My New York Diary
Martin Skidmore — 30-Mar-11
It’s easy to not notice just how superb an artist Doucet is. The autobiographical confessional form, pretty common these days, has appealed to a lot of limited artists – often to good effect, nonetheless – as well as some all-time comics greats, most obviously Robert Crumb. Doucet’s rather cramped drawings with figures with huge heads can look simple or even awkward, until you pay some attention.
She can draw anything, flawlessly, and she uses this skill combined with a kind of obsessional energy and eye for detail to flesh out every location, every small item in a room, every item of clothing. And this isn’t just spacefilling – it’s all worth having there, contributing to atmosphere and character and so on, creating an exceptionally powerful sense of place. It’s also worth pointing out that the detail in these panels is almost always worth close study – lots of little things made me smile.
She’s great at faces too – every nuance of emotion and expression is there, even on difficult challenges like letting us realise the character is acting one way while feeling another, something that the vast majority of artists fuck up very badly.
(I idly wonder if her epilepsy and precise artistic detail may be related.I’m epileptic myself, and get petit mal tunnel vision episodes, where I stop seeing a room at a glance but have to stare at some specific detail to make it out, building up an overall image a few pixels at a time, so to speak. I’ve known it get to the point where I am reading and consciously taking in one letter at a time, remembering each and spelling out the words that way (thankfully I am sane enough not to keep doing this for more than seconds). No idea if this is relevant, but it seems a possible connection.)
The writing is slightly odd – she came to fluent English late (she’s French Canadian), so there are lines that read as if stiffly translated, but she also often catches the rhythm and subtleties of English dialogue beautifully, revealing character and subtext and hidden motives in witty and moving ways. She also shares what is I suppose a pretty standard quality in her genre, an unflinching way of facing her own faults alongside those of others. These stories of her first sexual experience, of her frustrating and rather screwed-up time at college, her epilepsy and in particular the longest section, about living with a boyfriend in NYC, watching the relationship deteriorate painfully, all have an emotional rawness combined with a control and restraint (especially in technical, formal terms – she never seems to overplay anything), a rare blend and one she pulls off superbly. I kept being interested in all of her personal ups and downs: when her first meetings with Art Spiegelman or Charles Burns are no more than tiny cameos, and you don’t care that they aren’t extended beyond that, that must mean she’s doing something right in the rest of the comic.
I’ve given some pretty glowing reviews to a few superhero comics lately, and while the new FF and Powers and Brubaker’s Cap are all excellent comics, this makes me realise that I have been spending too high a proportion of my time and money on these kinds of things, and maybe losing a bit of perspective in the process. I think despite an appreciation of the rest of comics, I am too easily sucked in by the gaudy thrill-power promises of superheroes, so rarely fulfilled and, in all honesty, pretty thin stuff even in most of the best of them. I don’t plan to stop reading my favourites there, but it’s been simpler when looking for things to review to buy the latest #1 from Marvel or DC or Image, rather than seeking out great stuff that doesn’t come with the same kind of hype or a flashy cover. The deep pleasures from a volume like this inspire me to cast my net more widely in future – Julie Doucet has been around for decades, so I already knew her work to some degree, but I bet there are lots of great newer talents that I’ve been ignoring, to my own detriment. Time to try to change that. And to find all of the Julie Doucet I have missed, because this is a wonderful comic.