Comics Studies, Alternative Comics, Publishing, and Legitimation
Charles Hatfield’s 2005 book Alternative Comics, although it overlooks Porcellino in favor of his contemporaries, hints at the importance of autonomy within the field of alternative comics. Contextualizing alternative comics as growing from the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s with their “pungent critique[s] of American consumerism” (Hatfield 2005, 12), he supports the ideas of autonomy and auteurism driving the movement of alternative comics, here exemplified by John Porcellino: “In essence, comix made comic books safe for auteur theory: they established a poetic ethos of individual expression... Today the privileging of self-expression in alternative comic books is a very strong tendency—the rule rather than the exception—and alternative comics publishers favor the comic book as a ‘solo’ vehicle for the individual cartoonist” (Hatfield 2005, 17-18). Similarly, Roger Sabin (1996, 178) describes the mainstream as being characterized by “profit-driven escapism,” a phrase which is the very antithesis of John Porcellino and King-Cat.
It must be noted that Hatfield’s phrase “alternative comics publishers” as applied to those who support and drive the elevation of self-expression could certainly be exemplified by Drawn & Quarterly, which, aside from publishing Porcellino’s collections, is famed for publishing auteur and autobiographical cartoonists similar in ethos to Porcellino such as Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Seth, and many other such leading figures in the field of alternative comics. Equally, this phrase and the weight of cultural assumption that it carries could apply to Porcellino as a publisher or, rather, as a self-publisher, privileging his own expression above all else and creating a publishing operation to sustain that idea as part of a wider comics landscape. Porcellino becomes a lone auteur and retains the essence of autonomy (with its bourgeois and mercantile histories) and self-expression that characterizes his life and work, whether he self-publishes or publishes with Drawn & Quarterly. Either way, the ethos and vision remains intact—another indication of the clear differences between the cultures of mainstream and alternative comics that Porcellino exemplifies.
Porcellino’s choice to work mostly in autobiographical cartooning is also one that facilitates a reading of his cartooning as pure self-expression; the genre of autobiography has been inextricably tied to the cultural legitimation of comics and is viewed as a marker of authenticity, a necessary component of a successful and resonant self-expression such as in comics like King-Cat. Alternative comics’s focus on autonomy and autobiography carries a promise of legitimacy for comics as a result of auteur theory having been prevalent in film (Beaty 2009).
This links to Hatfield’s assertion that alternative comics opened the art form to auteur theory using post-structuralist theory and Foucault’s assertion that “the author-function continued to exist to the extent that the concept upheld bourgeois sensibilities about art” (Beaty 2009, 229). In alternative comics, a majority of cartoonists work in autobiography because of these cultural promises, and Porcellino is no exception to this: in fact, his autobiographical stories foreground realism (in contrast to the formerly dominant traditions of fantasy in comics) and thus demand legitimacy and cultural acceptance.
Beaty (2009) underscores the reading of autonomy as bourgeois and is therefore more easily sought by those not othered by cultural and socioeconomic conditions. Porcellino is, after all, a straight, white, well- educated male who grew up in Illinois in economically and socially stable conditions, as evidenced by the quiet, green suburban scenes of Root Hog or Die, a documentary which moves at a slow pace concurrent with its shooting in such suburban areas. The reminder here of autonomy’s inherent tension—between its roots in mercantile individualism and its reaction against late capitalism’s drive toward utilitarian exploitation—echoes Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011)’s reading of autonomy’s ambivalence and contradictory nature (2011, 63) and is directly applicable to comics and thus to Porcellino.
Interestingly, Porcellino’s emphasis on self-expression does not betray any conscious awareness of his attempt to seek legitimation. This lack of awareness is, perhaps, the reason why Porcellino has not been canonized in the same manner as his contemporaries (e.g., Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel) and has received very little attention within the field of comics studies and within broader scholarship. Porcellino’s vision of self-expression, although it sits contextually within alternative comics and within Beaty (2009)’s assessment of autobiography as a genre fulfilling a promise of legitimacy, is one free from concerns of institutions, the materiality of books, the graphic novel format (at least at the beginning of his career, and his primary outputs), and any concern, in fact, except chronicling and emotionally archiving Porcellino’s own life. In this sense, Porcellino is atypical though by no means unique; there have been other zine makers, creators of minicomics, and underground cartoonists with similar visions. What makes Porcellino a unique case study, then, is his significant contribution to alternative comics’s legitimation while still retaining his DIY ethic. Or, to put it another way, he is the only cartoonist who has been consistently self-publishing a zine for 25 years who receives the publicity of a hagiographic quote from Chris Ware printed on the dust- jackets of his collected books. And, it would seem, only a true auteur and bastion of self-expression in comics could manage this feat, this bourgeois pose.
By his own admission, Porcellino has found working with publishers challenging, but he has nonetheless worked to achieve mutually beneficial relationships. Nevertheless, he views them as another outlet for his self-expression rather than as a necessity or an institution from which he stands to gain the legitimacy that Beaty (2009) suggests can be conferred upon comics through bourgeois promises. In an interview for the comics podcast Make It Then Tell Everybody, Porcellino discussed publishers with host and fellow cartoonist Dan Berry: “It definitely took me a while to adjust [to working with a publisher], and I think I can diplomatically say that it took some of the publishers a little while to adjust to me”
(Berry 2014). The fact that this adjustment did happen, however, is an indication that Porcellino is not a self-saboteur and does not deliberately allow the complexities of his version of freedom to stand between him and his expression. It seems that if working with Drawn & Quarterly will allow for a new avenue of fulfilling expression, retaining the auteurism inherent in his work with differences largely to do with materiality and publishing formats, Porcellino feels his cultural work to be largely uncompromised. Thus, his publisher affirms his autonomy and its bourgeois associations, legitimating his individualism and allowing it connect with its capitalist imperative to sell books.
Porcellino is quick to assure Berry, on the podcast, that Drawn & Quarterly are easy to work with: “You can’t ask for a more artist- friendly publisher than D&Q ... they have suggestions but ... they don’t say ‘you can’t publish this’ or ‘you can’t do that’” (Berry 2014). The phrase “artist-friendly” is the most significant here, assuring listeners that Porcellino’s number one concern is always his own welfare and treatment, implying that other publishers are not so artist-friendly and are corporate and commercially driven. The podcast interview also made Porcellino’s suspicion of commercialism and profit clear, as he concluded the discussion of trade publishing: “Just by the nature of the way these things [zines vs. books] are presented, they’re going to reach different people. And my goal as an artist is to reach the people who need to be reached. The books give me the opportunity to do that on kind of a different scale but in a different market, almost ... if I can use such a crass word” (Berry 2014). The conception of the word “market” as a crass word is one that holds weight for the producers of alternative comics. However, in the wider context of commercialism and the economy in which Porcellino’s publishers operate, the concept of a “market” is an essential one that cannot be ignored. Porcellino will be aware of this, but his engagement with it, like his engagement with publishers, distributors, and readers—indeed every person involved in a comic in the long chain from production to consumption—he thinks to be on his own terms. He can afford, where so many other cartoonists cannot, to dismiss the idea of a market as a crass one because his artist-friendly publishers allow him to do so, as does his success in selfexpression and singularity of vision. And it is this contradictory quality of both the content of his comics and his approach to their culture, I would argue, that makes Porcellino a such compelling case study in comics and cultural work.