[14 November 2005]
John Porcellino’s King Cat Comics may not seem at first glance to be a cornerstone of the international comics scene. Any given issue will look roughly the same: a small booklet composed of regular printer paper folded in fourths and stapled at the spine. It appears to be the kind of minicomic or zine that could have been published at any point in the last twenty years—small, cheap and disposable, with all the significance that such a description would imply.
But appearances can be deceiving. King Cat is no mere minicomic, it is probably the most famous and widely read minicomic of them all. Whereas many minicomics are conceived as either stepping stones for emerging and journeyman talent, or side projects for already-established cartoonists, King Cat is now exactly what it has always been. Established in 1989 and numbering somewhere in the 60s as of this writing (it’s hard for many fans—including myself—to stay current with Porcellino’s work as distribution is understandably spotty), King Cat is one of the purest and least affected artistic statements in the history of the medium. He could probably have jumped to a publisher like Fantagraphics at any point in the last decade, but has chosen to remain true to his initial vision of the book as the most perfectly personal outlet conceivable.
As such, compilations of Porcellino’s work by third-party publishers have a hard time staying in print. This is not the first printing of Perfect Example—it was originally published in 2000 by Tom Devlin’s late, lamented Highwater Press. In the wake of Highwater’s unfortunate demise, Drawn & Quarterly stepped up to reprint the volume. Hopefully, the combined efforts of D&Q and their distributor Farrar, Strauss & Giroux will be able to present the book to a suitably wide audience.
To put it as plainly as possible, Perfect Example is one of the best examples of autobiographical cartooning ever published. The book is a compilation of stories taken from the pages of King Cat, focusing on the events of Porcellino’s life during the summer after high school graduation and before college. On first glance Porcellino’s style may seem primitive and simplistic, but it is deceptively sophisticated. Eschewing the modulated ink-line of the brush for the even, unvaried line-weight of a technical pen, Porcellino’s drawings are unabashedly stark and hypnotically sparse: there are simply no extraneous or superfluous details. Absolutely everything that needs to be shown is shown, but not a single line more. The cumulative effect is quite powerful, the equivalent of an epic poem told in a series Zen koans: the enforced simplicity allows for a multitude of emotional responses to blossom in the space between the readers’ perceptions.
There is something inexplicable in the sheer emotional power of these stories. Porcellino’s experiences are not exceptional in and of themselves—he experienced the same uncertainty and romantic tribulations as anyone else, albeit with maybe a shade more melancholy. It’s the way he tells these stories that allows for such a sophisticated emotional response. Looking back with the privilege of hindsight, Porcellino is able to pinpoint the most important moments of his youth, selected passages of time cultivated for their special significance and combined in such a way that the narrative gains significance through successive interpolations of common thematic elements. Everyone will have experienced something in their life that reminds them of these events, but not everyone will have had the wherewithal to interpret the events in such an unstintingly profound manner. By the time the book draws to a close, Porcellino’s stories have developed such a stable and unflagging rhythm that you find yourself drawn in to the point where the book’s modest, emotional climax assumes awesome proportions.
There will probably always be something mysterious in Porcellino’s work. The ability to craft such indelibly emotional narratives out of irreducibly simple ingredients is at once beguiling and intimidating. It may not look like much on first glance, but there are few cartoonists alive today with as much of an intuitive understanding of the emotional possibilities of the comics form. Perfect Example is a devastating book.