Q&A: Cartoonist Julia Wertz


The first page from Drinking at the Movies. Click to embiggen.

The first page from Drinking at the Movies. Click to embiggen.

Julia Wertz is one of the most interesting cartoonists working in the industry today. Her latest book, Drinking at the Movies, is an alternatingly hillarious and poignant retelling of Wertz’s move from San Fransisco to Brookyln. Please, go read it.

Eric Brown: What projects have you been working on since Drinking at the Movies?

Julia Wertz: My main project is the follow-up to DATM, which is about the years I spent trying/failing to get sober before finally doing it. It’s not a typical drinking/rehab/sobriety book because that’s not how things unfolded for me, and hopefully that’s what will save it from being like every other alcoholism memoir out there. Most of those books tend to end right after or within a few months of the person getting out of rehab. Mine is going to go further and address relapsing and depression, which has been my struggle with this issue.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’m also very loosely working on a kids book about an orphaned newsboy in the late 1800s. And I’m doing some shorter, more lighthearted stories about my childhood. I’m probably working on kids stuff in order to balance out the headiness of the other story.

EB: What attracted you to comics as an art form?

JW: I’ve always been attracted to the visual, especially children’s book illustrations, which are a lot like comics, aesthetically. And I’ve been an avid reader since I could first read, so it was only natural to combine the two for me. I loved comics like the Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield and Tin Tin as a kid, but I had no idea how far the medium stretched until I was in my early 20s when I discovered Will Eisner and Julie Doucet at the library.

EB: What inspired you to write the early Fart Party comics? Maybe this is the same question as the last one.

JW: Or a continuation of that question. I started drawing silly comics about my daily life after I read those graphic novels and I never pursued anything but comics after that. I did a whole book about moving to San Francisco in a stranger, stiffer style over the summer before suddenly throwing it all aside and settling on (an early version) of my current style. I still have that whole other book and I might redraw it, but for now it’s just sitting there.
But anyways, I took the first Fart Party comics, which I drew maybe four or five months after I started making comics, and put them online just to show my friends. Much to my surprise, they took off quickly and people really liked them. Before I knew what was happening, I had a pretty hearty following and shortly after, Atomic Books approached me about publishing a collection. Everything happened very fast for me. I’m still haven’t quite processed it all seven years later.

EB: As someone who writes about her own life, how do you decide which moments are “print worthy”?

JW: That’s very, very tricky. I throw away A LOT of comics. I’ve probably tossed about two books worth of pages of comics simply because, upon looking back, they were totally pointless, self-indulgent nonsense that would only appeal to me. Granted there are many, many pages that I have published that I now consider of that same ilk, but I try not to waste time regretting those pages.

However, sometimes I’m completely wrong about what I think is unworthy of publishing. Sometimes I’ll put a comic online that I really think is too inside jokey and/or pointless, and people will really respond positively to it. I think what they’re responding to in those comics is that personal touch that I previously thought wouldn’t appeal to anyone but me. Such as the last three panels in the comic “memory lane” where my brother and I are just being goofy about nicknames. That’s a page I made without any editing of what happened in real life, and I thought it would be boring but people really liked it. I guess a lack of editing can sometimes be what’s most appealing.

EB: How do people normally react to your depictions of them once the books are printed?

JW: I’ve yet to see someone be disappointed by the way they come across, but I’m sure that’s happened and they just didn’t tell me. My ex-boyfriend in the first book would sometimes complain that I made him look like an asshole, but it was tongue-in-cheek and so were his complaints (I hope!). The only person who has outright objected was my dad, but that’s only because he doesn’t like my work and has been vocal about it, but that’s more his issue with me rather than how he’s depicted in the comic. My mom loves being in it because she’s hilarious and has no modesty in regards to pointing that out.

EB: Your comics sort of straddle the line between comedy and some pretty personal and emotional moments. How do you maintain that balance?
JW: That’s just how I am, in real life as well as the comics. I seek comfort in humor and the only way I get through tough issues is to find something in it to joke about. That doesn’t mean ALL I do is joke in an effort to deflect the seriousness of the issue; it’s very annoying and insincere when people use jokes as a shield. I don’t use humor as a barrier between me and the problem, but more as a means to alleviate the struggle just a little bit.

EB: Tell me about Pizza Island. How it got started, what you do together, etc.

JW: Pizza Island is basically just a studio of 6 cartoonists, working on separate projects. We all work on our individual projects and we don’t collaborate on these, but we do present as a group while doing readings, online projects for our collective blog and conventions. It started in early 2010 when four of us just needed to stop working alone in our respective apartments since it was making us all crazy. We found a really cheap but nice studio in the outskirts of Greenpoint and settled in. We added a few more friends in late 2010 when they moved to New York and we found it was really fun to bill ourselves as a group even though we work individually.

EB: Are you working in comics full time at this point?

JW: I’m in flux at the moment. I was working on comics full time for about three years but early this year, I was dropped by my publisher at the time (Random House) and so now I’m searching for a new publisher. Unfortunately, what happened was that big publishers thought comics were the new big thing, so they signed contracts with a bunch of cartoonists, so a lot of us were able to make a small but efficient living off comics for awhile. But as the books started coming out, big publishers realized that comics just don’t sell up to their standards, so they dropped a lot of us. Which is better, I think, since comics publishers are more adept at handling comics, not big, traditional book publishers. Which isn’t to say I’m opposed to working with them, but there’s a big learning curve.

EB: It’s sort of become a Hollywood trend to adapt comics into movies lately. How long until we see a $150 million Fart Party adaptation by Zach Snyder, complete with gratuitous slow-motion action scenes? I ask because I would pay to see that movie.

JW: Oh god, never I hope! If that’s the direction it would go. I’m very reluctant to even consider TV or movies right now, despite some initial interest in my first books. Because it’s my life story and it hasn’t nearly finished, I don’t have an interest in seeing it pigeonholed in 90 minutes just yet. My first and foremost interest, concern and drive is comics/writing. The project (for TV/movies) would have to be pretty specific and I would have to have a lot of control, which is something I just don’t have time for. However, I probably wouldn’t object if someone wanted to make a sh*tty 90-minute comedy from my first book and give me a sh*tload of money. I’m distanced enough from that material to not really care, but everything else is off the table at the moment.