Ask most people to name the greatest working female cartoonist, and they’ll reply, “Julie Doucet.” They’re wrong—Doucet stopped cartooning close to seven years ago—but their hearts are in the right place. Her comics are uniquely expressive, immediately recognizable, and provide instant, easy access to a compelling moment in history. Perhaps unfortunately, the greatest female cartoonist description follows her around US cartooning circles today. Ask most people to name the greatest working cartoonists, and you might hear Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Peter Bagge—men to whom Doucet’s work has often been compared. It is only when you add in the issue of gender that her work receives the recognition it is due.
This is partially because Doucet’s comics, rooted in autobiography, are uniquely feminine—and by that I do not mean frilly, pretty, or giggly. They are dark and rough and bloody. They depict drug use, psychosis, cutting, sex, and even motherhood as visceral, bodily experiences replete with complexities and deep emotional tolls. Also they are hilarious. Created in the unbordered, barely definable milieu of the Riot Girl movement, her 12-issue Dirty Plotte series captured Fuck You, Fuck Me Feminism in a manner only rivaled by the slip-dress/Doc Martens outfit pairing. The wildest and most prescient of these Dirty Plotte strips were always the dream sequences.
In these, Julie-the-character was constantly enacting the fantasies of my generation: to meet Mickey Dolenz and Nick Cave; to have a penis, just for a little while, to see what it was like; to birth a baby that was actually a pet kitty; to experience the life of a shoot-‘em-up cowboy; to masturbate on a space ship; and to be handed someone else’s cut-off penis, just for a little while, to see what that was like. These stories were originally collected into My Most Secret Desire in 1995, and the recent reprinting of this collection, in April of 2006, serves to remind readers how ahead of its time Doucet’s comics were.
Foretelling the recent hot-topic issues of gender dysphoria and cutting, Dirty Plotte—regrettably, the Canadian artist’s only major contribution to the medium—even earned Julie- the-cartoonist a spot in the 1999 Le Tigre song “Hot Topic.” Alongside artists as diverse as Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Gertrude Stein, Carolee Schneeman, Angela Davis, Dorothy Allison, and Joan Jett, Julie Doucet is honored as one of our most beloved cultural revolutionaries, even as the media proclaim the death of feminism. “You’re getting old that’s what they say but / Don’t give a damn I’m listening anyway,” Kathleen Hanna sings, underscoring that, while the days of a comprehensive women’s movement may be past, the vital work of individual women still demands our explicit attention.
It is in this context that Doucet’s comics must be viewed. (And really, they must be viewed.) Sure, the work fits into a feminist movement—quite easily, in fact, even despite her protestation that her aims were never specifically feminist—but it also explores more resounding artistic questions. “How important is physical health to art?” her comics ask, and, “Do successful portrayals of sexuality rely on the gender of either the artist or the main character?”, and “How important is success, if it impedes personal happiness?” Like the questions raised by the work of Gertrude Stein, Angela Davis, and Joan Jett, these are universal concerns, not feminist ones. And so we come to the second reason most people are wrong when they proclaim Julie Doucet the greatest working female cartoonist: because she was simply one of the great cartoonists. No further description necessary.
Yet the reasons Doucet left cartooning are not widely discussed, probably because the isolation she felt in the field, partially due to being a woman in the masculine world of comics, may be a point of shame for other cartoonists. But also, she’s fairly shy, a pretty, quiet-voiced, French Canadian-accented woman not quite as bold as her linework (and with hair not quite as messy). Moreover, she’s left cartooning for the less nerdy and more gender-aware environs of the general art world, and she’s happy there. She’s also successful, in part because her cartooning past gives her current work a strong narrative and autobiographical root people seem drawn to.
Doucet spoke with me over the telephone on the eve of the rerelease of My Most Secret Desire by Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based comics publisher that got its start by putting out Doucet’s work. For the most part, we limited our conversation to comics, which may seem a strange choice since she no longer works in the field. However, she’s profoundly influenced by her experiences with the medium, remains a strong influence in it, and as you will see, still makes a living from it. She just isn’t going to go back. I was honored that she opened up to me about her former work and current passion.
Julie Doucet won’t be lured back into drawing more comics—why would she be? Her recent work is too compelling, and she loves doing it—but those of us who still work in the field can still learn from the experiences she had while she was there.
Interview by Anne Elizabeth Moore
As I was rereading Dirty Plotte the other night, I realized that we had corresponded in the mid-‘90s. I came across a note you’d written in one of my books: “Anne, This is the one I was telling you about. Julie.”
That’s funny. Were you drawing comics or anything like that?
I was not, but I was reading them voraciously: everything by you, Chester Brown, Ellen Forney,
Peter Bagge, Mary Fleener. But you aren’t drawing comics anymore.
No, it’s been almost seven years. Six years and a half.
What was the last comics work you published?
The Madame Paul Affair. That was the last thing I did pretty much. It was running in the newspaper. And the last of it was published in November ‘99, something like that.
