Back in 1989, John Porcellino was a twenty-year-old art student at Northern Illinois University, living in the suburbs, playing in rock bands, experimenting with zines. Inspired by Julie Doucet’s “Dirty Plotte,” he decided to start his own comics-based zine, “one that would be a totally personal statement from me to the world,” he’d later write. King-Cat Comics and Stories was born.
In late 2020, he published the eightieth issue, basically still in its original format—thirty-two-to-forty-eight pages of black-and-white drawings on digest-sized copier paper. He’s now fifty-two years old and over those thirty-odd years, his work steadily earned acclaim, winning awards and compiled into books. This month, Drawn & Quarterly is reissuing three of those books, “King-Cat Classix,” “Map of My Heart” and “Perfect Example,” which collect the best of the first fifty issues of King-Cat into a matched set. And this summer, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art will include Porcellino’s work, including a vitrine containing all of the single issues of his zine, in its intended blockbuster show, “Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now.”
When we write about our lives, in correspondence or books, we tend to focus on the supposedly landmark events. The day-to-day just doesn’t mean enough. In comics, though, the mundane is everything. Those are the real moments—the small or not-so-small waves of emotion, the short encounters with friends and strangers that ultimately make up the bulk of a lifetime. This is the stuff of Porcellino’s work.
In its total, Porcellino’s “memoir” is vast; these three books alone total 876 pages. And in seeing how he finds simple grace and beauty in the everyday of his life, I kept thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3600-page “novel,” “My Struggle,” in its concerns, scope and accomplishment. Porcellino’s is mostly an “unexceptional” life, of dead-end suburban jobs, failed marriages, health problems. Yet his work illuminates the greatness of all humanity, for in his own existence, he finds beauty in his surroundings, in nature, his pets, in encounters with strangers. And he exhibits an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and spirituality of a higher and more intellectual order. In between his stories about his life, we get mini-treatises on natural phenomena, metaphysical meditations on life and love found in poetry, and lists of things that are inspiring him.
We spoke recently via telephone and email.
Do you see your life’s work basically as an ongoing memoir, recorded as it’s lived?
Yeah, I do, at this point… At the beginning it was all just doing stuff as it came to me, without much thought—although even at the beginning I knew I wanted King-Cat to be something open enough that, as my life changed over time, the zine could change along with it. At some point, I realized what was happening with King-Cat—that it was documenting, in small pieces, one continuous stream of experience—and that started to become more of a conscious focus of mine.
Early on I was living a kind of wild life—playing in bands, traveling constantly, drinking to excess… Trying to cram as much experience into my life as I could—so there was always something to write about, even if I was writing about really mundane things like walking around the neighborhood, or going grocery shopping. I would go out into the world and have some experience and then almost immediately sit down and write about it. As time went on, things quieted down a bit. A big turning point was in the mid-nineties when my health issues began. I had no choice but to slow down and tone down that kind of crazy life I’d been leading. So you slow down, and naturally you start to reflect. It was in those years where I began to look back more often—to write about events in my life, but with the added perspective of some years to help put things together. That’s where I start to see the slight distinction between diaristic writing and what you might call memoir.
Can you talk about the evolution of your drawing and storytelling style?
I was a punk-rock kid, so I was really into the idea of spontaneity, throwing stuff down on paper and letting it stand, warts and all. I didn’t do much refining or editing… just kept the ball rolling. But you do something long enough and you can’t help but get better at it. In those days there were no schools where they taught you how to make comics. I was in art school at NIU, getting a degree in painting, but if you mentioned to your instructors you were interested in comics back then it wasn’t even so much as an eye-roll as a kind of “get away from me” disgust. So, with King-Cat, I was teaching myself how to make comics as I went along. Basically woodshedding. The early years of King-Cat were me trying all kinds of different approaches, succeeding sometimes, and failing other times, and kind of learning in real time what worked for me and what didn’t.
I’ve always been attracted to formal simplicity in art, whether it’s painting or writing or filmmaking, poetry, or music… That’s what was in my blood. My comics just naturally evolved that way. They were always simple—but maybe crude—and gradually I found ways to refine that simplicity. Where I was once energized by the ugliness of a line, I began to be energized by making a more graceful arc. I think there’s still a bit of that original crudity—the physicality of drawing a line with ink on paper—but it’s been harnessed in a different direction.
I should note that this was never something I approached consciously, more I always wanted King-Cat, my comics, to just naturally be what they wanted to be. I basically wanted to get down on paper the comics I saw in my head. That was true at the beginning and still true today.
For much of your life, you’ve lived just outside of Chicago—in the suburbs, Beloit. What’s your relationship to the city from this perspective and how did it inform your art?
I grew up in Jefferson Park and as a little kid the city was all I knew. The summer of 1979 we moved out to Hoffman Estates, and it felt like living in the country. There were still working farms in the area, and lots of woods and fields to get lost in. It was then I developed a love and appreciation for nature. In junior high, high school, I took every art class they offered, and we would take field trips into the city to go to Art Expo, or visit the galleries in River North. I was an adolescent then and saw the city through romantic, artistic eyes. Though I lived in the suburbs, the city itself always felt like home to me. I always assumed I’d go back, but after college I ended up in Denver. I was drawn there by the weather and incredible affordability. I paid $175 for a room with all utilities paid and free cable! In the heart of the city.
