It’s 1994 and I’m walking up Bourke Street. Imagine for a second that this is a comic: I’m pictured in black ink, mid-stride, just left of a doorway. The sign for Minotaur (my local comic shop) is visible over a flight of stairs inside the door. Above my head is a thought bubble, with pictures of comic books inside a love heart. They’re not superhero comics nor are they like Archie. They’re literary comics (also known as underground or alternative comics). Their covers differ wildly, but they share one thing, a warning: ‘For mature readers’.
It’s not that the comics I read are filthy or even pornographic (although their storylines often consider both filth and pornography). The stories are very human. They contemplate things I can relate to in the 90s – shared housing, hormonal skirmishes, time with friends, being broke – and they’re written by my contemporaries. These artists nod at their forefathers (like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman) and then they stretch the genre further.
I love dozens of different literary comic artists and anthologies. Among my favourites of the 90s are Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet and Peep Show by Joe Matt. Both are published by Drawn and Quarterly, both are essentially non-fiction and feature autobiographical characters who masturbate, have sex fantasies, are broke and a little lonely. Plus they each lean on and learn from their ensembles of good friends. Yet the very nature of the medium is that despite these similarities both comics are poles apart.
Doucet explores her world inch by inch in scratchy detail. The protagonists wander through streets, catch trains, sit in bars, apartments and classrooms. They exchange dialogue in the culturally proscribed way, but seem oblivious to the cacophony of living objects around them. Beer bottles have legs and run across the floor yelling ‘Bitch!’ and ‘Shit!’ Empty cups with hands hang out together on street corners. A clothing iron is out to kill, a roast chicken becomes a friend, and in one story Doucet joins her telephone in a pas de deux. In Dirty Plotte, every space is literally alive with detail.
Joe Matt also labours over his work. But where Doucet’s inner imagination and unique drawing style entice me into Dirty Plotte, it’s Matt’s respect for the conventions of comic books that lure me into Peep Show. It has a slicker aesthetic (no value judgements there). Matt will pop a face out of a flat black background. He’ll apply the craft to expertly convey all kinds of expressions in his characters (for example, two faces connected with a series of lines to affect the double take).
In both comics, dialogue isn’t just dialogue. Capitalisation, emphasis and the shape of a word bubble are all devices. In the story An English Lesson (Dirty Plotte #2), Doucet uses font, collage and backward letters to help play out an increasing drunkenness. Images tell us what the dialogue can’t: our protagonists become slouched and deranged, a clean table is gradually littered with spills and beer glasses. And all this across only 12 panels (two pages).
Where Doucet’s world spins within each panel, Matt winds stories into stories. In Bins Whacker Part Three (Peep Show #6), Andy (one of Matt’s protagonists) has realised Matt wrote him (a little unkindly) into an earlier issue of the comic. Andy sees Matt in the street and confronts him. The six-panel exchange includes icicled word bubbles as well as droplets conveying different levels of fear, surprise and exasperation in Matt’s face. Finally a little tornado line swirls above his shamed, hanging head. The scene plays to Matt’s portrayal of himself as a little hopeless and unlikeable. But throughout Peep Show it’s clear he’s a skilled comic artist using all available tools of storytelling and illustration.
I made dozens of visits up those stairs to Minatour throughout the 90s, waiting for the latest issues of my favourite literary comics. Since then Matt’s entire series has been anthologised in Peep Show: the Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt and most of Dirty Plotte is available in Doucet’s My New York Diary. These book-version anthologies have created new readers for both artists, but I will always treasure my original print-runs, and my memories of the 90s that come with them.
Pepi Ronalds (@pepironalds) is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. She keeps a blog for writers, Future of Long Form: which explores the space between writers and readers in the new media galaxy. It was selected as an official Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. Learn more on her website www.pepironalds.com.