Julie Doucet: How a Zine Author Went Canonical




PICTURE THIS: a 50-foot woman attacks New York City, but this time, rather than a revenge-seeking trophy wife, the monster is a menstruating Gen Xer, half-Hulk half-Amazonian, transformed due to a dearth of tampons. In an iconic, full-page panel, this she-beast spews her blood all over the city and crushes grown men in her bare hands as B2 helicopters flee her path. A literal Crimson Wave fills the streets in later frames until finally the monster punches through a roof, retrieves some Tampax, and returns to normal, safely in the hands of the police. This is the imaginative universe of the comics artist Julie Doucet: a quirky, grotesque send-up of the toils of female embodiment that finishes in an outright homage to the Tampon, that now-dated symbol of Western women’s liberation.

Julie Doucet, “Heavy Flow,” originally published in February 1989, “Dirty Plotte,” 2018

Doucet has won the grand prize at the 2022 Angoulême Festival, but she was not the most obvious choice given her origins in the North American zine scene of the late ’90s. Born in the suburbs of Montreal in 1965, Doucet attended an all-Catholic girls’ school before going on to study at a junior college and then a university in Montreal. After her early comics circulated in university newspapers, she was picked up by Factsheet Five, a who’s who of North American zine art, which began regularly running her comic strip Dirty Plotte (literally “dirty cunt,” referring to both the person and the genitalia) in 1988. She was all over the zine scene of the time, even breaking into French mags like ‘Zine zine and S21’Art?. But it was her Factsheet strips that caught the attention of Chris Oliveros, who had dreams of building the now-seminal Canadian comics press Drawn & Quarterly. Dirty Plotte, alongside reprints and new material in My New York Diary (2000) became the centerpiece of Drawn & Quarterly’s nascent catalog, bringing in future visionaries like the Sacramento teen Adrian Tomine.

The young Doucet produced her early comics at a feverish pace, drawing 15 issues in 18 months. Far from being sloppy or intentionally unfinished, her drawings are often overburdened with extraneous detail. The googly-eyed, bobble-head weirdos of My New York Diary are drawn like ghastly, midcentury Mickey cartoons who are (literally) on crack, surrounded by the detritus of artistic life: pens, paper, beer bottles, cats, and trash. While My New York Diary blankly recounts juvenile experiments in drugs (like the now-bygone whippets, or nitrous oxide inhalation), it also tracks experiences of the young artist-transplant. Doucet’s rise in the comics scene parallels her growing feminist consciousness, as Doucet painstakingly tracks all the emotional labor she performs for her male friends and partners.

Young Doucet is known for her outlandishly offensive drawn scenarios that provocatively confuse the consumption of food and bodies — whether it be masturbating with a cookie, feeding a tampon to a penis, romancing a beer bottle, or eating a male appendage on buns. She was also a pioneer of the solicited dick pic. Coming of age during the heyday of the adult alternative comics scene in 1960s and ’70s France and the US, Doucet grappled with the masculine universe of French zines like F’murr and comics magazines like L’Écho des savanes (The Echo of the Savannah); the latter infamously asked readers to submit polaroids of their girlfriends doing a striptease. Her response was twofold: not just to request her own penis shots (and preferred usernames), but to render stripping as a revolting experiment. In one instance, a masculine woman donning a full suit gradually disrobes to her skivvies only to cut off, one by one, each of her breasts and eventually take a knife to her entrails (spilled for the consumption of a nearby cat and dog). Another now-infamous strip shows a sex worker taking a john home, stripping out of her costume to reveal a man, who in turn unzips to reveal a wolf, and then a snake, who finally performs fellatio on the john.

