Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground that though nearly nobody bought their albums, everyone who did formed their own band.
In the world of do-it-yourself mini-comics, John Porcellino has filled a similar role. Since its debut in 1989, King-Cat Comics has been the vanguard of the mini-comics scene, inspiring dozens of like-minded, lo-fi comic ’zines. Blending autobiographical content, poetry, nonfiction, Porcellino’s interest in nature and zen philosophies, and reader discourse into a personal journal of life observation, King-Cat Comics is arguably the most personal vision found in the world of sequential art fiction.
Following on the 320-page compilation King-Cat Classix, Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly is collecting ten more issues of King-Cat as an upscale, hardcover, titled Map of My Heart.
With King-Cat currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and Map of My Heart soon in stories, we thought it would be a great time to check in with creator John Porcellino.
Creating King-Cat is a very cathartic experience, Porcellino admits. “Without a doubt – yes. King-Cat, my art, is one of the big ways I process my experience in the world. It helps a lot,” he explained. “You know, it's hard too, making comics, and living this life sometimes, and I have even tried to quit at times, but I've always found that no matter how crazy doing comics makes me sometimes, not doing them makes me crazier. So I just kind of accept that this is my way of being in life, and keep moving along.”
King-Cat tackles a wide range of subjects, including autobiography, illustrated poetry, and fan letters. Porcellino says that the breakdown of content of each issue evolves organically as he begins to assemble each issue.
Porcellino: “I generally bumble around between issues, wondering if I'm ever going to have any new ideas, and slowly I start filling notebooks and bedside scraps of paper with ideas – memories, titles, poems, thoughts… Over time they accumulate and at some point I ‘see’ the new issue in my head: “Oh, so that's what the new King-Cat's going to be...” and at that point it becomes cohesive, I see the connections between the stories and the subtle ways the stories interact and offset each other. At that point I usually start drawing in earnest and get the new issue together. Then it all just starts over.”
“That's a good question, it kind of startled me, and maybe I need to bring that up with my therapist!” he cracked of the observation that his love of the natural world often seems to overwhelm the personal relationships in King-Cat. Long strips are devoted to Porcellino’s outdoor walks and encounters with the natural world; discussions of his family often occur in the introductory text passages rather than in comic sections. “But my first thought is that human relationships are complex, and there are a lot of emotions and feelings to consider when writing about them. I'm not just writing about my life, but other people's lives, only it's from my perspective. So in a way giving those relationships some space is respectful I think, or seems appropriate. Not everybody wants to see their humanity turned into a comic book story... I try to give those kinds of things time and space. Sometimes they come out in subtle, kind of oblique ways in my comics. But I don't consciously think too much about those kinds of things.”
Of his own and King-Cat’s zen-Buddhist influences, “I got interested in religion when, like a lot of people, I got sick,” Porcellino says, “and suddenly I was a 26-year-old guy being faced with mortality in a real way. It's a shock, and you try to find ways to understand and cope. I think I was always a ‘spiritual’ kind of person, with big questions in my head and a searching nature. Buddhism put these kinds of amorphous feelings and impulses I'd had for a long time into a context that seemed very close to me.
“It's influenced my comics in that when you practice for awhile, the connections between things become more apparent. At some point I found there was no separation between my self and my work, like my art and my life were completely interconnected. To me my life is ‘doing King-Cat’ – whether I'm drawing, writing, doing the dishes, sleeping, or talking to a friend, it's all ‘doing King-Cat.’ It's all the same thing. It's hard to explain I guess, but it's all just different aspects of the same larger thing.”
Text articles about plant or animal life feature heavily in King-Cat, as part of Porcellino’s love of the outside world.
He said of the articles, “I always liked being out in nature, and ironically, it was when I started working as a Mosquito Abatement Man again, in Colorado, in 1995, that my fascination with the natural world really blossomed. I had a co-worker who taught me a lot about plant species, and natural systems, and it was really fulfilling to me. I think I was always interested in this thing called ‘real life.’ And science is basically the study of ‘real life,’ I guess. Or – of human beings trying to wrap their minds around this strange, beautiful world. So that's what attracts me to it. I love learning about the world.”
In the span of the new collection, Map of My Heart, Porcellino marries and divorces, and move from Colorado and back to Colorado. Seeing his life compressed into a single book provides context for all that he’s lived through during the years documented in the book.
“Well, yeah, looking back – when you're in the midst of this change, turmoil, life, you don't really know where it's going,” he explained. “You can't see the big picture, or it just seems like random confusion. When enough time has gone past you can look back and see that stuff a little clearer. When putting the book together I was conscious of how that story kind of arcs along, and it seemed like a good way to organize the collection.”
After 20 years working on King-Cat Comics, an astonishing run for any comic, much less an independent mini-comic, he says that he plans to keep going for as long as he’s able.
“I feel like this is my work, it's what I want to do with my life, so that's one thing,” Porcellino said. “The other thing is that I'm pretty stubborn, and if I start something I want to finish it!”
Although he’s known as a leader in the DIY, self-published ’zine world, Porcellino laughs at the suggestion D&Q’s high-end hardcover collection is antithetical to King-Cat’s roots.
Porcellino: “I love 'zines, that format and that aesthetic, but I'm also a lover of books – that’s what got me into ‘zines in the first place – my attempts to make my own books. Both formats are valid to me. And frankly, a 360 page book that sells for $30 is about equal page for page to ten zines that sell for $3, so I'm okay with it on that front too.”
Finally, although he’s worked with Drawn and Quarterly for the King-Cat collections, published his acclaimed graphic novel Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man through a professional house, even created a Henry David Thoreau graphic novel for Hyperion, Porcellino intends to maintain King-Cat’s self-published ways.
“Like I said before, I'm stubborn,” he laughed. “I want to finish what I started, and that's King-Cat. I think it's important to me as a person that I don't give up. I've been doing King-Cat now for exactly half my life, and looking back it's one of the only real consistent threads throughout it all. I always say I want to keep track of and follow the ‘thread of my life.’ And King-Cat is a major part of that for me. It's just what I do.
“I'm about to head out on a long book tour of the Northeast and Midwest, for Map of My Heart and the King-Cat 20th Anniversary. When that's done I'll get started on the next King-Cat, which will be all about my cat Maisie Kukoc. After that I hope to start work on a stand-alone book of new material called The Hospital Suite, which centers on the summer of 1997, when my life changed suddenly, and drastically. And just keep drawing comics...”