In her new graphic memoir Time Zone J, Julie Doucet’s cartoon avatar comments, “I had vowed never to draw myself again.” The real-life Doucet, renowned as a pioneer of autobiographical comics since her earliest days as a 1990s zine maker, echoes the sentiment. “I just can’t believe I did that!” she says. “I had a story I wanted to tell, and I really did try to put it on paper in so many different ways, but it didn’t work out. The only way was to tell it in a comic book.”
In Time Zone J, to be published in April by Drawn and Quarterly, Doucet floods her pages with dense collage-style artwork and loosely flowing word balloons to share a 1989 story from her journals about her long-distance relationship with a young French soldier referred to as “the hussar.” After a long, intimate correspondence, the two finally meet in Paris to explore whether they have a future together. The free-associating narrative also touches on Doucet’s friendships, the DIY art scene of the late 1980s, and the choices shaping her young-adult life.
When she draws herself into the comic, however, it’s as her present-day self examining her past. Doucet says she was driven to tell the story because it means so much to her. “It was so special,” she says. “[Time Zone J] is about our love affair, but it’s also a story about having an affair when you’re young and your feelings are very true and sincere.”
Born in Montreal, Doucet grew up reading comics, largely thanks to her mother’s love of classic European comics like Herge’s Tintin. She studied fine arts at Cegep du Viex Montreal and University of Quebec, focusing on printmaking. The graphic techniques of printing fascinated her, but she found the critical tastes of the time limiting. “Most of what I had seen around was very illustrative rather than abstract and conceptual [art strategies], which I loved,” she explains. “But the big star at the time was Joseph Beuys, [a prominent German conceptual artist who died in 1986,] who was so far away from what I was doing that people told me I should be illustrating children’s books. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Feeling that there wasn’t a place for her in the fine art world, Doucet dropped out.
In 1987, shortly after quitting art school, Doucet launched her influential comic series Dirty Plotte, initially a photocopied, hand-stapled zine She was inspired by art students she had met who were drawing comics and by women cartoonists like the French bande-dessinée artist Claire Bretécher. Dirty Plotte quickly attracted attention in the indie comics scene for frank, high-energy, wildly funny and brutally honest stories from Doucet’s life. Doucet’s cartooning style evolved into a gleefully anarchic, instantly recognizable look, with big-headed caricatures storming through urban landscapes cluttered with detail. Naturalistic autobio pieces about dating, partying, apartment life, and navigating the art world, rubbed shoulders with surrealist dream diaries and outrageous fantasies of sex and violence, raunchy cartoon animals, and visuals of bodies melting like Dali clocks.
“I sold them at bookstores and record stores and comic book stores,” Doucet recalls. Discovering Factsheet Five, a massive zine review magazine that was indispensable in the self-publishing community of the 1990s, was a turning point for her comics. Through it, she found new places to publish, and made contact with such celebrated minicomics creators as John Porcellino, who was inspired by Dirty Plotte to publish his seminal King-Cat Comics.
A friend in Montreal introduced Doucet to Weirdo, the alternative comix magazine founded by underground comix artist R. Crumb. “At that time, I didn’t know much about American comics,” she admits. She submitted to Weirdo, and editor/cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb sent back a postcard offering to publish her work. Weirdo published what became one of Doucet’s most famous stories, “Heavy Flow,” in which a rampaging giant Julie floods a city with menstrual blood. Through anthology comics such as Weirdo and Wimmen’s Comix, an equally influential anthology of women underground comix artists, Doucet reached a wider audience of alt-comics readers and underground art fans in both Canada and the U.S.
In 1991, Doucet’s Dirty Plotte won the Harvey Award for Best New Talent and became a full-sized comic book series published by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Doucet moved to New York City in the same year, hoping to connect with other publishers. “Of course, nowadays, with computers, you’re not as trapped as you used to be,” she says.
Her experiences during this time inspired some of her most acclaimed comics, later collected in My New York Diary, which won the 2000 Firecracker Award. In her New York stories, Doucet explores the Manhattan art scene of the period, her relationship with her live-in boyfriend at the time, her wildest frustrations and fantasies, and her efforts to find herself as an artist. But at the same time, life in New York wore her out. “It was too big, too much of a big city for me,” she says.
After about a year in New York, Doucet moved to Seattle. The comics scene “was very friendly, and such nice surroundings: good cafes and tiny cinemas. I have good memories from that time,” she says. Doucet experimented with drawing comic strips and published the first book collection of her work, Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! (Lift Your Leg, My Fish Is Dead!), through Drawn & Quarterly. But after a few years, “I got homesick. I just needed to speak some French. I went back to Montreal for one year, but I just couldn’t take it, and I didn’t want to go back to the States. So the next move was going to Europe.”
When her German publisher invited her to Berlin, she accepted. While there, she published her first book in French, Ciboire de criss. “It was very difficult for me [in Germany],” Doucet recalls. “But I didn’t want to go back to Montreal, so I ended up staying for two years.”
Around 1998, Doucet moved back to Montreal and ended Dirty Plotte with Issue 12. “I really was tired by that point,” she says. “Tired of the format. It was a lot of work, a lot of little squares. At the time there, was not as much room to experiment and there weren’t many women around.
“It was hard to make comics when it wasn’t fun to do it, and I wasn’t making millions on it, so I was working all the time,” Doucet recalls. “It took tons of energy, and I didn’t have any art drive left to do anything else. It drove me crazy. That’s why it was nice to quit and spend a year or two doing anything else but comics.”
Since then, Doucet has periodically returned to comics. The Madame Paul Affair, about life in a cheap apartment with eccentric neighbors, was serialized in the Montreal alt-weekly Ici. 365 Days: A Diary covers a year in Doucet’s life from 2002 to 2003. But she’s also taken time to explore other forms of art, especially printmaking, collage, and sculpture. Her books Long Time Relationship and the French-language J comme Je combine media, telling personal stories through illustrative prints and text collage, respectively. Doucet has also written poetry, produced animation (including “My New New York Diary,” a recursive, self-referential collaboration with Michel Gondry in which her comic-book world and real self interact) and shown art in gallery shows. Renowned internationally, she’s become a local fixture on the Montreal art scene.
Asked if there are personal stories she finds difficult to tell, Doucet laughs and says, “Yes, and they’re not told.” She has a reputation with being brutally honest about her own life, but over the years she’s grown more protective of friends who feel uncomfortable about being included in her work. “For them, [the experiences] were not necessarily good memories,” she says. “So now I’m extremely careful about not putting anyone in my books who doesn’t want to be in them.”
Time Zone J took two years to write and draw. Now that it’s complete, Doucet has no specific plans for her next artistic focus. “It’s difficult to get started on something else,” she says. She’s taking woodworking lessons and thinking about the fact that most of her comics work has been in black and white. “I would like to experiment with color for once, if possible,” she says. “But I don’t have a story to tell yet.”