John Porcellino at Big Brain Pt. 1 (of 2)

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At Big Brain Comics last Thursday night, Michael Drivas (iconic comic shop owner) and John Porcellino (iconic zinester) discuss something riveting.

When comics lovers describe reading their first comics, they usually credit something that’s easily available. The comic version of childhood cartoons, newspaper strips, or what was available in the dentist’s office. But when most modern cartoonists give credit to someone most responsible for inspiring them to draw comics, John Porcellino often comes to mind.

His personal stories and artistic style make Porcellino’s work feel approachable. Reading a King-Cat comic makes a person feel like they can see where the cartoonist is coming from in life and on the page. Somehow, reading Porcellino’s books even feels like a communal exchange, as if he’d talk back to you, and somehow comics would be the perfect medium for you two to trade personal stories. It’s enough to make a person want to draw a comic on their own.

Hearing him speak last week at Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis gave me the same comfortable sensation, like we were kind of friends, even though I had to tell him my name first. Porcellino is a shy man if only because he seems to spend so much time in his own mind. Being able to express himself seems to be his biggest concern and greatest strength. A dichotomy, sure, but what else could explain his nearly 2-decade commitment to self-publishing autobio comics? That’s right, nothing.

I popped for a recording device this time, so this report is pretty complete. Part 2 will cover the Q & A session, but not the part where John Porcellino and Zak Sally played music together, unfortunately.

As long as I can remember I’ve been drawing and writing and making little booklets out of the stuff I make. I never really read [comic books] too much as a kid, I would read the Sunday funnies every week and I was really into T.V., monster movies and stuff like that.

When I started drawing comics I think it was kind of a combination of those newspaper strips and little T.V. screens, so I would make these panels that were like little T.V. screens, I think that’s what I was trying to do.

But probably about the time I was a freshman in High School, I started giving my comics to my dad and he would take them to downtown Chicago where he worked and photocopy them, maybe 6 or 8 copies, and I would take them to school and hand them out to my friends. I did that for a good many years and then in my senior year of High School my friends and I wrote a punk rock fanzine called Zo-Zo which was just a bunch of junk photocopied and stapled in the corner. [It was] about bands and music and reviews and people in our school and obnoxious stuff we’d cut out of the paper and just typical teenage stuff and we would hand them out at school. That was kind of cool because people started to look forward to the next issue of Zo-Zo. People would hang out by our lockers before school when they heard there was a new issue.

So that was my first taste of, I was like, wow, because I was so shy and weird. Doing Zo-Zo I think opened up something for me where I realized I can actually communicate with people that I don’t know, people that aren’t necessarily my closest friends or associates or whatever. I started doing a magazine when I started going to college called Cehsoikoe which was an art and poetry fanzine. I would take stuff from my friends or people I met at school and put together this magazine, and what happened was, I started selling that at one of the local record stores in town.

One day I got a letter in the mail from a girl who had bought Cehsoikoe at the record shop and she wrote to me and sent me a copy of her own little magazine. This was astounding to me, that not only was there someone else making these little magazines like I was, but that she lived across town.

So one day we made plans and I went over to go visit her and she showed me a copy of a magazine called Fact Sheet Five, which some of you may be familiar with. It was published sporadically throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. Essentially what it was, it came out every couple of months, and it would just be page after page after page of maybe 500 or 700 little independently self-published magazines from around the world. Every type: political magazines, comics, art, poetry, cooking magazines…you name it.

So she showed me this copy of Fact Sheet Five, and that instance utterly changed my life. Because now it wasn’t just me making this comic, and this girl across town, but I realized that there was this network of people all around the world who were publishing their own magazines, selling them through the mail, and trading them through this distribution network they had created. I felt at home. I just felt like this is the right place for me. I saw the possibilities out there connecting with a lot of different people.

So I started getting stuff through the mail and putting out this magazine [Cehsoikoe] and at some point I decided I wanted to (instead of collecting materials from people all over and acting as an editor of other people’s work) I wanted to make a magazine that was completely my own so that I drew the cover, I hand-lettered the letters to the editor, I came up with the stories, I drew them, I put it all together and it would be more of a deeply personal way of connecting with other people. So it would be like my own personal statement versus making an editorial statement. It was a statement about myself. That idea became King-Cat Comics.

I published the fist issue in May of 1989. Especially at the beginning King-Cat became just whatever came through my life, I put into King-Cat. I didn’t really think about things too much. I certainly didn’t censor myself or edit myself. I didn’t even think twice about these things that came through, I just threw it all down on paper and when I had the pages all stacked up I’d take it down to the copy shop and put out the newest issue of King-Cat.

Things have definitely really changed in the ensuing 18 years or so. But in a lot of ways that’s still what I do, though I definitely edit myself. I really, you know, sweat the details of King-Cat nowadays. I would say the thing that has definitely stayed the same is that, whatever was going on in my life, I tried to present that in as honest a way as I could. So, the way I did that changed and the things I thought were important or were not important have kind of changed, but the essence of all that has remained the same for all these years.

Primarily what I write about is my own life. King-Cat’s primarily autobiographical and I guess primarily the thing I was always interested in was, in my head, of real life. I don’t know if I could 100% explain what that means in my head but that’s what I was always shooting for with King-Cat, was kind of to accurately depict real life in a kind of accessible way.

Porcellino went on to read and describe some of the comics from his recently published book King-Cat Classix which he’s currently on tour promoting. King-Cat Classix was published by Drawn & Quarterly in April of this year and compiles all of Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics and Stories minicomics published between 1989-1996. Milwaukee, Iowa City, St. Louis, Bloomington, Lawrence and Denver, you can still copy Porcellino’s talk into your date books. Go to king-cat.net to find out when and where.

–Sarah Morean

11 Comments to “John Porcellino at Big Brain Pt. 1 (of 2)”

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