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The Reading Life

Talking comics with Julia Wertz

November 28, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • In "The Infinite Wait and Other Stories," Julia Wertz tells three extended narratives.
In "The Infinite Wait and Other Stories," Julia Wertz tells… (Julia Wertz / Koyama Press )

I first encountered Julia Wertz with her 2010 graphic memoir “Drinking at the Movies,” a relentless and, at times, lacerating self-portrait of the artist as a young woman wrestling with alcohol.

“Drinking at the Movies” was not Wertz’s first autobiographical comic — her earlier work is gathered in two collections, “The Fart Party Vol. 1” and “The Fart Party Vol. 2” — but it represents a bridge between the narrow form of the comic strip (many of its chapters are a single page) and a more long-form approach to storytelling, as well as a very funny and moving exploration of a troubled time.

Wertz’s new book, “The Infinite Wait and Other Stories” (Koyama Press: 228 pp., $15 paper) continues her investigations, collecting three extended narratives — first person comics about work, the lure of libraries, and the artist’s struggles with lupus (she was diagnosed at 20) — that grow out of the material in “The Fart Party” and “Drinking at the Movies.”

Recently, Wertz and I corresponded by email about the book, the art of comics and the challenges of self-expression in a culture of commodification.

In “The Infinite Wait,” you describe getting into comics when you were first diagnosed with lupus. Had you been a writer or a reader before that?

I was really into comics as a kid, but comics like “Garfield,” “Calvin & Hobbes” and even bad newspaper comics. But it never seemed like something I’d be interested in doing, or even interested in reading as I got older, until I discovered the whole world of alternative comics for adults. When I was 20 and was diagnosed with lupus, I had to spend a lot of time in bed, and that’s when I found a few graphic novels by Julie Doucet, Will Eisner and others at the San Francisco Public Library. I’d always been an avid reader and a writer of many terrible short stories and poems, but I’d felt like something was missing in my writing. It wasn’t until I saw how imagery could help construct and condense written narrative that I realized my problem with writing was rambling and odd tangents. I could not self-edit and my writing skills were dubious to say the least. But once I tried telling stories with drawings, the art did the editing for me and I was able to see what was important and what was nonsense, and suddenly the stories I wanted to write came much easier. Well, easier in the writing sense, not in the time sense. Turning writing into a comic is the least time efficient way to tell a story.

Your drawing style is rough-hewn, unpolished, which makes it more intimate, as if we are looking at a diary or a sketchbook. How did it develop?

It’s unintentional in the sense that I never went to art school or learned any technical skills, so the roughness comes out of just not being very good at drawing. But the simplicity of the art is intentional. I don’t remember who said this, but the more simplistic a drawing, the easier it is for readers to project themselves into it. When the art is overly complicated, it might look pleasing, but it isolates the reader, making them feel as though they’re reading a story that is completely someone else’s. My stories are personal, but they’re also ubiquitous experiences that I want people to identify with. The stories that mean the most to me as a reader are ones where I share a common thread, so I wanted that to be an element of the way I portrayed my world through comics. Autobiographical work is inherently fairly self-centered, but hearing that it helped someone get through something alleviates the guilt, which is also a self-centered thing to say, but it’s true.

I’m struck by your use of the phrase “comic novellas” to describe the three long stories in “The Infinite Wait.”

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