Julie Doucet is the female Crumb. Discuss. Back in the late ’80s, when grunge and underground were terms of endearment, a 21-year-old college girl from Montreal read a Robert Crumb cartoon translated into Quebecois French. Something stirred. A year later, Julie Doucet self-published her first comic—a miniature version of Dirty Plotte, the series that would make her a cult heroine.
Her visual style was gnarled and expressionistic, dark heavy ink and cramped details etched with manic intensity. Dirty Plotte (“plotte” is Quebecois slang for female genitalia) was a sinkhole of female anxiety, condensing human nature into its most saturnine, grotesque elements. Like Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Doucet went out on a limb to portray intense experience and emotion with a wacked-out combo of dirty ultrarealism and deranged surrealism.
Crumb’s comics were notoriously littered with hypersexual depictions of women, but in Doucet’s twisted fingers the female striptease took on a very different cast. Check out the Doucet comic (reprinted in the first of five book-length collections, Lève Ta Jambe, Mon Poisson Est Mort!, Drawn & Quarterly, $10.95 paper) in which a woman clad in an oversized suit begins to shed her clothes, eyes lit with feral glee; by the last page she has ripped off her own breasts and gored herself with a knife. Why is it that man-made portrayals of female disgust seemed monstrous, while Doucet’s graphic images of self-loathing felt liberating back in the day? Dirty Plotte was fondling all those icky, sticky spots that consciousness-raising and grrrl power couldn’t reach.
Julie Doucet is a lonely girl living in a fanboy world. Think of Doucet as a wide-eyed boho ingenue with rickety English, adrift in a dangerous world—Kathy Acker meets That Girl. Her strips are frequently autobiographical. On the cover of both Lève Ta Jambe and the 1995 collection My Most Secret Desire (Drawn & Quarterly, $11.95 paper), she is surrounded by instruments of her own destruction and construction: knives, scissors, wine bottles, pens, bras. Autobiography became the key form for post-riot grrrl cartoonists in the ’90s (see Jessica Abel’s Artbabe, Megan Kelso’s Girlhero, Ariel Shrag’s Definition), and Doucet is often namechecked as a key pioneer of the genre. But even during the brief ’90s heyday of grrrl power, Doucet was a loner, her anger disconnected from any feminist politics.
With her X-ray vision for male bullshit, Doucet irradiates guys in her comics. In the “Men of Our Times” section of her new book, Long Time Relationship (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95), she lampoons a range of counterculture types. There are the “director of a comic art museum” whose bulging eyes, chipped teeth, and knee-high pants give him the look of a serial killer, and the various generic fanboys such as “old fan boy with weak chin,” “young fan boy with big teeth”—because in the comics world, there’s always another fanboy.
Julie Doucet walks the street of dreams. Although the core of her comics is autobiography, a lot of Doucet’s best work is fantastical. My Most Secret Desire corrals her lyrical “dream stories” into one volume, transforming stock nightmares into eerie, hilarious catharses: recurring dreams in which androgynous Julie finds herself in possession of a penis or giving birth to mutant kittens. My favorite Doucet interlude is “The First Time I Shaved My Legs . . . ,” a Dirty Plotte strip which begins with Julie muttering, “I’d probably attract more men if I weren’t so hairy.” But as she begins to shave, she hears moans emanating from her stubble. A close-up frame reveals microscopic mermaids balletically clinging to the remaining ropes of leg hair: “HALT THE GENOCIDES,” she captions the final image of the slain sprites’ corpses. Few artists or writers deal with the hassles and ironies of being female in such novel and bittersweet ways.
Julie Doucet is a good storyteller. Over the last few years, Doucet’s work metamorphosed from existential grotesquerie into spiky documentary realism. The misanthropy evident in her earlier comics is all but gone, replaced by emotional complexity in 1999’s My New York Diary (Drawn & Quarterly, $13.95 paper), an account of Doucet’s frantic year living in Washington Heights with a jealous boyfriend who keeps her isolated in his little underground of beer, sex, and drugs. It’s a world she’s begun to outgrow, as her comics career takes off and she musters some self-confidence. Between a miscarriage, epileptic seizures (brought on by recreational drugs), and the pressures of her deranged relationship, Doucet is living a hipster nightmare, reflected in her claustrophobic drawings and compelling narrative.
Unfortunately, Doucet followed My New York Diary with the amusing but minor mystery romp The Madame Paul Affair (Drawn & Quarterly, $7.95 paper). Was she hoping to cash in on the belated mainstreaming of the graphic novel (e.g. the canonization of Chris Ware and the transformation of Ghost World into a Hollywood blockbuster) with a Doucetian TV miniseries starring Christina Ricci and Courtney Love? Or was maturity just sapping Doucet of her douleur de vivre?
Julie Doucet is a conceptual artist trapped in a cartoonist’s body. Long Time Relationship, her new collection, suggests that Doucet is finding fresh ways to channel her creative eruptions onto paper. The book’s linocut portraits (based on photos retrieved from a Berlin garbage can) bring Raymond Pettibon to mind—an artist who quietly works in the crevice between the art world and pop culture, who incorporates elements of the comic strip without being a cartoonist. Having made her mark as a cult diva, Doucet may be floating away from the realm of underground comics. Long Time Relationship is divided into sections that look very much like conceptual projects: the gaudy, overripe caricatures that masquerade as German vocabulary lessons, the witty red and black images based on fortune cookie messages. The “Long Time Relationship” chapter imagines the people behind personal ads plucked from the Voice, like the fey “punkrocknroll evil genius” with square glasses who “seeks smart, savvy, silly, salacious, sweet & yes yes yes sexy someone.” Doucet knows the spectrum of misery inside out now; she doesn’t need visceral special effects to communicate pathos anymore.
The more at ease Doucet becomes with herself, the less she puts her own anxieties on display. The autobiographical element is absent in Long Time Relationship, except four pages culled from a zine that Doucet self-published last year. “Are you a real woman when . . . ” catalogs Doucet’s misdemeanors against femininity: “You never wear skirts,” “You playfully slashed your arms,” and “You have lots of hair on your legs and many bruises on your shins”—traces of the aging process brandished with glee instead of horror.
Not many women succeed in the comics milieu, and even fewer grow old there. Long Time Relationship is a scattered, transitional collection—not, therefore, a great introduction to Doucet’s work. But for her many devotees, it shows Doucet once again ditching safe ground for uncharted territory.