Some artists subtly distance themselves from their early works. Julia Wertz, on the other hand, completely trashes them.
“I drank my way through my first three books,” Wertz tells Comic Riffs, “and consequently, I think they’re all garbage.”
If Wertz has any detractors, they’d be hard-pressed to outdo the cartoonist herself for self-criticism of her initial efforts with ”Fart Party.”
Drinking, she says, “negatively affected everything for me. I much more prefer the books I’m working on now, after I quit drinking and grew up a little.”
Now, Wertz’s cup runneth over with work she’s proud of — fermented ideas instead of high-proof juice.
“I don’t really rely on anything now but maybe coffee in the morning,” Wertz tells us. “Sometimes that means I slog my way through the day. but it’s preferable to waking up with a perpetual hangover.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Wertz — who’s appearing at this weekend’s Small Press Expo in suburban Washington — for Six Sobering Questions about writing honestly, the perils of working in isolation, the horrors of comics conventions — and O, the pioneers of comics:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Louis CK said the other night at the New York Public Library's tribute to George Carlin that he was a sucky standup for 15 years, but then listening to Carlin taught him to (a) get braver; and (b) dig deeper personally — down into his own demons and taboos. As an autobiographical cartoonist, do you find yourself digging ever deeper?
JULIA WERTZ: Definitely. I’d say that I was a sucky cartoonist until maybe a year ago, but lately I’ve been trying to get more honest with my work and its getting better [I think]. My books always relied a bit too much on gags and cheap jokes and flights of fancy.
This next book doesn’t have that nonsense in it — even though I still enjoy it — but it’s just straight, autobio storytelling and it’s much more serious than my previous work. People tend to think my early work was much more honest than it actually was, simply because I portray the less attractive aspects of my life. That’s true, but it’s not a real picture of what my life is like. I held back a lot of my personal story in those books and now that I’m getting around to putting the really personal stuff in there, the work is very different and [I hope] much better.
[By the way] I think Louie is possibly the best show on television right now. It never fails to completely surprise and delight and horrify me in the best way.
MC: What do you like about SPX, and do you at all feed off the fan feedback here?
JW: I actually really don’t enjoy conventions themselves, being in the room, at the table, doing panels. It’s a nightmare. But I keep going because what I do enjoy is seeing my cartoonists friends who I’ve accumulated over the years and who live in other states. We all get together and are stuck in a hotel for one weekend a year and it’s really fun.
To say one “feeds off” of fan feedback implies a bit of narcissism, which I’m sure I have, but it doesn’t rear its head [for me] at conventions. Perhaps because sitting behind a table all day, trying to get people to buy your work is really…humbling. And torturous. I enjoy meeting people who like my work and putting a face to a name as opposed to the anonymity of the Internet, but it’s not the aspect of cartooning that I get a kick out of.
MC: This year, one SPX panel — about industry pioneers — is titled 'The Secret History of Women in Comics." Do you feel as though as you were inspired by any women cartoonists who were your precursors — be it alt-cartooning, comic books, syndicated print comics or other fields?
JW: I don’t know if the female creators who worked in newspapers affected the alternative comics scene so much. ... I definitely think that female creators such as Julie Doucet paved the way for hundreds of other creators, but more in inspiration than in business.
It wasn’t that women couldn’t do comics before — they were just uninterested in a superhero-dominated field. The early female cartoonists brought subjects to the paper that women could identify with. It’s still a hard industry for creators — male and female — with very little money involved, so the effect by other cartoonists mostly always comes in the form of inspiration and camaraderie.
MC: Speaking of camaraderie: Can you speak to the collective creativity of Pizza Island — are you able to use that as a creator, and what do you most like about the arrangement?
JW: Cartooning is definitely an isolating experience. You spend long days sitting at your desk by yourself, listening to podcasts and Hulu and not speaking a word to anyone all day. I worked like that for years and in the end, it ruined me. Well, I made some other ill-advised choices in my personal life during that time, but the isolation was what drove me nuts even though I didn’t know it.
The other girls at my studio had similar experiences, so we figured we should just get together and sit in the same room while continuing to listen to our podcasts and TV shows on our headphones. And we take long breaks to hang out and we chat a lot while we draw. Just the mere action of opening your mouth and talking to a friend during the day can really change everything and supply that essential human connection.
You don’t realize how important it is to just talk to another human being at least once a day until you don’t do it for weeks on end. It’s really unhealthy to isolate all the time. I still do it sometimes, but knowing I can go to Pizza Island when I need to alleviates the black hole of self-doubt and depression I quickly fall into when I isolate too much.
MC: As a San Francisco native, I'm curious what you think of the current comics scene in the Bay Area — all these decades after Crumb and Griffith and Spiegelman and their comix brethren populated the peninsula?
JW: The Bay Area comics scene is definitely thriving, but it’s different from Crumb’s era. There are more alternative conventions like APE and the Zinefest for them to gather at. They do these conventions and readings and all hang out together sometimes, and it’s very similar to the Brooklyn scene in that regard.
I haven’t been part of the Bay Area scene in many years since I left, but [my sense is] that the Brooklyn scene is more close-knit and we see each other more often, especially the Pizza Island girls, who I see everyday and hang out with outside the studio all the time. And in New York, there are more events to run into each other at.
I think the main difference between Crumb’s era and ours is that the various local scenes of cartoonists are more connected to each other because of the internet. There are pockets of cartoonists everywhere, like in Portland, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, etc. ... and we all stay connected by the Internet year-round. And then when you go to a convention in one of those areas, there’s an instant community that takes you in.
MC: Lastly, what's on your drawing board right NOW?
JW: Right now I’m staring down three pages of a story for a collection I’m putting out with Koyama Press next spring. The story is about some very [too] early sexual experiences I had before I really knew what sex even was.
It’s going to be very uncomfortable for my family to read.