Do you miss anything about it, or are you simply glad to be done?
Oh, I’m glad. I’m so glad. I was sick of it, I mean, it took me three years to find a way to get out of it. Because I was making just enough money to be able to live, but not enough to be able to take a break. You know, I spent [exasperated sigh] 12 years drawing comics and only comics, not even a sketchbook. So I’d be working like a dog all the time. And it was just no fun anymore. And the crowd, it started to drain. I couldn’t take it anymore.
Your particular fans, or the readership of comics in general?
Oh, no no. It’s about—it was like an all-boys crowd. Which I was really comfortable with when I started. But then it changed. I guess I changed. You know, all they talk about is comics, comics, comics. And they are not interested much in anything else. Not very open-minded, I feel. I had enough of the comics-nerd attitude.
Hmmm. I’ve experienced that, too.
So I’m not crazy? I don’t think I suffered from sexism, like I never had problems to be published or anything like that. Was I being paid less? Who knows—certainly not by Drawn & Quarterly.
Then how did the all-boys crowd come to affect you?
Most of my problems came from the love relationships, the fact that I was the successful one. Since I was in a men’s world it took me quite a long time to get to talk about that with other women who had the same type of experiences. I can tell you, that really poisoned my life. And in a way that is what I am most resentful of, when I think back, of those comics years.
And what have you been working on since?
I’m mostly writing now. When I quit comics I became a member of a printing studio. My specialty at the university was printing, and then when I quit the university I never ever thought about it again, until now. And so, when I quit comics and I did my first print, I was completely shocked. It felt like, “That’s what I was supposed to do all that time.” So I did Melek, a linocut book, and the Long Time Relationship book. And then I did some screenprinting, objects and books. Mostly variable experiments. Collages. A lot of collages. I write with—I cut out words in magazines and I have been writing small text parts to go under the collage. Then I wrote my autobiography from zero to 15 years old with cut-out words.
Has that been published?
Yes, It’s 208 pages, it’s been published in France. That is a really funny one. The way I did it was, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, then I’d look around in old magazines for the words that could express what I had in mind. Or segments of sentences. I’d use old French ‘60s magazines, Elle, Paris Match . . . because the typography is more interesting, and the vocabulary more colorful . . . Now I’m writing poetry with cut-out words. Bad love poems. [Both laugh.] Yeah, they are pretty funny. Very cynical, but cynical and funny. All in French . . . I am sorry, French is my first language!
So I’ve been doing a little papier-mache sculpture and woodcuts. So, I’ve been doing quite a lot of things, in the past seven years. There is also the journal project. It comes very close to comics. For one year, I drew/wrote one page per day. Comics people would say, “Oh, this is not comics.” But modern art people would say, “Oh, this is comics.” I didn’t feel I was drawing comics when I did it. Probably because I intended to do something closer to a sketchbook. No penciling, lots of texts, and no narration between the images.
Is this how you are making a living?
Well no. It’s very, very ironic. I’m making more money with comics now than when I was drawing them. Because of the royalties and also from selling comics originals. I’ve been doing some illustration work. Somehow, it’s amazing, but I’m able to make a living out of that.
Well, this doesn’t surprise me terribly much. Your renown as a comics creator is fairly overwhelming. You’ve been compared to Crumb . . .
You sound surprised, but you must have read these reviews, too.
Yes but, it’s always, uh. I dunno. I still can’t believe it. I will never get used to that. The other day I was in a bar with a friend and when we got out, this guy comes out and he wants to talk to me, and he was like, “Are you Julie Doucet?” It turned out he was a guy from Chicago, and he just wanted to say, “I love your work.” That doesn’t happen too often, though.
How does it feel to be placed among the comics greats? You’re obviously still flattered by it.
Uh-hmmm . . . yes, of course, it is very flattering. Especially Crumb, he is such an amazing artist.
Your renown as a feminist in the wider culture, however, is almost stronger than your renown in comics. It sounds like your status as a comics icon still surprises you, but does your status as a feminist icon?
Yeah, in a way that surprises me even more. Because I never intended to create that identity. Like I said, in those days I didn’t hang out with women. I had such a low self-esteem. I thought I was ugly, not feminine enough, that I didn’t fit . . . and saw the other women as competition. That’s why I was more comfortable with being with men only. So I was very far from thinking that any other women could relate to what I was doing! I did whatever came to my mind, I was just being myself. And obviously, I am a feminist. It’s very strange to see what people see in my work.
Do you feel like you were a part of Riot Girl? And what did you think of the Le Tigre song?
At the time I was not very interested in things like that . . . I knew Riot Girl existed, but had no idea what they did exactly. Of course, I did hear the Le Tigre song. Once again very flattered, but that is very, very weird to be in a song of a well-known band. I didn’t buy the CD, I can’t deal with it. I mean, I love it when I hear it, but wouldn’t listen to that at home. Too much.
Has your work has been misinterpreted?
