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June 10, 2009

Antiheroines: Julia Wertz

The Antiheroines series features author Jami Attenberg interviewing up-and-coming female comics artists.

Julia Wertz Dance Party

Julia Wertz and I are both early risers – I figured this out when she kept returning my 8 AM emails right after I sent them – so when we agreed to meet on a Sunday morning, we picked a time when the café wasn’t even open yet. So we sat outside in the early morning quiet of Brooklyn, on a bench in front of the cafe. She was wearing jeans with holes in them and a navy blue sweater; simple, nonchalant, and non-descript. She said she dresses that way partially because she used to live close to the L stop on Bedford Ave in Williamsburg, which is a living, breathing runway of hipster fashions every second of the day, and she couldn’t stand it any longer. So she went out and bought the exact same sweater in three different colors, and that was all she was ever going to wear. She was just going to be this person, who dresses this way, as a response to all that noise. What a tough little cookie, I thought. Just like her smart, brutally honest, and always-funny autobiographical comics. Atomic Books published Fart Party Volume 1 in 2007 and a second collection later this month. She edited the comics anthology I Saw You… which came out in February, and Three Rivers Press will be publishing Twenty Five in 2010. Her website The Fart Party is regularly updated with new work. She is a totally unstoppable force and a really good time. You don’t have to meet her person to know this. You just have to read her comics.

You grew up in Napa, which is about as country as it can get in terms of landscape. Do you think moving from that environment to San Francisco where you went to school was crucial to making the leap to figuring out what kind of artist you want to be?

I figured out that I wanted to be a cartoonist during a period of time where I was really sick and I was confined to my apartment for months, so in that sense, I could have made that decision anywhere, whether in the country or city. However, it was the city library where I discovered alternative comics, which are definitely not available at the Napa library. So in that sense, San Francisco was crucial to my deciding what kind of artist to be. It was very much a specific time and place kind of thing. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I’d simply just rented some shitty movies that day instead of checking out a few graphic novels. I’d probably have a lot more money.

I recently went through a period of being housebound because of a broken ankle, and I couldn't have imagined getting any real creative work done. But I was pretty thankful for all the books people sent me. That, and the Vicodin got me through. I find it interesting you were able to turn being sick into something positive.

I was diagnosed with systemic lupus when I was 20. It’s an incurable autoimmune disease where my immune system attacks my joints and internal organs. As with many serious illnesses, the medication often is worse than the disease. I had to spend a lot of time in bed because the meds would knock me on my ass but I had no attention span, so I decided to try reading comics, thinking they’d be easier. But they weren’t, I just got really into them and soon started making my own.

I’d always been into writing and drawing, however I lacked the necessary restraint to be a writer and the skills to be an artist. When I wrote, I tended to ramble and get off topic, and when I drew, well, I just didn’t do it very well. However once I looked at my work in the perceptive of putting in into boxes, it suddenly all made sense and I intrinsically knew exactly what words to put where and what graphic went along with them to tell the parts of the story that I couldn’t quite pin down with writing.

But I saw you perform recently at a group comic performance night, and while everyone else screened new comics, you read a short non-fiction piece. You seemed to be pretty comfortable in that milieu. Do you want to write a novel, or a fictional comic book?

I’ve been working on some short stories for a collection, but I don’t know if I have a novel in me. I like to work in bursts, which is better suited for comics and short stories. I’m easily distracted and get tired of working with the same story over and over, so writing for me is a bit more tedious, especially when it comes to editing.

With comics, editors don’t really know how to approach editing them, so they focus mostly on spelling and grammar errors, which are easy to fix. But when it comes to writing, they’re trained to spot whatever messes you’ve made with the words and then you have to go through and fix them all. Unfortunately I’m very much like a child in the aspect that once I’m done with something, I’m fucking done with it. I don’t want to rewrite or rework it, so writing can be rather laborious at times.

However, I’ve found that I do have a lot of stories that really work better told as short stories rather than comics. Comics provide a visual connection between the lines where as some stories would suffer when accompanied by visuals. That’s why I’m sort of annoyed by this whole graphic novel movement of pairing up writers and artists to make comics out of previously published stories because I find it painfully unnecessary.

Do you ever regret any of the subject matter you discuss?

I go back and forth between being humiliated by pretty much every comic I’ve ever until coming to the conclusion of "fuck it, who cares.” When I reread my first comic book, there are some disgustingly cutesy relationship comics that really make me cringe, but probably just because I’m jealous of my own past. And I made a few time sensitive jokes that have since expired – dead babies equals boring and overdone –but that’s a natural problem I have to accept when working with such immediate material.

I think that everyone has a tendency to look back at their previous work and be horrified by it, because we grow and change and lose facets of our personality that once seemed so relevant. I don’t know if it’s humiliating or charming when those moments are caught and printed on paper.

