Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Julia Wertz: Flights of Fancy

Written by Ryan Willard
juliaw.jpgJulia Wertz is a self-described museum of mistakes. She is the creator of the popular web comic Fart Party, but she is also a serious artist who lives and works as a full-time cartoonist, finding the freedom to spend her time thinking and writing about the experiences that are important to her. Wertz’s passion for her profession runs deep: “I really hate how a lot of cartoonists think that cartooning is some lowly, depressing, starving artist lifestyle and they really seem to revel in that. Sure it doesn’t pay well, but so many things don’t pay well, and if you’re trying to make a living off your art, then you’re doing it yourself.”

Julia Wertz is a self-described museum of mistakes. She is the creator of the popular web comic Fart Party, but she is also a serious artist who lives and works as a full-time cartoonist, finding the freedom to spend her time thinking and writing about the experiences that are important to her. Wertz’s passion for her profession runs deep: “I really hate how a lot of cartoonists think that cartooning is some lowly, depressing, starving artist lifestyle and they really seem to revel in that. Sure it doesn’t pay well, but so many things don’t pay well, and if you’re trying to make a living off your art, then you’re doing it yourself.”

Wertz has been hard at work as an autobiographical cartoonist since 2005. Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Wertz migrated in 2007 to her current home in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of three books: Fart Party Volumes 1 & 2, and most recently, Drinking at the Movies

In late 2011, Wertz’s Drinking at the Movies, published by Random House, was translated into French, aptly re-titled Whiskey & New York. However, there was one small problem with the translation. “I wasn’t able to read the translated version since I don’t speak French,” says Wertz, “but I’ve heard that a lot of the humor was lost in translation. While I was in France, someone came to my table at the convention and point plank said, ‘your book in French isn’t funny.’ And seeing I had no English version for sale, just walked away. The French are very blunt, I love it.”

In September of this year Wertz will put out a book of short stories with Koyama Press, and this new collection is a departure from her previous books: “I wanted to work in a longer format than my previous nine panel, one pagers.” Wertz plans to increase the scope of her work, which will span some thirty to sixty pages for each story in the collection. Overall, the book will focus on the same autobiographical character, with a similar approach in humor and tone, although her story arcs will span from childhood to present, including a six-month period of her life in San Francisco when she was twenty.

While reading her comics, it’s easy to assume that everything happening to Julia’s character is a real part of her life. This is partially true. While Julia openly admits that everything her character says or does is rooted in her own reality and derived from real events, “there is so much about my life that I keep to myself that sharing other, intimate aspects doesn’t feel too revealing at all.”

For the past two years, Wertz was part of a self-sufficient cartoon community named Pizza Island, based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was there at Pizza Island’s headquarters where a troupe of female cartoonists, including Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) and Sarah Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less), developed and shared a cartoonists’ studio along with Wertz. The artists carved out a space to work, create and draw. For two years the ensemble provided one another with a support system, a place where ideas and cartoons could run amuck, where fellow cartoonists could provide feedback, and where they could surround themselves with other hard-working dreamers who lived in worlds of pen and ink. The Pizza Island cartoonists used the space as an escape, because, says Wertz, “cartooning can be a very isolating experience when you work from home. If you don’t remember to get out and draw and hang out with friends, it’s easy to just get to work right after breakfast and work all day and never leave the house and then watch that day turn into weeks and before you know it, you haven’t spoken a word to another human being in just as long.” But at the end of January of this year, Pizza Island disbanded. It was too good to last. Two artists left for France and the rent was raised — it was the end of an era.

And while Julia’s irreverent style has garnered a loyal fan base that has followed her from her days in San Francisco, reveling in fart jokes and one-off panels about fancy cheese, cycling, and popcorn dinners, way before the days of Pizza Island and Brooklyn and Drinking at the Movies, her humor isn’t for everyone. At times the tone of her character makes her seem like the very same angsty and bitter cartoonist she’s come to resent. The fictional Julia delves into self-deprecating flights of fancy often involving the dismemberment of her character. At other times she lashes out at strangers on the streets of San Francisco and New York, mocking their perceived idiocy.

But Wertz isn’t afraid to embrace the dark realities and hypocrisies surrounding her work and life. She feels almost compelled to deal with her insecurities and fears, like her diagnosis of Systematic Lupus, her older brother’s drug addictions, or even her own addiction to alcohol. It was during her most difficult struggles with alcoholism and depression that Julia turned to what she knew best — her art. In Drinking at the Movies, she creates elaborate fantasy segments in which her cartoon brain leaves her body to drink whiskey on the streets of New York. During our interview Julia recalled this panel: “I made it at a time when I couldn’t get my drinking under control, and now when I look at it from a sober standpoint, it’s so painfully obvious that it was a goofy metaphor for my addicted brain and my sober brain. It’d run rampant and just ruin everything and it was like I was seeing it from a removed point of view.”

Now, from a sober perspective, Wertz instead chooses not to dwell on these painful memories, but rather to use them as material for her stories. “Sometimes a silly joke can become very dear to me if I read it during a difficult time, and that’s probably just as deep a humor as the kind that comes from serious situations. The best humor comes from the darkest places, because it takes you from one end of the spectrum to the other so quickly that it’s shocking. Anyone can write a one off joke about nothing that might be totally funny, but I think more intelligent, lingering humor comes from very dark places. I don’t know if you can get ‘deep’ humor from frivolous situations, but sometimes the ‘deep’ part of a light joke develops not in the joke but in the reading of it and the person who is reading it.”

At this chapter in her life, Julia is finally getting to the work that she feels most passionately about, as she’s spent a large portion of her life living a dual existence: one as an autobiographical cartoonist and writer, and the other as a functioning alcoholic. “It’s a common misconception of autobio cartoonists that we reveal all, because of the nature of what we do reveal. If you reveal one personal thing, people don’t see the other ones you’re keeping to yourself and they think your work is ‘tell all’ when really, it’s just a tell-a-little, but that little bit is personal.”

Like many recovering addicts, it is difficult for Julia to move on, and to not let those experiences and melancholic moments define who she is as a person or as an artist. Although Julia will extensively address her struggles with alcoholism and sobriety in the follow-up to Drinking at the Movies, she is determined not to pigeonhole herself solely as a recovering alcoholic.

Julia’s tell-a-little mentality will be revealed further in her next full-length book, to be released in 2013. In this book, she will deal with the difficult years where she tried, failed, and tried again to get sober. Wertz says, “It’s the darkest book I’ve done, dealing with alcoholism and depression, but I also think it’s the funniest”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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