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.
"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 Cat was 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-Cat from 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.
With tales of open highways, broken razors and drifting clouds -- as well as a Top 40 list that extols the virtues of The Young Ones, Henry David Thoreau, Mad magazine and Taoist meditation -- 62 is his most touching and quietly confident work yet. And confident he should be: The last few years have seen Porcellino heaped with praise and accolades usually unheard of for makers of such humble works. In 2000, Boston's Highwater Books published a gorgeously produced graphic novel of his work under the name Perfect Example; its run of 2,600 copies has already sold out. Foreign-language anthologies of King-Cat were recently released in Germany and Switzerland, and earlier this year the self-effacing cartoonist was included on Utne's list of "40 Artists Who Will Shake the World" -- alongside such luminaries as Tom Waits and Cremaster auteur Matthew Barney.
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"It was 50 percent flattering and 50 percent embarrassing," Porcellino says, then deadpans, "Now that 2003 is almost done, I believe I have shaken the world."
Seriously though, even with all the acclaim and recognition King-Cat Comics and Stories has been garnering lately -- not to mention the success of American Splendor and its kindling of interest in autobiographical comics -- the 34-year-old has no interest in moving his zine up to the next level.
"If some bigger publisher offered to take over King-Cat, I would say no," he says emphatically. "I would have to give up so many aspects of what I do that I deeply value. It takes so much energy and time to do all the little things, but I've realized that I like doing them. I like dealing with the few stores around the country that carry King-Cat. I like addressing envelopes. I like going down to the post office with big stacks and laying them all on the counter. And I like that personal connection with the people who read it. To give that up, it just wouldn't be worth it.
"This is what I do," he adds, in a voice as gentle and resigned as Pekar's is strident and stalwart. "And this is the way I do it. For better or for worse, that's what I'm going to keep doing."