Staying Out of Trouble: An Interview with Julia Wertz
December 5, 2014 | by Meg Lemke
I met Julia Wertz at a slightly rundown family diner she’d recommended deep in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We drank coffee and ate waffles (hers, covered in bacon) and whole-wheat pancakes (mine, covered in syrup). We’d talked briefly before, but always amid the clamor of comics conventions, where Wertz hustles hard to sell her books but does not relish being on display. Yet she has been putting her life online for nearly a decade. Her new omnibus collection, Museum of Mistakes, brings together three volumes of her autobiographical Web series called Fart Party, written between 2005 and 2010; miscellanea, such as hate mail and guest sketches; and a handful of previously unpublished stories, including one that delves into her past and how children process grief.
As the cartoonist Tom Hart has noted, Wertz “makes self-destruction charming.” In comics gloriously full of curses and insider jokes, she catalogs love found and lost, family dysfunction, and a risky cross-country move; she suffers low-wage service jobs and the publishing industry’s rush after indie comics darlings. Though Wertz’s frustration is often palpable (she occasionally imagines pulling people who annoy her limb from limb), she employs a kind of innocent visual style—her figures are wide-eyed and jaunty—and she’s adept at developing a sense of intimacy between the reader and her antisocial persona on the page. In other words, she lets you in, then flips you off.
Wertz has published two graphic memoirs since most of the comics in Museum of Mistakes first appeared: Drinking at the Movies (2010) and The Infinite Wait and Other Stories (2012). The latter is partly concerned with her diagnosis with Lupus and the horrors of navigating the health care system as an uninsured artist. She also recently chronicled her journey to sobriety in an essay for Narratively about comedy, depression, and addiction. A few years ago, she began documenting her urban-exploring exploits, posting haunting photographs of modern ruins on her site Adventure Bible School.
This fall, Wertz made a much-anticipated return to publishing new online comics that, as Gary Panter puts it, “look cute and nice, but they aren’t.”
You’re back to making daily diary comics after a two-year break. Why have you started again—and why did you stop?
I stopped because I was sick of myself. I completed the The Infinite Wait in only six months by drawing autobio comics sixteen hours a day. And before that, I had drawn comics every day, nonstop, for six years.
Eleanor Davis took a year after she finished How to Be Happy where she said, I’m only going to draw what I want to draw, when I want to—not what I need to for work, not what I think I should be working on. I used her example as justification, but I would have stopped anyway. I had planned to take a two-week break, and then, two years later, I was just ready to start again. I had remembered why I liked drawing comics.
What was it like rediscovering your older work? You’ve said, “I drank my way through my first three books, and consequently, I think they’re all garbage.”
Wow, I’m so harsh. I’ve been able to take enough time to appreciate these comics again. I realized that although I was an alcoholic when I made them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Well, I don’t know if I would say good, but they’re funny. I also tried at one point to ditch the name Fart Party. I ended up reembracing it. Who fucking cares?
The early stories were drawn when alcohol worked for me. I write about it in a celebratory way, but if you look back knowing what happened to me later, you see that it’s excessive. I was also making an active choice during those years not to talk about the serious issues in my life, which were later covered in The Infinite Wait. My brother’s drug and alcohol addiction was slowly taking over my life, and I was sick. But in Fart Party, only every once in a while is there a panel that says, Oh, my brother fell off the wagon and got the shit kicked out of him but here I am, eating a cookie.
There is a striking scene in the saga in Fart Party of your now ex-boyfriend Oliver. You come in to bed at night drunk and he pushes you off him—he doesn’t find it sexy. With hindsight, it’s clear how your drinking was interrupting relationships.
It’s such a cute comic, and I thought that was funny when it first happened. Then it definitely happened more than just that one time. I put that poor guy through some ridiculous nonsense. You can’t conduct adult relationships like that, being out at four-thirty in the morning and not returning phone calls. Who does that? Alcoholics do that.
I love the comic your brother made, which is in Museum of Mistakes, about your obsession with Guns N’ Roses. It deals with a form of addiction, a subject you cycle back to throughout your work.
You see me going into a K-hole of Guns N’ Roses videos, not going to school, not wanting to participate in my own life. My brother swooped in, took the videos away, and then he started watching them. The pattern repeats itself later, when he had his addiction years and I swooped in to save him. That’s been a constant narrative in our relationship. The comic is a funny piece about me liking hair metal, but it also says more about me than my own work does.
What is your process? Do you keep a diary and draw from life?
I write out stories as they happen. I don’t have the luxury of retrospect. Retrospect is what most memoirs are written from—and that’s good, because you want to see people grow—but I prefer to create a narrative where I don’t afford myself the grace of afterthought. It’s embarrassing and raw. You have to watch me fuck up.
The Infinite Wait was the first story I wrote as a long-form script, but I pulled it from diary sketches. I did draw the stories of my childhood from memory, putting myself in the mind of a child rather than taking an adult perspective. I was selling golf balls, running off into the woods with my older brother and a dull pocketknife. We were on welfare when I was a kid, but I didn’t know it. I don’t attribute being poor to having a hard childhood. Rather, it forced my family to be together. If we went on vacation, we were all stuck together in my grandmother’s motor home, because at that time gas was maybe seventy cents a gallon. There were problems I was unaware of until later, when my parents broke up. But the good times are ingrained in my memory, and I like to write about them. It may make it painful because it all went bad later, but it’s that much more important to me to remember.
