“I Really Had to Reinvent Myself”: An Interview with Julie Doucet
By Tahneer OksmanJanuary 19, 2019
I met up with Julie in a noisy coffee shop in Brooklyn, close to Pratt Institute, during the Comic Arts Brooklyn festival in early November. I often had to lean in to hear her quiet, lilting voice over the noise of the espresso machine. She was there because Drawn and Quarterly had just released a two-volume hardcover retrospective, titled Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet. The collection’s first volume contains all 12 issues of the previously difficult-to-obtain series, while the second includes essays, interviews, and other republished and unpublished material. Perhaps the most moving of the latter is a short essay and reproduced postcard by the late Canadian cartoonist Geneviève Castrée, who wrote Julie a fan letter when she was 15, launching what became an important friendship for both women.
Doucet may see herself as a self-exile in the world of comics. As this interview illustrates, she has certainly set herself apart from other famous cartoonists, in terms of her artistic trajectory. But there is no doubt that her deep-seated influence prevails.
TAHNEER OKSMAN: It’s a pleasure to see all 12 issues of Dirty Plotte — which haven’t been all that easy to find — together in one hardcover book, along with other comics that you’ve made. How does it feel to have this collection of your work?
JULIE DOUCET: It’s a travel back in time. I did most of it between 1987 through 1999. So, it’s taken quite a long time ago to see it all together, especially the part, the stories, that were not in Dirty Plotte. I don’t look at anything I’ve done in the past. When it’s over, it’s over.
Is there anything you noticed looking at it now — anything that stood out to you in a new or different way?
From the comics, no. But what was different was that I reread my old diaries. There are pages of the diaries in the book. That was quite something. And I realized I didn’t really have the right notion of what was going on at the time. I kept only pieces, here and there.
I was wrong about different things. It was all like a dream. I don’t mean like a beautiful dream, but something that was somewhere else. Another life.
Many people talk about your comics as “confessional.” In interviews, you often respond to that label by emphasizing the creative, imaginative aspects of your work. How do you feel about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Do you find it a useful one?
It is, in the sense that people ask me questions about it.
To me, it’s all very clear. In the early stuff, there’s so much fantasy and it’s so over-the-top. I naturally use myself as a character to tell all the stories, and of course it was my own questioning and my life. But to say that it was autobiographical — no, not at all.
Later on, like in My New York Diary, it’s all true, it’s me and everything, but I tell only a few aspects of my life. There’s a lot left out. It’s all true, it’s not a lie, but it’s not as intimate for me, not at all. Because I left out everything that could bother me or that felt personal.
How did you decide what to leave out? What were you unwilling to share?
Family. Out of respect, and I also just didn’t want to get into telling stories that were not nice. I had a bad relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to get into that. It’s very touchy, in general.
Some autobiographically minded artists and writers love the touchy stuff, and they jump into it. Others seem to wait until their parents aren’t alive, or they just don’t go near any of that at all.
Well, especially when I was younger, it was all too fresh and I didn’t want to do any of it.
Also, the 365 Days book [a visual diary, published in 2007 by Drawn and Quarterly], when I finished it and when it came out, I gave copies to my girlfriends. And they told me they couldn’t read it because it was too personal for them. At least one of them told me it wasn’t a good period in her life, so she didn’t want to read it. At that point I just decided, this is not good.
You can’t write about your life and not write about everybody around you.
I noticed that on the back cover of the final issue of Dirty Plotte there’s an image of four notebooks on a page with the words, “the Actual New York Diaries.” Can you talk a bit about the process of composing your “actual” diaries, and their connection to making Dirty Plotte more generally?
At the beginning, diaries were part of my art practice. As a student, and all that, I was doing tons of drawings. Especially in the early diaries, there were quite a lot of drawings and even collages. And not that much writing.
They evolved in Dirty Plotte into real facts and storytelling. And also, I was putting down a lot of what was going on emotionally.
This disappeared, eventually. Like in 365 Days, it’s mostly facts. It’s not so much what was going on emotionally. Or so little. I guess I was single as well, so …
Do you still have a diary practice?
I don’t write diaries anymore. It’s been years. I think I stopped pretty much after 365 Days. It’s been at least 10 years. I tried to start one again, and it just felt so boring. And also, it’s very time consuming, and I’ve become so slow. It’s better not to do the diaries and just get to work right away. Otherwise, my day is just gone.
What about collage? In your more recent work especially, you seem very invested in collage. When did this practice first emerge?
As an art student, I was making a lot of collages, even when I was doing my diaries. A lot of collages. It’s something that I always wanted to do and loved to do. But when I started to draw comics, and also when I started to get published, I didn’t have any time to do anything else. That lasted for years until I stopped drawing comics. I could pick up the collage again only after leaving comics.
