The Complex Simplicity of John Porcellino

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Porcellino creates some of the most thoughtful, intelligent, sympathetic and, yes, beautiful comix in America. Good luck finding them. His "King-Cat Comics and Stories," has been around since 1989, but remains a photocopied, hand-stapled minicomic available only by mail or in the most extremely discerning comic/alternate media shops. Or so I thought. It turns out there are two high-quality, book-length collections of his work, both of which the TIME.comix staff happened to stumble upon this past week. "King-Cat Collection," (26pg; $5.95) published by B.u.L.b Comix of Switzerland, first appeared in 1998 and was just recently reissued. "Perfect Example," (Highwater Books; 72pg; $11.95) came out in March 2000, and would have been in the top five of the "Best Comix of 2000" list had I known about it.

In both books Porcellino uses autobiography to explore the universal exquisiteness of everyone's life. "King-Cat Collection" does this mostly with one page retellings of momentary events, or dreams, or even just sensations. "Late Bus" wordlessly depicts a high school kid in that eerie time of staying late after school. He fills his backpack from the locker in an empty hallway. Putting on his coat and hat he steps outside to discover it's snowing! The one, last, sad schoolbus waits.

"Perfect Example" primarily contains four longer, connected stories that tell of one summer during Porcellino's adolescence. Young John, living in an Illinois suburb, tries to figure out how relationships work and where he fits into the world while struggling with what must be the beginnings of chronic depression. That Porcellino manages to create an actual story arc out of life's random events should be cause for awe, but to also do it with such emotional insight and honesty seems frighteningly talented.

One memorable sequence starts out with, "I like mowing the lawn." Several panels go by with just "RRRR" as he pushes the mower. Then just as suddenly for us as for him, a thought: "I see now that I create my own unhappiness." A dog looks at us through the front window. "The things that happen to me aren't in themselves good or bad..." The dog leaves. "It's the way I react to them that makes them good or bad..." A moment of astonishing clarity for a boy and for book, told in the simplest context, where it stands out.

Simplicity best describes everything about Porcellino's work, including the drawings. Along several other "comix brut" artists like Tom Hart, Jon Lewis, and James Kochalka, Porcellino eschews finely shaded, meticulously detailed, or even accurate drawings in favor of a raw, "unprofessional" look. One panel of "King-Cat Collection" shows a woman stroking the top of a blob. A little flag points to it and reads, "a horse." Cars have only two wheels and look squashed flat. He draws only the outlines of things, and as little as he can get away with to identify the who and where of the scene.

The first page of John Porcellino's 'Late Bus,' from 'King-Cat Collection'

Besides having a child-like charm, this style means also to be instantly absorbable. It turns comix images into their most basic signifiers. After all, how much visual information do we need to know we are seeing a horse or car? And in Porcellino's case, it perfectly reflects the almost Zen quality of his writing. At the end of "Mountain Song" a muskrat (scarcely more than an oval with a line at the back) slips into a pond. Wordlessly, Porcellino then draws several panels of vaguely abstract images that could be either details of the pond or even increasingly distant images of the pond. The beauty is that both ideas are right. In the last panel he asks, "What is this world" and we share his wonder.

Both "King-Cat Collection" and "Perfect Example" are wonderfully printed, with soft cardboard covers and thick paper. They have a natural quality to them that matches the work. Of the two, "Perfect Example" will be the "easier" one to find, and more satisfying, with it's longer, more involved story. But either one, and preferably both, would be a strong addition to your library and your life.

Sadly, both "Perfect Example" and "King-Cat Collection" will be hard to find in comicbook stores or otherwise. But you can order "Perfect Example" from the publisher, Highwater Books, and For individual issues of "King-Cat Comics and Stories" write to John Porcellino.