JULY 19, 2019
IN THE CURRENT MOMENT of women comics artists such as Raina Telgemeier, Emil Ferris, Kate Beaton, Jillian Tamaki, and Tillie Walden all but dominating both best-seller lists and award ceremonies, it is worth remembering the female artists who inspired and paved the way for their successors. Two new collections by comics pioneers Julie Doucet and Ariel Schrag make the case for the centrality of these artists — the former by providing a complete retrospective of Doucet’s comics work to date, the latter by collecting Schrag’s work since the series of comics she published with Slave Labor Graphics while (for the most part) still in high school.
Both Doucet’s Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet and Schrag’s Part of It: Comics and Confessions function as missives from, or throwbacks to, a time when especially autobiographical comics by women were largely a self-published and zine-based subcultural affair. Although both artists have since moved on to other forms — Doucet to printmaking, collage, and animation, among other projects, and Schrag to television and prose — these new collections provide an opportunity to take stock of the careers and lasting influence of these influential female cartoonists.
In the decade following the 1988 debut of her self-published, bilingual minicomic Dirty Plotte in Montreal, Doucet continually provided a distinctly feminine counterpoint in a male-dominated underground comics culture. “Plotte,” infamously, is Quebecois slang for “cunt,” and the title is emblematic of her simultaneously confrontational and playful engagement with issues concerning gender and sexuality.
With a visual style and an approach to storytelling that are both anchored in the grotesque, Doucet’s comics serve as a direct kick in the groin to dominant notions of feminine propriety and good taste in general. In stories depicting masturbation (in a spaceship, using a cracker given to her by her mother), menstruation (which causes her to morph into a gigantic Godzilla-like creature with fluids cascading from her loins), nose-picking (an event that inspires a showdown with her antagonist Super Clean Plotte), and bloody penectomy (of a reader who has teasingly offered his body to her), Doucet’s short comics mix the wildly imaginative with the intensely personal. Common to especially the early stories is an uncompromising sense of anything-goes dream logic; and although her comics consistently challenge masculine perspectives by depicting female unruliness and bodily messiness, the joyously freewheeling and often curiously innocent nature of her work means that it is never in danger of succumbing to a dull and programmatic version of feminism. Instead, Doucet’s emphasis on untraditional, in-your-face expressions of femininity means that her comics are closer in spirit to the riot grrrl–inflected feminism of the grunge era.
Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet contains two beautifully produced hardback volumes collected in a slipcase. The first of these assembles the full 12-issue run of the “official” Dirty Plotte comics, which was serialized by then-upstart Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly and which recycled some of Doucet’s earlier zine work in its first few issues. The later issues also contain the full narrative later collected as My New York Diary, Doucet’s perhaps best-known work, which chronicles her temporary move to New York City in the early 1990s. The second volume collects every other comic published by Doucet, including the zine work not included in the Drawn and Quarterly run of Dirty Plotte and several short comics originally created for various anthologies and other forums.
To date, Doucet’s work has not been served especially well by its various book collections, some of which have been out of print for years, and a single volume that collects everything is both overdue and revelatory. Dirty Plotte brings to light the sheer volume and consistency of vision in Doucet’s comics work, all of which was produced in little more than a decade. The second volume also includes a wealth of secondary material, including a useful biographical introduction by Dan Nadel, a few long interviews, a number of short essays charting Doucet’s influence, reminiscences by such contemporary comics figures as Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine, and a chronology of her work.
In its exhaustiveness, the new volume joins Fantastic Plotte! — a collection of Doucet’s early Dirty Plotte minicomics by Montreal publisher L’Oie de Cravan that retains their original bilingual format — in bringing renewed attention and archival support not only to Doucet’s later and more “mature” work, but also to her earliest and in some ways most imaginative comics. It affirms Doucet’s status as a groundbreaking and taboo-demolishing antecedent to today’s women cartoonists, many of whom approach comics making with a similar lack of self-consciousness about the form’s ability to depict the realities of lived female experience.