Why I do it, why I like it, I can’t explain. But whatever I did after comics, it always involved words and pictures.
You’ve talked about quitting comics in the early 2000s, and also not drawing as much as you had before. Could you discuss the connection between those two, drawing and making comics?
I quit comics, but I kept on drawing. Drawing and making all sorts of different things. And then I did this project with Michel Gondry [My New New York Diary, a book accompanied by a short film on DVD, published by PictureBox in 2010]. I love his films and all that, so I just said yes. But I was already not that much into drawing. And it was quite a lot of work. It was really just supposed to be a tiny project, like trying something, but it ended up being, not big, but quite a lot of work.
That’s when I had burnout, and after that I just couldn’t draw anymore. Because the film with him involved drawing and at that point I didn’t really feel like drawing, but it was just impossible to say no.
I had burnout, and I just couldn’t draw anymore. Or, I could draw, but it was really on automatic pilot. Not really anything creative.
You’ve mentioned other reasons for quitting comics, like feeling somehow at odds with the comics community. Was that one of your reasons for leaving?
Yeah, I guess. The comics community at the time. There were not too many women. At the beginning, I was very comfortable being around men because I felt I could relate mostly to them in the sense that I didn’t feel like a “real” woman, I didn’t feel feminine enough. And lots of my interests were more like what interested guys. Being around them was a lot easier for me but, eventually, no. I just couldn’t anymore. Because the crowd is so nerdy. I just couldn’t really relate to that anymore.
And also, there wasn’t that much exploration in comics at the time so in some ways I felt really trapped. I just needed to do something else.
Your work has always taken different forms. Do you feel like there’s one form that you’re most connected to, or do you just go where the work takes you?
For me, it’s storytelling that’s most important, in comics or whatever I’m doing. It can take all sorts of different forms.
After comics, I did animated films and different things like that. I guess I was just so frustrated with comics. I just did it all.
Have you found a community outside of comics, or do you feel that you work best alone?
I have one very good collaborator. It’s a young woman, a sound artist. She did the soundtracks for the animated films. We had a project where I wrote poetry with cut-out words, and she did the sound version of that. People, all sorts of different women, read the poems, and then she did kind of a collage of that.
When we did an artist book, a couple of years ago, kind of a box that unfolds, there was a soundtrack that started when you started to unfold not the pages, but the panels.
And right now, inspired by that book, I just did a bunch of sculptures — kind of geometric abstractions made out of cardboard and covered with patterns that I printed on my Radiograph. There’s a lot of holes in them, and we’re planning to make some sort of an installation together.
We understand each other very well, so it’s a lot of fun to work together.
What are you working on currently? What materials do you keep on hand?
Not so long ago, I was making the cardboard sculptures. Once in a while I make a small fanzine of pictures. Nowadays, it’s mostly just images or cut-out collages. I have a Risograph at home, so I can do whatever I want to do.
I’m back to drawing so I usually only have pen and ink and a smaller sketchbook. And that’s pretty much what I do.
My studio at home is tiny, so I’m always making very small things.
If you could, would you want to work in a larger scale?
I don’t think I could. It’s too late.
Could you talk about what brought you back to drawing? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you went back to it in the wake of the 2015 shooting in the Charlie Hebdo offices, which led to 12 deaths.
I didn’t really know any of those guys, but they were close friends to friends. I kind of grew up, not necessarily with Charlie Hebdo, but the same group of people was making a magazine in the 1960s and 1970s called Hara-Kiri. That style of thinking and of very dark humor always stuck with me. In a way, I suppose it was an influence on my work.
So, it was something big for me, what happened with Charlie Hebdo. It was a huge shock. It didn’t really make me angry. It just made me so, so incredibly sad. And it made me want to make beautiful things. I guess everyone was talking about grabbing a pen and starting to draw — the power of a pen. So, I just took one, and I tried something and all of a sudden it looked like, oh, this is … it was flowing and it felt creative, which hadn’t happened in a long time. So I kept on doing it.
But I couldn’t go back to the way I used to draw. I really had to reinvent myself, otherwise it wasn’t going to make sense at all.
How did you do that, reinvent your drawing style?
I took anatomy books and tried to relearn how to draw. In a way, actually, I never really learned anatomy in school. It’s not like I was really trying hard to make anatomy drawings, but it was kind of a way to break my bad habits. I started to just take pictures of people from magazines, and I started to try to draw them in a more realistic way.
Do you feel that you’ve returned, or are returning, to comics through drawing?
I’m just filling sketchbooks. I’m drawing people, and it ends up being crowds and crowds and crowds of people. It’s not narrative.
I don’t know where I’m going with it. I just enjoy doing it.