No, no. But I didn’t really mean anything special [by it], like I said. I don’t know. When the work comes out, it’s not my business anymore. I mean, people should . . . everybody should have their own interpretation, their own experience with it.
As you prepared for the rerelease of this book, what struck you about this work now?
Oh, I didn’t know it was out of print. [Drawn & Quarterly] proposed it, thought it could be a nice edition because it was first published 10 years ago, sort of an anniversary . . . It was a popular book. I guess I don’t have a notion of how popular I am.
Do you want to have a notion of how popular you are?
Not really. Well sort of, but I am rather naive about it, I think. That’s what it is. [Laughs.]
What was it about collecting the dream comics that appealed to you originally? I mean, some of them were done 15 or 16 years ago now.
It was not my idea.
It turned out to be an interesting way of compressing some of your most feminist work into one single, dream-like narrative. Throughout Dirty Plotte’s entire 12-issue run, in fact, you addressed issues that have really just come to the fore in recent years. Transgender issues, body image issues, cutting. Can you talk about those some?
Oh. The cutting stuff. Well, very quickly I realized I was not alone. There were quite a lot of people doing that around the same time. I guess it was in my surroundings. I mean, it was strange, but I didn’t make it up.
How closely did your comics mimic your real life, and how much were you exaggerating for the sake of telling a story?
Ah [laughs] . . . it was fairly realistic. Yeah, that was my way of life at the time.
So do you honestly think that your appliances hated you?
Oh . . . well . . .
I mean, they might have . . . like that damn iron.
Oh, I didn’t even have an iron. Maybe it was not that realistic.
The other question that arises when we talk about realism is, was it difficult entering the all-boys’ club of comics while attempting to represent your own sexuality?
I never felt like it was a problem. They all loved it. [They] were uncomfortable with the periods stories, which I thought was funny, silly. But told a lot. At first I could never imagine I would ever be published, so it was not a big issue. It was very much about myself, my own sexuality . . . exploration, acceptance. You know I have my own limits, of what I would never put in my work, I have my taboos. You can say it was also a little therapy for me.
Speaking of exploring yourself, epilepsy was a big issue in your life while you were drawing comics, and a subject for your autobiographical pieces. When did you fi rst realize you had epilepsy?
I had my first seizure when I was about 14. I didn’t realize it because I lost consciousness and when I woke up I was walking on a dirt road with one of my aunts. I didn’t know; she didn’t tell me anything.
Did she know something was going on?
Yeah, of course. But nobody told me anything. So when eventually I went to the doctor’s office with my mom, the doctor told me, “So, you lost consciousness.” And I was, “Whaa?” [Laughs.] My mom said, “Of course you did, Julie.” So that’s how I learned.
That’s a pretty fragile age to be told you have a serious health issue.
Yeah, but at the time they said that I would be taking medication for four years and after that there would be a good chance that it would change back. My reaction was like, “Oh, this makes me special!” My mom cried. I was really shocked, at the same time, but it made me special and I loved that.
But you ended up taking medication for much longer than four years.
Oh yeah, I’m still . . . At this point, I’m 40 years old. It’s going to be for the rest of my life.
And you are back in Montreal now.
Oh, I lived in New York and Seattle and one year back in Montreal, then in Seattle once again. Then I lived in Berlin for two years. Then I came back to Montreal in 1998.
Montreal is probably the only place in the world I could live and be able to live off my comics. `Cause it’s so cheap, compared to the States and also to Europe. And it’s French-speaking here. It’s a very comfortable place. The only thing is that I don’t meet that many people who have this emergency of doing things, who are very passionate about what they do here. Which I miss, but at the same time, it is a very good place to work. I am a member of a printing studio which is very cheap and I would never find that anywhere else.
You’re more comfortable in a French-speaking environment, it sounds like.
I guess so, yeah. I’m also able to buy French books. Very important. And I have friends here I can talk to about literature and exchange books.
And those grants . . .
I got one in 1999. I was able to quit comics when I got this second grant . . .
The first you had used to support your work in comics. What was that like?
[Chortles.] It’s nice . . .
Did you get the check and just laugh for six months until the money was gone?
Oh, you’re not really supposed to do that. The first one I used to get out of Montreal. [Laughs.]
I have this Swedish cartoonist friend, Gunnar Lundkvist, who got a lifetime grant! They had that sort of thing in Sweden. They give you money every year. Can you believe it? It’s crazy. But it was bad for him because he couldn’t work anymore, he lost all his will, couldn’t get himself to sit down and draw. It took years but now he got over it. Yeah, when people are too comfortable, it seems they lose all motivation.
Here in Chicago we tend to have the opposite problem. We work and work and work, and often fail to seek recognition when we should. It’s equally unhealthy, but at least we’re getting stuff done.
Yeah, I couldn’t live without work. That’s one thing. I became so passionate about what I’m doing since I quit drawing comics . . . I didn’t think I had it in me, to be that passionate about—anything.