A basement apartment in Brooklyn. A cat named Jack. A crew of cartoonists who share a studio known as Pizza Island. These are among the people, things and places inhabiting Julia Wertz’s latest graphic memoir, “Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story.” But it is, more generally, a story about the self-deprecating and sometimes curmudgeonly Wertz’s alcoholism and rocky road to recovery as she grapples with depression and an overactive sense of guilt.
Wertz has garnered a reputation for her witty, observational and somewhat goofy humor. “Impossible People” is her fourth memoir, if you count the book previously titled “The Fart Party” and now collected in a more respectable-sounding volume as “Museum of Mistakes.” Themes of health, illness and addiction recur here and throughout the rest of her oeuvre, but with “Impossible People” she has a new story to tell. We follow her throughout her 30s in New York as she plummets into depression, cycles through periods of solitary drinking and sobriety, survives a halfhearted attempt at rehab and wrestles with many relapses, until she achieves a semblance of stability. Her misfortunes do seem relentless at times, but there are moments of unadulterated joy, too: especially in her urban explorations, where she finds herself in dilapidated ruins of old asylums and abandoned factories, risking asbestos exposure (a footnote informs the reader that these expeditions will appear in detail in a future book), but also with friends who love her and her company, despite her insistence on being antisocial.
Wertz’s visual style is a mix of her first graphic memoir, “Drinking at the Movies” (2010), and her last book, on hidden histories of New York, “Tenements, Towers & Trash” (2017). Most of the panels comprise close-ups of her characters in conversation, torso up, but the magic lies in the larger spreads, where she zooms out to reveal sweeping cityscapes, spanning skyscrapers, brownstones, bodegas, an assortment of storefronts, cafes, fire escapes, window units, light poles and street signs. She draws her characters in a spare but expressive style, capturing them with crisp, minimal lines. By contrast, the backgrounds, especially the ones featuring Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods, feature laboriously dense linework and deep inks, creating a charming, if unexplained, stylistic discontinuity.
Wertz writes with witty introspection, punctuated by moments of bottomless sadness and crude humor, both with surprising timing. Even as misfortunes pile up, she worries that she has not had it quite as hard as others, that her problems are self-inflicted and therefore not worthy of pity or care. Her brother, a recovering addict turned social worker, urges her to give group therapy a try, for the perspective if not anything else.
This willingness to accept that things can still be bad even when they’re not the worst ultimately elevates Wertz’s story. If “Impossible People” is a “completely average recovery story,” as its subtitle suggests, it is so mostly in the first half. In the second, it is much more: Wertz writes cleverly about unsatisfactory dating scenes, shaky mental health, the joys and pitfalls of cartooning, and how it is easier to “stagnate in comfortable misery” than to do the hard work of fixing one’s life.
At 320 pages, the book sometimes seems bogged down by detailed accounts of seemingly inconsequential incidents, but every time it does, Wertz pulls you back in with a moment of vulnerability that turns you into an unsuspecting confidant. On one such occasion, she reveals that she wished her MRI came with a cancer diagnosis so that she would have an external imperative to stop drinking. Elsewhere, she talks to her therapist candidly about that brief window of time between late afternoon and dusk, when everything is awash in the soft glow of a setting sun, sometimes known as “golden hour,” when she is painfully reminded that she is “not where [she] should be.” There’s something hauntingly beautiful about the four-panel spread where Wertz tries to capture light and shadow in black and white ink and a loose crosshatch pattern. A single squiggly line and a low-hanging sun hover over a minimalist New York skyline, gesturing at the warm haze that briefly takes over the city.
In my favorite episode, Wertz finds herself in Connecticut, in longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s studio. In one panel, she depicts two stacks of A4 sheets with cartoons on them, one low and the other high, the latter corresponding to rejections and the former to the hugely successful Chast’s rarer acceptances. It’s an indictment of the life of a cartoonist that only another cartoonist could have shown us: minimal, depressing, funny. Wertz is now a regular at the New Yorker herself, thanks in part to Chast, who sent her to meet Bob Mankoff, then the magazine’s cartoon editor. And like the more established Chast, she would unsuccessfully submit dozens of gag cartoons before eventually persuading him to consider the other, more uncategorizable cartoons at which she excels.
Eventually, Wertz’s studiomates Kate Beaton, Sarah Glidden and Lisa Hanawalt would leave New York, some to follow Hollywood dreams, others to raise families in affordable parts of the world. “Stability was more attainable pretty much anywhere but New York,” Wertz writes. As she, too, is priced out of the city, she packs 10 years of her life into a dozen boxes and attempts a heartfelt goodbye to her neighborhood fruit seller of 10 years, only to be met by an indifferent “Huh? That’ll be $1.49.” Both her decade in the city and our time with the book end as they began. There are no life-changing revelations and no epic epiphanies, but we don’t need either. Wertz masterfully turns the everyday and the mundane into stories funny enough to keep you entertained, and sad enough to leave you just a little wistful.
Kay Sohini is a writer and cartoonist based in New York. Her graphic novel “This Beautiful, Ridiculous City” is slated to be published in 2024.
A Completely Average Recovery Story
By Julia Wertz
Black Dog & Leventhal. 320 pp. $30
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