Serious Funnies

John Porcellino returns with a new life and newfound acclaim for his King-Cat Comics.

So there's this guy who lives a life of hushed, isolated desperation. He works crappy jobs and has bad luck with girls. Because he's from the Midwest, he exudes a kind of weary cynicism, a rust-eaten worldview held together by tendrils of tenderness and humility. But one day it all becomes a bit too much for him, and he decides to wring some sense out of his confused existence -- by turning it into a comic book.

Anyone who's seen American Splendor, the hot new indie film about underground-comics icon Harvey Pekar, is familiar with the story. But instead of the decrepit streets of Cleveland, imagine the teenage wasteland of suburban Chicago. Instead of growing up in the '50s, bump it up to the '80s. And instead of stick figures, substitute sparse, simple cartoons that, like haiku, capture vast expanses of soul and emotion in just a few gaunt lines.

That, in a nutshell, is John Porcellino's King-Cat Comics and Stories.

Return to splendor: John Porcellino, creator of 
King-Cat Comics and Stories.
Anthony Camera
Return to splendor: John Porcellino, creator of King-Cat Comics and Stories.
Return to splendor: John Porcellino, creator of 
King-Cat Comics and Stories.
Anthony Camera
Return to splendor: John Porcellino, creator of King-Cat Comics and Stories.

"I remember in the early years, people would write to me and say, 'You've got to check out American Splendor. It's this guy who does comics about his life, just like you do,''" Porcellino says. "But for many years I avoided it. I didn't want it to taint what I was doing. I was never like, 'Oh, autobio comics, I want to try that.' It had never been a conscious decision. From the start, it was just what I did. But I was afraid to see someone else doing the same thing as me."

Porcellino began making King-Cat in 1989, while attending Northern Illinois University. Although he had been involved with producing zines -- usually collections of art and poetry -- throughout high school, King Catwas his first solo effort. The intimate, almost confessional comic started with print runs of twenty copies, which he traded with fellow self-publishers around the country.

"I felt pretty socially inept as a teenager," he says. "I had all this stuff inside me: I knew I wanted to make art, and I knew I wanted to share stuff with people. But I felt totally shy, just alienated. Suddenly there was this way of actually getting in touch with people that I could relate to."

By the time he moved to Denver from Chicago in 1992, his zine was boasting a circulation of 800 to 1,200 copies. Though he would leave Colorado just six years later to buy a house in Elgin, Illinois, with his first wife, Porcellino wrote twenty installments of the King-Cat collection while working here as a mosquito-abatement man. Unlike the scores of autobiographical comics that appeared in the wake of American Splendor, Porcellino's were imbued with a raw, wrenching intimacy, resulting, in part, from their do-it-yourself format. "There is some kind of intangible quality about something that's handmade, where the artist is involved with every step of the process," he says. "There's an energy to it that I'm attracted to. I connect to it more. As long as I can remember, I was always drawing and writing and making little books out of it. I like the physicality of it, the feeling of holding onto something and turning the pages."

Pick up a copy of King-Catfrom the counter of a local hipster haunt like Wax Trax, and you'll be stricken by its starkness: a few sheets of plain white paper, Xeroxed and stapled together, etched with spidery lines that can barely contain the blankness of the pages. Sketches of owls or creeks or old houses adorn the cover. Inside are stories about Porcellino's day-to-day life: walks in the woods, memories of high school, encounters with wise old folk, exhumations of heartbreak. A few pieces are purely prose; others are pictures with no words. Most, though, are a combination of both, a careful and delicate balance between text and graphics, space and matter, humor and sadness. And like Zen parables, they sometimes come to an abrupt halt, without denouement, portraying the prosaic events of Porcellino's journey as more important than the destination.

"From a narrative viewpoint, real life doesn't always have a punchline," he expounds. "It doesn't always have a nicely crafted ending. I'm interested in the way life unfolds in this kind of beautiful way. To let yourself be aware of that kind of unfolding, you need to develop some patience."

To make sure his readers take the time to let his comics work their osmosis, Porcellino occasionally adds a directive to the beginning of his strips: "Please read slowly."

"Sometimes you have to fully pay attention to something for it to work itself into your psyche," he says. "You need to give it that time. With the 'Please read slowly' stories, I think the rate of reading them should be one breath per panel. Breathe in for the first panel; breathe out for the second panel. Then breathe back in again."

King-Cat number 62, the brand-new issue, demands such time. It's the first one Porcellino has put out since returning to Denver earlier this year. After he and his wife divorced, Porcellino went into a period of reclusion and worked as a stock boy in an Elgin health-food store. But after the fever of reflection broke, he met his new wife and decided to move back to his adopted home town and become a nutritionist.

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