Julie Doucet, “A Blow Job,” first published January 1991, “Dirty Plotte,” 2018

Doucet was also not averse to the cheap joke. She wrote a series of homoerotic, slash-adjacent panels, in which Kirk and Spock “possess” various planets by urinating on them, sometimes to comedic effect. (Urinating is difficult in a zero-gravity atmosphere.) If Doucet revels in anthropomorphizing, gender-bending feminist satire, she also narrates the most banal of the banal, like a bad, absentee landlord by the name of Madame Paul (in her The Madame Paul Affair [2000]), or a couple bickering to get ready to go (although they are anthropomorphic cats). If she shied away from the deep investigation of relationship drama that interested her peers — as in Alison Bechdel’s long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For — she nevertheless represented substance and domestic abuse and embraced the body in an utterly millennial manner. Doucet is far from the consciousness-raising Instagram posts of late, like Lena Dunham’s detailed accounts of living with endometriosis, which tend to focus on educating a broader public. Doucet does, however, stage aggressively personal bodily experiences, like losing one’s virginity, miscarriages, mastectomies, childbirth, or profoundly unsexy sex.

The 2022 Angoulême Festival was a seminal year in which the grand prize shortlist included three women artists, including Pénélope Bagieu and Catherine Meurisse, although Doucet is not the first woman grand prize winner (an honor bestowed on Florence Cestac in 2000 and again on Rumiko Takahashi in 2019). French comics has long had a gender problem. During the 2016 Angoulême Festival, two major French artists — Joann Sfar and Riad Sattouf — withdrew their names from a list of grand prize nominees, protesting the telling absence of any women comic artists from the shortlist.

However, this gender problem precedes the masculine-centric alternative comix scene, dating at least back to the Swiss proto-comics artist Rodolphe Töpffer, who represented women as flatly caricatural bourgeois love objects. In a similar vein, the early broadsheets of the 20th century, like George Colomb’s La Famille Fenouillard (The Fenouillard Family) (1889–93), made young girls into idiots who could easily fall out of windows, for comedic effect. While 20th-century Catholic children’s magazines made boys’ and girls’ magazines — Coeurs vaillants (Valliant Hearts), a magazine that syndicated Tintin, had a sister publication Âmes vaillantes (Valliant Souls) — there was still a relative dearth of female characters in children’s comics fiction.

Doucet’s mother subscribed to Pilote, a postwar children comics supplement from the French publisher Dargaud that housed René Goscinny’s Astérix. Like its Belgian rival, Casterman publishing’s Tintin magazine, Pilote offered a limited array of female leads. If the artist Claire Bretécher fled Pilote to adult magazines such as L’Écho des savanes to escape Goscinny’s heavy hand, she was no doubt one of the exceptions to the rule; similar adult science fiction magazines, like Métal hurlant (the French Heavy Metal) featured almost exclusively male artists. French-language adult comics frequently relied on grotesque pornography and ingrained cultural misogyny to belittle women’s sexual and political autonomy. Charlie Hebdo, for instance, published a portrait of Madonna by Cabu (Jean Cabut) in which she figures as a spread-eagle, oversexed silicon prostitute, as well as a skull-faced protesting Barbie by Gébé (Georges Blondeaux).

It thus comes as no surprise that French comics, too, had its #MeToo moment, or #BalanceTonPorc (#DitchYourPig) as the French say. In recent years, the French comics scene has seen an explosion of woke feminist webcomics, like Gwendoline Raisson’s Mères anonymes (Mothers Anonymous) or comics artist Emma’s series on “mental load,” which investigates the invisible organizational and household labor performed by women. While these comics also have an important educational angle — showcasing postpartum depression and denouncing unnecessary medical interventions like episiotomies — they target conventionally heterosexual women and keep the body within prudish boundaries.

If it took the comics industry several years to respond to cries of sexism, the 2016 backlash is a good reminder that women comics artists have still failed to break into the mainstream comics scene — Doucet is arguably lesser known than her peers like Chris Ware — or to transition into other genres such as YA or film. (To be fair, mainstreaming was likely never Doucet’s intention.) All too self-aware, Doucet infamously quit making comics in 2006, claiming that it was too much work for too little pay and recognition. She also highlighted that the masculine-centric comics scene proved inhospitable to female artists, who often felt hounded by their predominately male readership. A May 1992 comic that appeared in Pictopia no. 4, displays a character named “Julie” being aggressively pursued by the comics reader. Voyeurism and intrusion into her private life were no doubt side effects of drawing her youthful adventures and psyche so openly. Doucet did return from her hiatus a decade later, roused by the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks into making her 2022 book, Time Zone J.