On the flipside of regretting what you write, I wonder sometimes about the impermanence of what I'm creating, that what seems totally important at this exact moment, is so going to be irrelevant two years from now. It's not even about being mortified, it's just like, who cares. In my last novel I wrote about real places that exist in my neighborhood, and not even a few months after the book came out, some of those places had closed or had new ownership. Whatever was relevant in that moment in time is now gone.

That issue is sort of the bane of my existence right now. I’m working on a book of personal, political and cultural stuff that all occurred in 2008, and by the time it comes out in 2010, no one is going to care anymore, myself included. Also, when I look back at some of my first comics, I’m kind of blown away by some of the stupid shit that I got so wrapped up in. And I’m all about name-dropping the names of cafes, restaurants, books, etc. Sometimes it’s great to look back and remember what books I was reading or TV shows I was watching back then, but then other times I’ll be embarrassed by a reference to some shitty magazine or crappy band I was into. For instance, there are some magazines and books clearly drawn on the cover of my first book that I really wish no one knew I’d once read. It’s like airing out your granny panties in public.

But I think because of your blog, you're in the moment all the time anyway. Even if it wasn't in your work that’s in print, there's still this document of your life that exists, relatively real-time, in the universe. I know you have a bit of a following on your site. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your audience and how the blog impacts your work?

I have a love/hate relationship with my blog and the people who follow it. Fart Party started as a small, crudely formed website. I had no idea that the comic would stick around and develop like it has. Having an internet following really helps spread the word, but it can also be damaging not only to the printed product but to the way I work and process things as well. Because of the intimacy and immediacy of having the blog, I've developed a strong self-censorship button that has proven to be a huge obstacle in my work.

I used to publish all the comics I was making. The blog had a solid, saga like feel to it. I've definitely departed from that and now it's just a random comic here and there as I work on my real work, which deals with a lot of issues I'll never post on the internet due to their sensitive nature. However, they'll be in the printed book. The way the blog affects that is that when I sit down to work on the more personal comics, I have a tendency to want to shape the work to be more internet suitable. I have to force that part of my brain to shut down and return to a more honest, personal way of writing.

Now I'm making an active effort to sort of step away from the blog and withdraw from posting stuff on the internet. Not to bite the hand that feeds me, of course. I got my first two books published because of the internet. I'd submitted comics to a few small press publishers and had been turned down, but Atomic Books had been reading my stuff online and they offered to publish it out of the blue, so I have the internet to credit for that. However the book I'm working on now was done the good old fashioned, packaged book proposal way and had nothing to do with the internet.

As for my internet audience, it's a love/hate thing with them too. The popularity of the comic wouldn't exist at all without them, but sometimes a few of them really piss me off. I don’t like it when people offer me unsolicited advice, for example. However, that's not to say that I don't absolutely love the comments section. I do, it provides me with lots of jokes and punchlines for comics that I otherwise wouldn't have thought up had I not been responding to other comments. And there are a lot of readers I genuinely like, who leave funny or interesting comments. I just tend not to respond to those ones because they don't warrant a response, which makes me look like a dick. But whatever, it's just the internet. Everyone looks like a dick on the internet.

We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.

What was your first rock show?

The Beach Boys. I was 2, they played at the country fair in my town. I don’t know if that really qualifies as a rock show though, so maybe my answer is some band I don't remember the name of that I saw at the Coliseum in Oakland with my church youth group. That's the least cool answer ever.

What was the best performance you've ever seen?

It's a tie between two marching bands: What Cheer? Brigade and the Extra Action Marching Band. They both give these giant, vaudeville-esque performances that are really something to watch. They make me feel crazy. Although for more traditional bands, I'd go with I'm From Barcelona and maybe the Polyphonic Spree, even though I'm kind of annoyed by their music, they put on a good show.

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

Lots of folk music and Broadway musicals. My mom was into Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver, stuff like that, and she's also take us to musicals like "Cabaret” and "Jesus Christ Superstar,” so I have a huge soft spot for cheesy musicals. Although I can't stand "Rent,” it makes me want to pour tar in my ears. For many years I repeatedly listened to this hilarious kid's album called "Earthy Tunes.” It's totally nuts and I loved it.

Did you ever date anyone in a band?

No, but in high school I had an unhealthy obsession with Slash. I used to watch the video to "Don't Cry" where he apparently blows up his girlfriend and then rocks out without a shirt on over and over. Guns n Roses videos take rock star ridiculousness to an unfathomable height.

Read outtakes from this interview at Jami Attenberg's blog.

Julia Wertz links:

Julia Wertz's website (containing her comics and blog)

Laughing Squid review of The Fart Party Volume 1
New York Magazine review of The Fart Party Volume 1
New York Press review of The Fart Party Volume 1

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Antiheroines interviews
musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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