Julie Doucet’s comics changed history

anne Elizabeth Moore Julie doucet

At The Paris Review, there’s an excerpt from a book by comics scholar Anne Elizabeth Moore on the work of French-Canadian underground cartoonist Julie Doucet:

Doucet’s work, overall, is nothing but destabilizing. It throws readers for loops; it brought momentum and new creators to independent comics; it inspired one of today’s most important publishers to develop solo-authored lines and thus acted as a flagship for the black-and-white boom even as it cleared a path for the graphic-novel boom a decade later; it changed our very presumptions about who can and will master the form of comics. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Julie Doucet’s comics changed history. Yet what’s never been clear to anyone—the enduring mystery of the murderous home goods, if you will—is how much the upending of the form was ever truly the artist’s intention.

Marking the occasion of Drawn & Quarterly’s launch of Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet, at Comics Art Brooklyn a couple of Sundays ago, Moore interviewed Doucet, who began self-publishing mini-comics and zines in Montreal in the late 1980s. Drawn & Quarterly started to issue her Dirty Plotte as a regular-sized comic book in 1991, and Doucet worked in comics for 15 years before moving on from the medium to make other kinds of visual art.

Oversized reproductions of Doucet’s black and white comics were projected on the wall in a classroom at Pratt Institute while Moore talked to her about her work and how she felt about it now. With heavily cross-hatched backdrops, the projections rippled with outsized energy. Doucet’s panels, whether depicting her semi-autobiographical character drinking in a dark tavern or “herself” as a menstruating Godzilla, thrashing about a cityscape, were inky and crowded, although not crowded enough to blot out the granular details: Even from our seats, you could make out the individual wormy strands of hair atop the wobbly figures that dominate her visuals. The artist made no secret of having been uncomfortable with the praise she was getting from the audience and from Moore, but the talk had an air of everyday conversation. It was fascinating, particularly for those (such as myself) largely uninitiated with the work at hand.

The Dirty Plotte creator talked about how comics offered little variety aesthetically when she had decided to stop working in the medium (“At the time, comics were very formatted, and there was very little freedom on the page”), and spoke to being virtually alone as a woman at the time.

“It was very much a boys’ club; I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Doucet explained. “There were so little women, there was no social media.”

Moore writes in her book about this being part of the point:

The daring adventures of Julie Doucet’s smart, hot, disheveled, and sometimes rageful imaginary self just goofing off or engaging in semierotic play with an array of mammalian coconspirators have seared themselves into the minds of a generation of readers. These fanciful images from a world in flux pointed the way for creators seeking inspiration from nocturnal visions and creators with stories to share from their own experiences. Not to mention creators—women and nonbinary ones, in particular—who hadn’t had impetus to imagine themselves in the creative role before coming across Doucet’s work. Among other merits, Doucet’s strips gifted the field of comics with the hope that creators who are not male might eventually see mainstream acceptance. I can’t stress enough how important this is.

At CAB, Moore discussed Doucet’s impact on comics, in addition to the impact she had on readers as a woman, depicting in comics’ “unique language involving words and images” conversations, feelings, and critical life moments that before then hadn’t been brought anywhere close to the comics page.

“You took this very private thing, and you shared it with people, and it worked,” Moore told Doucet.

Image © Julie Doucet, 1996 via Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet. Buy Anne Elizabeth Moore’s book, Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet. I wrote about Moore’s reporting on the garment industry for Hyperallergic in 2016.