After that I traveled around from coast to coast, coming back to Chicagoland at times, basically following cheap rent and creative opportunities, until I ended up in Beloit ten years ago. I kind of half-jokingly tell people I live as close to Chicago as I can afford. It’s a good middle ground. I’m an hour or so from Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, but it’s affordable, relatively quiet, with lots of open space around. I miss the creative energy of city life, but I also don’t know if my nervous system is capable of handling it anymore.
There is a certain Midwestern kind of cartooning school—that emphasizes the everyday, with a kind of gentle, loping humor—that I think I fit into. It’s an art informed by the feel of the Midwest. Historically, Chicago has been a center of cartooning since its very earliest days. There’s a line that runs from Clare Briggs, Harold Gray, Frank King through to the Imagists (enormous heroes of mine and a big reason I make comics) and contemporary Chicago-adjacent cartoonists like Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga and Keiler Roberts. I’m happy to have lucked into encountering that stream.
You have consistently self-published King-Cat Comics for more than thirty years, through and after the heyday of printed zines. Why did you stay with that so long? What are the economics like? Are you making a living off comics and, if so, how long have you been able to do so?
Well, for me, the fact that King-Cat is self-published is an integral part of what it is. It’s a zine, it’s my zine. That’s the culture I grew up in, that meant so much to me, that informed every part of my life, and is still my focus—DIY. My whole adult life has been trying to answer the question of “What I want to do, and the way I want to do it, goes against every strain of mainstream American life… How do I sustain it?” When I started King-Cat it wasn’t a question, it was just what you did. You didn’t just listen to underground music, you started a band, and then you put out your own records, organized your own shows. If you were a writer, you self-published a zine. Comics is a huge subsection of the Zine World. So, I made comics and printed them up myself.
There’s a certain point, a point that is I think the hardest to navigate for long-running zines, which is—kind of by their nature a zine is a labor of love—but what happens when all of a sudden it grows big enough that the printing bill is no longer $25, it’s $2,500? There’s all of a sudden a whole lot of labor that needs to happen behind the love! That’s the point where, sadly, a lot of zine publishers capsize. It’s a really difficult spot. I was either lucky enough or wily enough, or willing to sacrifice a “normal American life” enough to make sure that my art was able to be the focus of my life. I sacrificed a lot. I learned to really like homemade bean burritos. I was willing to move across the country to save a bit in rent. Above all else, my independence was the thing. And I managed to get past that crucial hump. There were many times I wanted to quit, and even tried to quit, but not making comics made me sadder than making them.
I quit my last straight job in 2006 and now I do make a living off comics—but that includes self-publishing King-Cat, royalties from my books, doing commissioned artwork, and mainly, running my distro Spit and a Half. If I have to have a day job, staying home in a spare bedroom and selling cool comics through the mail is a pretty good one. I could probably eke out a living off King-Cat alone, I’ve done it at times in the past, but it’s very stressful and will run a person ragged fast. So I do a little of everything and it adds up. And like I’ve mentioned, my whole adult life has basically been a search for lower overhead. I live cheap.
I currently print 2,000 copies of each issue—about 800 of those go out right away to subscribers and Patreon supporters, another several hundred go out to zine-friendly shops. The rest I put on a shelf and make available as back issues. The vagaries of the publishing world are such that I make as much personal profit selling one King-Cat at $5 as I do in royalties on the sale of a $30 book. That’s not a dig, it’s just the way the thing works. I’m super-happy to have my books out there, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle. It’s just to say that self-publishing is a crucial component of being able to support myself as an artist.
Friends and family are seen throughout your work, as they are in most memoirs. But certain personal themes seem to recur in your work, and I wonder if you could comment on them, how your relationship has evolved to them, and how it all connects for you: nature and animals; music; dreams.
I think my life, and consequently my art, has been a search for meaning. Those clichéd Big Questions… Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I?? They’re only clichés because they’ve kept people up at night since the dawn of time! All the things you mentioned—nature, animals, music, dreams—are things that allow us to see beyond our limited vision, if only for brief moments. When we see beyond our limited vision, what do we see? And how do we express that? It’s a kind of vision that, while seeing beyond, inevitably leads back to viewing our everyday, mundane lives in a new light, with a new appreciation. That “new light” is what drives me—the bits of it I’ve tasted and wondered about, and then pursued, only to find it present in every moment, even moments when we don’t notice it. My whole life has been spent wrestling with these things. King-Cat is just the way I document that experience.
Lots of cats, few mice. Are you the mouse?
Cats are buddies. Mice are buddies too, but they don’t stick around long, and their stories often have sad endings. If you mean am I The Mouse®? Of course I am, and so are you!
Subscriptions and single issues of King-Cat are available at spitandahalf.com