JUNE 24, 2016
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW in Tavi Gevinson’s online magazine Rookie, Montreal-born cartoonist Julie Doucet — who rose to distinction in the comics world in the 1990s with her intensely confessional and expertly rendered autobiographical series, Dirty Plotte — described her current obsession with collage: “I had a drawing mental block. I burned out at some point. I couldn’t draw after a while, so I ended up making mostly collages, a lot of word and text collages.” In that vein, Doucet has just published Carpet Sweeper Tales, a collection of 21 short stories composed from photonovels and paired with exquisitely cryptic cutouts of collaged letters and words. The opening page instructs the reader to “Read it out loud.”
In 2000, Doucet famously quit comics. This move is still something of a mystery to the many fans of her gritty and confessional early personal narratives. Her 1999 graphic memoir, My New York Diary, which recounted her experimentation with art, sex, and relationships in junior college and her move to New York City, solidified her reputation as a groundbreaking cartoonist. This book and Doucet’s other early narratives are as adored for her geometrical, detailed aesthetic — in many scenes, she transforms cluttered interior bedrooms into live, pulsating works of art — as they are for her ability to enrich everyday reality with uncanny scenes of dream and fantasy.
Doucet remains a remarkably prolific creator, composing everything from linocuts and silkscreens to poetry and photonovels, and publishing her image-texts in both French and English. As an artist, and particularly as the producer of numerous bound volumes, she seems most invested in resisting categorization. Her first post–comics book was the genre-defying Long Time Relationship, published in 2001. Assembled from seven disparate pieces, many published or presented elsewhere beforehand, the work displays found photographs alongside linocuts and woodcuts inspired by and mirroring those images. It functions as an exploration of portraiture, with several self-portraits thrown in for good measure. The volume’s titular section, which similarly plays with notions of anonymity and specificity, neglect and value, includes a set of drawing/collage hybrids pairing inked, full-color images of unidentified individuals with often comically self-assured personal ads. In these juxtapositions both image and word burst with unexpected pronouncements. “Beautiful Dominant Lady wants to make her older male sub swallow his medicine while female friends watch,” one reads, while in the accompanying image a thin but muscled, bespectacled older woman, sporting black and purple fetish wear and wielding a whip in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, stands confidently awaiting her catch.
Each Doucet collection is full of surprises, reflecting the artist’s investment in materiality, language, and experimenting with media and form in unexpected ways. Lady Pep, which was published in 2004 by Drawn & Quarterly’s Petits Livres imprint, is built, as Doucet’s notes explain, upon a “movement for the promotion of slowness.” The book includes a fold-out mail order catalog for “pack-O-fun” scrap projects; prints of photographed handmade objects, such as a “Big nose” box; and sketches of anonymous individuals inked in Doucet’s expressively lissome hand. Her 2006 Elle-Humour, an art book published by PictureBox and made up of bound pages, includes a range of collages — some recycled from French-language newspapers and some from English-language ones, some featuring words and some featuring images — alongside collections of drawings of, for example, handbags, chairs, and abstract, almost Rorschach-like inkblots paired with letters and dates.
I have only skimmed the surface of Doucet’s abounding oeuvre here. While each volume carries its own particular set of themes and engagements, there are threads that carry through. Her creations are especially invested in juxtapositions: of black and white with color, of drawn and photographed lettering with images, of sign with likeness. An autobiographical impression also subtends even the most abstract of her works. In Elle-Humour, for example, there’s an eight-page sequence of drawings of a lone pink hand, its extended fingers manipulating drawn cursive letters. The first sequence reads “i” and then “m,” with the oval and white fingernail caught between the two letters making up the letter “a.” Signs, letters, objects, and shapes: even at their most decontextualized, they stand for real people, an index pointing, like the disembodied hand, to a life in progress. With such material in mind, Doucet’s perceived move away from the autobiographical, like her perceived move away from comics, can be understood not as a departure but instead a repackaging, a way of making over after burning out.
Read alongside those earlier works, Carpet Sweeper Tales appears as yet another mode of repackaging, a new take on an old theme. The book is both composed out of and continues to resemble 1970s Italian fumetti, or comics formed using photographic stills paired with words. It features women and men expertly posed alongside one another, their utterances as hard to read as their often ambivalent bodily postures and facial expressions. Except for its cover and endpapers, which feature a smattering of provocative red letters and polka dots, the book is rendered completely in black and white. Doucet’s familiar scrawl is absent, but her alluring humor is evident in her stitched-together lettering, a whir of sounds (“EEEEEEEEEEE,” “WFRRid,” “RRRRRRrRRR”) and named objects culled largely, it seems, from old advertisements (“BUICK!,” “Clean ‘Magic’ carpet,” “kotex napkins,” “onion soup”).
The story lines do not unravel effortlessly, nor do they always cohere. Instead, Doucet seems invested in pairing these word-image collages in order to get us thinking, and feeling, about what’s in front of us. The first three chapters, for instance, follow “Mrs. Jones,” a wide-eyed, full-lipped blonde. “Mrs. Jones is in love!” the title page declares in loose cursive, and what follows is a series of images featuring this whitewashed, perfectly coiffed figure, vacantly staring off into the distance. Whether pictured alone or alongside others, Mrs. Jones does not seem capable of making eye contact, of connecting with her surroundings. Despite the fervid declarations of love so often aimed at her — “Kiddie I AM Dust-resistance for you. ME Clean ‘Magic’ carpet love” — and despite the sentiments that Mrs. Jones at times allows herself to express — “he’s so like a, a roo BOO DOO So Good Me!” — the cumulative effect is of language, and posture, as dead weight. This is not to say the pages don’t draw the readers in. Carpet Sweeper Tales offers entertainment as well as commentary, and flipping through the book is an engrossing, if anti-nostalgic, walk down a memory-less lane. Reading through, and reading out loud, gives one the sense that Doucet is after a kind of lighthearted, feminist anti-fumetti: a montage that makes illegible, or even irrelevant, the submissive pout at the heart of these now fragmented stories and advertisements.
Carpet Sweeper Tales does not impart the kind of steadfast, direct access to a worldview that some of Doucet’s early autobiographical works do. But it offers other insights instead. Crammed with playful word cutouts paired alongside, and in some cases constructed from, glimpses into anesthetized representations from the past, the book gives the impression of an artist searching for delight in unexpected places. By recycling an old form, Doucet enables us to feel, at least temporarily, the joy that an imagined world can elicit when shaped by the right hands.
Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, was recently published by Columbia University Press.