You’ve said that you originally tried writing short stories, but once you started telling stories with drawings, the art did the editing for you. How did that work?
Throughout my childhood and high school, I wanted to be a writer, but I don’t have the discipline to self-edit. I have good bones for storytelling, but I’m too loquacious and go off on too many tangents. I also wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t want to go to art class. I only wanted to draw what I wanted to draw. So I never was a good artist, and I never was a good writer. But with comics, I realized I could put art and writing together, and the physical constraint of nine panels or four panels creates an editorial process.
Within that framework, I look at a piece and ask myself what is absolutely essential—what can I draw, and what do I have to put in dialogue or words? Comics are minimal, so I can take three pages of writing and make a comic that’s nine panels. By selecting only the essential words and sentences, I see what I don’t need to talk about, where I don’t need to draw upon a tangent—I find all that matters.
To paraphrase Charles Schultz, the simplest art form is the most effective. If you draw a simple face, readers can then project themselves into the story. In the early Peanuts, the characters were more childlike. The more “grown-up” versions are what most people know from the newspapers, but I prefer when they looked like kids. Similarly, in The Infinite Wait, I refined my drawings. But it’s like I decided to take it a little too seriously, for that book. In the comics I’m posting now, I am going back to my cruder, cartoony style from the Fart Party days. I’m going to play it looser.
I’m not a trained artist—that’s obvious. I can draw a good background, good buildings. It’s people I don’t like drawing.
I know, it’s my temperament in life.
The character Julia is so angry. I was a little afraid of you.
I’m a real bitch in my work. No one likes a happy-go-lucky character—that’s the character everyone wants to see destroyed. I portray and exaggerate the ugliest aspects of my personality. When I draw a comic where my eyes are bugging out, in real life I was mildly irritated at most. I build up an interaction in the story, and there’s an invisible end panel that I don’t draw, which is just me laughing at the situation. In real life, I’m more even-keeled, though I do my best work when I’m unhappy.
You regularly draw yourself in isolation. But cities—particularly New York and San Francisco—feature prominently in your stories. How do you relate to being an artist alone in the social architecture of a city?
I have a conflicted relationship with the city. I do live an isolated life—I live alone, I work alone, I travel alone. In my urban exploring I’m going to places where humans no longer are—that’s the objective. But even when I don’t want it, the city still provides human interaction. Even basic subway encounters force me to remember that I’m a human being, that we’re all here doing this together.
What’s “urban exploring”?
I explore abandoned buildings, take photos of them, and go treasure hunting. I research and write up the history of the places, then weave in some autobio.
There are five levels of urban exploring. I don’t want to brag, but I’m very good at what I do. There are places, like Farm Colony on Staten Island, where you can walk right through a hole in the fence. Then there are decaying hotels and resorts, with cops on patrol, and, on a higher level, depending on security and the state of the building, an abandoned hospital and asylums. The fourth level includes super illegal sites to enter, like military bases and the subway system. Last, there are “world traveler” explorers—usually professionals, like photographers for National Geographic, who investigate places like Chernobyl and abandoned islands like Hashima in Japan.
Do you go alone?
I go alone if I’m familiar with the place. If I’m not, I bring a friend, because I don’t want to fall through the floor, and that’s how I die, laying there with two broken legs.
You publish photos and documents you find. You unearth people’s private lives. What is the legality of that and what are the ethical issues?
I’m holding onto a lot of paperwork, including patient files, from asylums. The institutions were supposed to destroy them when they abandoned the facilities. During the period of mass deinstitutionalization, from the sixties through the nineties, they considered files destroyed if they were sealed in the basement or the roof. But explorers get in there and discover people’s stories. We find diaries and interviews. In terms of legal issues, it’s trespassing and larceny. The ethical issues have to do with whether a patient has any living relatives. How much material can you publish and discuss without hurting family, without getting yourself in trouble?
I’m waiting to make some finds public. I’m waiting for buildings to be torn down. I’m also well versed in the statute of limitations for larceny and trespassing, so I’m waiting those out, too.
Are you searching for living family members?
I am hunting for the family of one patient who was institutionalized for homosexuality during World War II. He’s a genius. I found twenty years of handwritten personal letters where he’s writing to his mother, who is herself going into an institution. And she institutionalized him. The doctors talk about his IQ as a child, which was off the charts. In the documents, you see him go in an arrogant narcissist—he’s the worst, but I love him. He was totally functional, just gay. And he loses his mind completely over the years of being a smart person who’s institutionalized. Then he tries to go back out into the world, and he can’t function. He goes back to the hospital of his own accord. It’s so painful to see him unravel.
What compels you to share your own life?
It’s definitely not the money—there is none—and it’s not for fame or praise. I like doing it. I like talking about myself. It’s fun to ink. It’s fun to draw. It’s fun to tell stories. It’s a therapeutic process. When I cover something in a comic, it’s already a little less painful as I’m writing it. I can sit at home in my pajamas drawing and come to the same conclusions as I could by putting on pants, going to the city, and talking to a therapist. From a removed point of view, I look at myself on paper and identify behaviors that have to stop. I see patterns I can’t see otherwise. I’m learning about myself right along with the readers.
Meg Lemke is a contributing editor at MUTHA Magazine and chairs the comics and graphic novel programming committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival. You can find her online @meglemke and meglemke.tumblr.com.