posers and poachers have always been threatening and mockable to most subcultures, but previously, gaining access wasn’t as simple as clicking a button. Addresses, dates, phone numbers, and money required more effort to coordinate. Print copies were sometimes hard-earned and painstakingly tracked down. Even the full expanse of most comic book stores today — whether brick and mortar or online — is taken for granted. Doucet’s early work sold at record stores that were in the know.
As drummer Penny Rimbaud has said of his former anarcho-punk band, Crass:
We were a band and an information network; well, the information network still exists, the band doesn’t, it’s had its day. I certainly think that the information we were able to put out, both political and personal, is very valuable.
Art is not just expression but a form of connection. Distribution, a way of finding one another. If anything has been illuminated by corporate-run social media, it’s that our connections become increasingly fragile when people don’t trust each other or know one another that well.
When our current technology makes the illusion of community entrance so much more immediate, what happens to the body — the smells, secretions, and intimacy Doucet frequently highlighted? Her complex new work tackles these questions of embodiment and disassociation. She emphasizes this digital difference while looking back through her past journals. There is a juxtaposition between “I kept (almost) everything” back when life revolved around her proximity to her post-office box and the “escape + delete” of intangible files. Doucet appears both as an observer and observed as ruptures come between the past and present selves, whether digitally mediated or not. The psyche is multiplicitous as we catch fractured glimpses of her writing herself, her drawing herself depicted through a collage of various times, locations, and ages.
The overwhelming aesthetic of Time Zone J is composed of hand-drawn human and animal portraits without a lined frame. There’s something elegant, cheeky, wistful, and punk about her reflections on a time before digital social media forming a book of faces — a face book! In this way, it becomes a declaration of her original social network, a concept created out of organic human connection, not a man’s algorithm. Her mind, the true facial recognition software.
However, this recognition comes at a cost. Remembering is not only pleasurable but occasionally laced with pain. The past is never as simple as one thinks, as new sprouts of connections have formed. We may long for things no longer there, moments that have expired and mutated. Attachments to people might intensify or fall away. She revisits the territory trodden by her Dirty Plotte days in reverie and occasionally revolt. “I shouldn’t have reread these old diaries of mine,” a thought bubble reads. An aged face also exclaims, “It was so much better before.” Hair and glasses styles become visible markers for tracking the passing of time. Doucet at 12, 16, 19, and 22 bleeds into the future ahead. Like a series of Eadweard Muybridge photos, she studies the still frames of what has happened in order to better understand the movement, her trajectory from point A to point B. At one point, she starts to investigate the specific cultural and socioeconomic conditions in Canada during the Pierre Trudeau years that shaped her becoming an artist. Three consecutive speech bubbles read, “Unemployment rate at 14% in 1984,” “Studies in Fine Arts or in Computer Science, what’s the difference?” “None.”
A narrative starts to emerge, one that exposes a young Julie becoming entranced by a man’s letters. It conjures Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962), which opens with the line, “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood.” As the film’s protagonist travels back in time toward the woman’s face he is haunted by, in Time Zone J, Doucet moves toward the past represented by a man’s image and words she once desired. Her beloved emerges from the mail. The book often refers to locations explicitly by address rather than descriptions of material physicality. Settings aren’t necessarily where things take place or where one dwells, but rather where one can be reached by others. By writing to one another, an appropriate amount of eroticism blooms in the waiting, distance, and wanting to receive. The silences and the absences are a place of pure potentiality. Words are a way to control the revealing and obfuscating of the self and emotions. Here, the post offers protection. In contrast to phoning, it’s not instant, though it can be quick; the speed and frequency its own form of expression. The lack of immediacy provides more romanticism than if rectified by faster technology. She mentions, “I sent him a slide. It was my way of hiding myself…” and that she wears out his photo, shot into the light.
Eventually, the urgency fades. Time is like a blockade rather than a portal, and, as it progresses, it puts distance between Doucet and her lover. The overwhelming feelings become insufferable even as she wants to freeze the decisive moment in place. The tension can’t hold. She stops thinking of him or forgets everything. She wishes time to pass when she can no longer stand it and has to call it off. Their in-person rendezvous back in her hometown of Montréal deflates the promise of romance down into unrealistic expectations. After their one last fickle and fateful meeting, she never hears from him again. The future loses its rosy glow by returning to the present moment. “Everything can happen. Everything could have happened,” a page reads. Lyrics from Bauhaus’s 1982 album The Sky’s Gone Out are included, “All we ever wanted was everything / All we ever got was cold.” In focusing her new work on the merger of past and present, Doucet shows the comic book medium to be as much about time as anything else, the nature of autobiography to be speculative.
In Time Zone J’s expanded form beyond geometry, the rigidity of the panel will not and cannot contain the immensity of self. Whereas so many of Julie Doucet’s comic-creating peers have styles that have crystallized around the pristine and stark, she remains loose and uninhibited. Her focus on connection rather than detachment, relation rather than isolation, invites readers to commune rather than appreciate from a removed distance. “Words sent to a total stranger” refers to the practice of correspondence she kept and maybe to us as readers too. But Doucet doesn’t want to leave us strange and finds a way to create bonds formed through words and pictures, communication beyond distances, even with times long gone. By not losing this contact with the past, with the self, with the other, she has eviscerated the claustrophobic frame around what comics can include and has given us a taste of what an expanded form of graphic texts and illustrated manuscripts can be.
Laura Paul is an artist and writer whose work has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Dream Pop Journal, FIVE:2:ONE, Entropy magazine, and featured at the West Hollywood Book Fair and Los Angeles Zine Fest.
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