The Walrus Blog

A Q&A with John Porcellino

In last month’s Walrus, US cartoonist John Porcellino riffed on his adventures north of the 49th, casting himself and his travelling companions as explorers into this untamed wilderness. It’s an autobiographical strip from one of the longtime greats of the autobio genre, and it’s a hoot. For this previously undocumented exploit, Porcellino has gone back to the mid-’90s period covered in his recently released King-Cat Classix, a fat and unfussily gorgeous book compiling the best of his seminal lo-fi mini-comic King-Cat Comics and Stories.

Since 1989, King-Cat has felt like an intimate venue where Porcellino shares the goings-on in his life with a close circle of friends, whether through his minimalist black and white line-drawings, his lists of things he’s enthusing over this month, or his typed or hand-written anecdotes and reveries. His most recent book, though, is Thoreau at Walden, a quiet and generously paced adaptation of Thoreau’s writings, a project that might seem a departure if it weren’t such a perfect match for Porcellino’s sensibilities, so attuned to King-Cat‘s cadences of everyday life. I probably mistakenly thought some of Thoreau‘s two-colour work and historical flavour may have carried over into his strip for the Walrus–I asked Porcellino to straighten me out about this and a few other things by email, and he was kind enough to supply the following responses.

* * *

Have you been beyond the US borders since the trip you portray in this Walrus strip?

Just once, on a trip across southern Ontario from Detroit to Niagara Falls. And it was quite a trip. Someday I’ll tell you all about it…

You’ve made quite a few road trip comics–how do you know which moments or things from your travels are worth isolating and depicting in comics form?

It’s just a feel thing. It just seems “like a comic” or not. Sometimes it takes years, and then one day out of the blue, I’ll remember something and it will present itself in my head as a comic.

People around me, my friends, they all know I do these autobiographical comics, and you can tell–we’ll be out somewhere, and they’ll kind of look at me like, “Is this gonna be a comic?” Sometimes it is, sometimes I’m like, “Nah…”

You’re illustrating a trip you took fifteen years ago. What’s made it stick in your mind? Did compiling King-Cat Classix have you at all wanting to make comics about experiences long since past?

Well, it was the first time I was outside the US so it was memorable in that way, and it was part of an epic road trip I took across the west and west coast… so it was a pretty eventful time overall.

As far as doing more comics about past experiences… as I get older and more tired I have less exciting things happening to me, so I find myself sometimes looking back on old times for comics inspiration. For better or for worse I had a lot of wild years, so there’s probably a good amount of material in there.

In King-Cat, when you draw strips about things that happened some years ago, the narration is more wordy than it is with strips about more recent events. Still, none of them take the same kind of obvious pleasure in language and centuries-old Englishe as this strip does. What made that approach right for this material?

I think when I’m writing about current experiences, in large part, my feelings and thoughts about them are less formed, so those comics might be more amorphous because of that. Older experiences have become “stories” in my head, so maybe they come out differently.

For this strip, I was wracking my brain for a way to give some life to the story. Somehow that pioneer/voyageur angle popped up, and as soon as it did I got really excited about the comic. It gave me a chance to do something a little different with it.

I feel like the strip is a glimpse of what a Canada-specific version of your King-Cat Top 40 list might look like–I see, from King-Cat Classix, you did a quick run-through of highlights at the time too. While I am a big fan of the Big Turk, my favourite bit of Canadiana you’ve included in the strip is the DOA and Subhumans tshirts the punks are wearing. Any other Canadian favourites you had to leave out?

I didn’t think of it that way, but you’re right! As for other Canadian Faves–uh, Tim Hortons?!?

Two- or three-colour work is something that I hadn’t seen you work with before Thoreau at Walden. I wouldn’t have thought it would complement your spare linework so well, but it really does. What’s brought about this change? Do you find yourself approaching the drawing any differently, knowing you’ll be applying tones over it?

The color thing has only come up recently… truthfully, I pretty much think in black and white (as far as comics goes). When I have used color, it’s been a limted palette type thing, so no I don’t think about it too much when I’m making the line-art. I just go and start trying to add color swatches in balance. I don’t claim any particular skill at this at all. I’m pretty computer-shy, so I don’t have much experience with laying on colors that way. (For the Walrus strip I gave [Drawn & Quarterly Books creative director] Tom Devlin a general sheet of color placements, and he was able to lay it out for me, and for Thoreau at Walden, the coloring was the work of JP Coovert–he should get all the credit for that!)

You still make all your own King-Cat Comics and Stories issues, but lately you’ve had your work published by bigger presses and magazines. Still, I’ve noticed this increased exposure having very little effect on your work. Is the wider audience something you’re conscious of, or try to work around, or do you think you’ve settled in to an approach to comics you don’t need to waver from?

Well, I do think about the audience, in terms of–I want to make the best comics I can, for other people. But you can’t think about that other stuff too much, right? I mean as an artist you have to do what you have to do. I trust my muse to take me where I need to go, and hopefully people are willing to come along for the ride.

Why is Hank Williams so great? should every road trip with friends include at least a little Hank Williams?

Well, you can’t go wrong with Hank Williams! Why is he great? First of all, I think it’s the SOUND–his music is sharp, rhythmic, and modern sounding. So I think it has a lot of appeal that way. And he was just a brilliant songwriter. Funny, sad, and true. To me his music never grows old.

Finally, you are granted a personal audience with Lovie Smith: what do you ask, advise, or say?

What would I ask him? Maybe: “Does just SEEING those Bears colors make your heart beat a little faster, like catching a glimpse of your beloved? Cuz it does for me!”

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