At the same time that Doucet was hitting her mid-1990s stride with the later issues of Dirty Plotte, Ariel Schrag was a teenager in the very different environment of Berkeley, California. Inspired, like Doucet, by the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as by more contemporary artists like Ariel Bordeaux and Jhonen Vasquez, Schrag drew and published a series of increasingly lengthy and ambitious autobiographical comics about her high school experience. Entitled, in sequence, Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise, each book chronicles a school year, and read together they form an impressive body of work that traces Schrag’s gradual coming into herself as an artist and coming out as a lesbian. Crucially, because each book was written (and sometimes penciled and inked as well) in the summer after the school year in question, the collected narrative is almost entirely contemporary with the events depicted in it, with no access to the future and, for the most part, lacking the retrospective narrative voice common to most memoir and autobiography. The result is an impressive series of comics by any standard, but even more so because it is wholly the work of a teenager in the throes of such quintessential experiences as first love and heartbreak.
Part of It collects autobiographical comics made by Schrag in the years since her high school comics, organized chronologically according to the period depicted and ranging from ages six to 26. As the title suggests, the stories share a preoccupation with Schrag’s need to belong and her fear of exclusion, and as such have many thematic similarities with her earlier work. Depicting her in such scenarios as an afternoon spent innocently playing “rape” with a friend at age six and her post-college job of teaching government-mandated abstinence-only sex education to Harlem middle schoolers, the collection showcases Schrag’s ability to interweave such complex themes as sexuality, race, and the redemptive power of art into perfectly formed and evocative short comics. Especially in the stories about her earlier years, Schrag’s ear for the rhythms and in-group vernacular of children and teenagers remains unparalleled, and her cartoony and often deceptively simplistic style adds an expressiveness that is entirely congruent with a narrative perspective anchored in childhood and adolescence. Overall, the stories collected in Part of It illustrate Schrag’s facility for being hyperspecific about her own lived experience while at the same time evoking similar memories in her readers through the skillful distillation of events or moods into a single, evocative drawing. As such, Schrag’s comics function as an argument for the form as an especially potent vehicle for autobiography, wherein author and reader alike can project themselves into a past made visible on the page.
The centerpiece of Part of It is a story entitled “My Troubles with Glasses,” which follows Schrag’s efforts — at age 24 — to find a pair of eyeglasses with which she is aesthetically comfortable. By far the collection’s longest story, the narrative encapsulates many of the overarching concerns of the book, including Schrag’s obsession with self-image, her quest for a complementary personal style, her developing identity as an artist, her neuroses regarding others’ perceptions of her, and her tendency to scrutinize every detail of her life. Told in a straightforward visual style that achieves most of its effects through simple repetition — try as she might, Schrag simply cannot settle on a pair of glasses — the story also functions as a thematic continuation of her earlier work. Those comics culminated with her being, at the conclusion of Likewise, almost completely trapped in her own head, unable to achieve an outside perspective. Fittingly, this new collection also contains a story she drew at age 17, in which Schrag and her friend Zally argue about how he is represented in her comics. This story ends, much as did Likewise, with Schrag being trapped inside her own creation, in ever-proliferating layers of metacomics about how to represent her own life in comics.
Bringing the collection back full circle to her earlier work, Schrag perhaps also articulates a reason for why she had to eventually stop using comics as her main artistic outlet. The author of the traditional prose novel Adam (2014), Schrag seems to have needed an escape from the endless recursiveness of autobiographical comics. Doucet, similarly, stopped making comics around the turn of the century, citing a feeling of being burned out on both the form and the surrounding culture. But while both artists may have moved on to other forms, at least for now, the near-simultaneous publication of Part of It: Comics and Confessions and Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet acts as a reminder of their lasting influence. It also provides an argument about their essential kinship as female comics creators who tirelessly but enthusiastically challenged conventions about what comics should be, and who should make them.