Line art for a comic that appeared in “Pictopia” 4, Fantagraphics (May 1992).

The conventional coming-to-and-rejecting-comics story neglects, however, the extent to which women comics artists hovered in the background of Doucet’s success. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb’s wife, asked Doucet to contribute to Weirdo (which published “Heavy Flow”), as well as to Wimmen’s Comix in 1986, alongside Phoebe Gloeckner and the young Bechdel. This historical corrective serves as a reminder that even in a male-dominated industry, women such as Françoise Mouly, editor of Raw and wife of Art Spiegelman, were and continue to operate behind the scenes. (In My New York Diary, the young Doucet bubbles with joy about crossing paths with Mouly and Spiegelman at a Raw party, much to the annoyance of her boyfriend, who is also an artist.) Doucet was, however, supposedly much disliked by contemporary feminists, a reality that is not surprising given the dominance of heterosexual essentialism among second-wave French feminists. Doucet’s callous, vulgar portrayal of sex is a good reminder that comics have long been a home to feminist misfits, including her predecessor Bretécher, who approached questions like abortion with equally derisive humor. No doubt for this reason Dan Nadel, the editor of a two-volume collection of Doucet’s works (Dirty Plotte, Drawn & Quarterly, 2018), and the comics editor Jean-Christophe Menu both align her with 1990s countercultures like the punk music of Sonic Youth, riot grrrl, or Bérurier noir.

The standard narrative of Doucet’s rise to fame as a women’s comics artist also belies the extent to which Doucet was, from the beginning, an international figure. A globe-trotter, she lived in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in North Manhattan, in 1991, then Montreal in 1994, illegally in Berlin in 1995, then Seattle, before returning to Montreal in 1998. She could have easily been picked up by Menu’s rising independent publishing house, L’Association, which was slated to publish her work in the early ’90s and would end up publishing her Ciboire de Criss (Kris Ciborium, untranslated) in 1996. Anglophone readers frequently miss the cultural specificity of her language and art. If she mockingly adopts a French accent in English translation, her French-language texts brim with French Canadian color. She prefers an open vowel (a “marde” rather than a “merde”) and draws on Quebecois’s peculiar vernacular of Catholic swear words (like “hostie,” or “host”). Doucet often alludes mockingly to France’s cultural dominance within the Francosphere, as in her comic “homage” to the French poet Lautréamont, a strip about a child predator who feeds a dead girl to his dog.

It is just before and during her hiatus from comics that Doucet engaged in some of her more surprising artistic experiments. Her J comme Je (2005) is an autobiography from ages zero to 15, while her 365 Days (2006) reads like a visual constraint experiment, recording her life in daily drawings. Of particular interest is her avant-garde short film, My New New York Diary (2008), which she made with Michel Gondry. The film is the story of the making of the film itself, relating Doucet’s trip from Montreal to Gondry’s adopted home of Brooklyn. It juxtaposes Gondry’s voice-over, which includes presumptions about what a woman comics artist is — an “egomaniac” — with Doucet’s contemplative self-recordings. It also features live-action shots of Doucet edited into animated and still scenery drawn by Doucet herself. The story is a far cry from her raucous Dirty Plotte persona and features extended ruminations about Gondry’s quotidian bachelor life, including a long recording of Gondry’s son talking about the merits of beef jerky.

In the end, Doucet is not the kind of artist traditionally preferred by Angoulême: writers of high-art graphic novels which transcend the supposedly minor or popular work of traditional comics artists. Doucet eschews overt representations of history and war — the topics that made Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi into required reading in high school classrooms. If her work inadvertently serves as an archive of the last pre-internet era of zines and Gen X, it does so without pretense or any theoretical sublimation. Doucet may have dabbled in professional gallery painting, but her comics oeuvre is messy, uncensored, and idiosyncratic. Overall, her work is all too relatable, bearing the traces of a real human.

¤

Aubrey Gabel is an assistant professor of French at Columbia University and a specialist in 20th- and 21st-century French and Francophone literature, culture, and film.

 

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