Are these crowds that you draw in a particular space? Is there a place or story attached to them?
No, it’s all filling the page. There’s no white space.
There’s some text, some characters saying stuff, but it’s not really narrated.
Do you seek out work by other people for inspiration? What kind of art interests you?
I tend not to look to other people’s stuff too much because I get discouraged very easily. Especially with collages. When you start looking, so many people are making them. And when you look at that, generally, you feel like everything has been done already. Which, I mean, you cannot think about that at all. It’s discouraging.
Even the drawings that I’m making right now — I went to a bookstore recently and opened some books and I was like, Oh, that’s exactly what I’m doing! Not exactly, but okay, it was like, this was the general idea. It makes me feel like, Do I really have to show what I’m doing? Is it interesting at all, what I’m doing, because it’s all there anyway?
It’s nothing special, so why show it? Why waste some paper?
So what’s the other voice — the one that gets you to do the art?
That’s very compulsive.
I tried to stop making art a few years ago, but it didn’t work. I lasted 24 hours.
What were you doing in those 24 hours?
I don’t know. I guess I was planning. The next thing I wanted to do was to make a fanzine talking about art and how meaningless it is right now. I wanted to write it in German, in very bad German, and print it using silkscreen printing, with a nice cover. I told that to my friend and he just laughed at me and said, “There you go! Again!”
Your comics have been published in various languages, and you have had a number of works in translation put out by the French publishing house L’Association. In a short essay on your work included in this new anthology, Jean-Christophe Menu, one of the founders and former members of L’Assocation, describes you as “the first female and the first foreign cartoonist published by us when so few independent labels and so few female cartoonists existed.” Do you think your work is received differently in France than in Canada or the United States?
I feel more foreign in France than in the United States. I’m French-speaking, but first of all I’m North American. French society is quite different socially. The relationship between men and women, it’s just something that you can’t believe. It’s so conventional.
In a way, maybe the French don’t quite know what to make of me. I don’t know. I never asked. I just know there’s lots of respect from the comic crowd, the guys, but I think it’s mostly because they don’t know what to do with me. I look so sweet and the comics are so over-the-top. Most of the time, I just don’t ask.
What about back home in Montreal?
I guess I’m known, but somehow I’m not considered as much as anywhere else. It’s like, nobody calls me for illustration work, for example — never, or rarely. I get my jobs from the rest of Canada or from the United States, mostly. Sometimes, rarely, from France.
In a 2006 interview with Dan Nadel, you talked about having started a Slow Action Movement with your friend, the Quebec poet and publisher Benoît Chaput. All of your work seems in some way to be about slowness and letting the work emerge, letting the art lead you.
Yeah, but there’s no movement with the Slow Action Movement. I guess the movement is really, very, extremely slow. Nothing’s going on with it.
It was such a long time ago. I guess it was at the beginning of — not at the beginning of computers, but I felt technology was going too fast at the time.
What place does technology have in your life now?
Not a big place. Because I can’t stand light. I just can’t sit in front of a computer anymore. I just can’t. Even with sunglasses, it’s impossible. So I end up writing my emails only on my phone. Even that, I just can’t do too much for long, so all my emails are super late.
Do you still travel a lot, like you did in the days of creating Dirty Plotte and the other early comics?
In the past couple of years, yes, because I had new books. That’s the way I travel: I get invited, so of course I’m going to go. To go to a new place, it’s great. I stay a little longer, usually. It’s pretty nice to travel that way because you get to meet people. Then I go my own way and I explore the place.
But otherwise, no. Just to go on a trip by myself, that never happens.
Do you get ideas for your art from traveling?
Contrary to home, when I go to other places, I go to museums and galleries. A lot of times there are so many things that you cannot miss. And of course, Montreal is very small. There’s not really any art bookstore. There used to be, but then it closes and a new one comes along.
So whenever I’m away, I go see art.
Do you read any comics?
There is this Swedish woman, she’s called Liv Strömquist. She’s great. I think she has more books published in French, so I read at least four of them.
Nick Drnaso, who created Sabrina. That’s amazing. And Jason Lutes’s Berlin.
And Diane Obomsawin’s On Loving Women.
A lot of women cartoonists especially talk about your work as having had a profound influence on them. Looking back, do you feel like you had someone who was a mentor for you or a role model?
No, I can’t think of any. I felt so different. And maybe I was not in the right place, with the right people. Maybe that’s why. I didn’t feel connected. I can’t think of anyone.
You’ve been cited by many cartoonists as an influence. Do you often find yourself approached?
For advice, no. I’ve been away from comics for such a long time. I’m not hanging out with the comics crowd. And being in a visual arts crowd — I have taken a completely different road.
Tahneer Oksman is the co-editor of the anthology The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019).
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