Julia Wertz doesn’t play by the rules—not in her comics career, nor in her new graphic memoir, Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story (Black Dog & Leventhal, May), which resists the norms of the addiction recovery genre. In the book, she wisecracks through an episodic account of isolation and alcohol abuse, and her stutter-start, winding path to sobriety.
Now a regular contributor to the New Yorker, Wertz started self-publishing her curmudgeonly diary comics online in 2004, in a series she ironically titled Fart Party. It’s a choice she says she later regretted when the branding stuck. The omnibus collection of that series is being reissued in March as Museum of Mistakes (Uncivilized).
Caught up in the gold rush for graphic novels, Wertz signed a trade book deal, affording her time to draw. Impossible People opens in that period, as she hid out in an illegal basement apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; drank heavily to soften the existential depression that arrived with twilight; and blacked out nightly. Intervention came in the form of a doctor who predicted she’d be “dead by 30.” Vignettes follow her through rehab, a 12-step program, relapses, and a tentative path forward, buoyed by friends made along the way.
While the supporting cast are drawn in simple but evocative lines, Wertz portrays herself with an awkward, slightly deranged expression as she goofs through housing woes, bad boyfriends, worse breakups, and family traumas. It’s all set against a gorgeously detailed pen-drawn backdrop of the architecture and odd fellows of Brooklyn and its burgeoning indie comics community in the 2010s.
“You know the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the less you know the more you think you know? That confidence that can come from ignorance can really benefit people,” says Wertz, 40, on a video call from her drawing desk in “a room carved out of the garage” at her home in Sonoma, Calif., which she shares with her husband and young son. “I didn’t know a lot about comics or publishing. I thought, I can’t draw, but whatever—I’m going to do it anyway. Now, it’s good to know the rules in the industry, but it’s also good to know what rules you can fudge.”
Wertz rattles off tales of how she misstepped her way into success, like when she brag posted her own comics to the grumps on the Comics Journal forum (a newbie no-no), or spontaneously cold emailed Black Dog & Leventhal publisher Becky Koh to pitch what became the 2018 Brendan Gill Prize–winning collection Tenements, Towers, and Trash, without alerting her own literary agent (who forgave her).
Impossible People returns to themes (addiction, illness, anxiety, creativity) that Wertz has limned across two prior graphic memoirs, 2010’s Drinking at the Movies and 2012’s The Infinite Wait. She jokes that fans think she just “tells the same stories at parties.” But she spent a decade getting Impossible People and its arc just right.
“It’s been percolating,” Wertz says. “I had a whole other version, some 200 pages, that it hurt to put in the trash.” Many of those drawings had been drafted in the midst of drinking, when “time moved differently” and she “missed a lot.”
Despite being largely self-taught, Wertz has found herself in impressive company throughout her career, having been awarded two MacDowell fellowships and twice been nominated for the Eisner awards. She started out as a humanities student at San Francisco State in the early aughts—where, she caveats, “it’s up for debate if I graduated; I never got a diploma.” A professor there first introduced her to Junjo Ito’s manga series Uzumaki, and she was immediately hooked.
“I fell in love with the art form and started writing and drawing my own comics,” Wertz says. “And they were very, very dumb.”
Through trading photocopied zines, Wertz connected with peers who were leveling up their skills. After moving to New York City, she cofounded a studio in an old candy factory; it drew a group of women cartoonists who called the space Pizza Island. The women brought together at Pizza Island—including Kate Beaton (Ducks), Sarah Glidden (Rolling Blackouts), Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie), and Lisa Hanawalt (Tuca and Bertie)—would prove to be a talented bunch and would form a lasting support network. For Wertz, they were essential both to her recovery process and artistic career. “Cartoonists are a weird breed—homebodies who tend to have social anxiety but are smart and funny,” she says.
Though Wertz says she “hates drawing people,” she became adept at scenery, taking long walks and sketching Greenpoint. She created so many pages of bodega storefronts and wood-frame row houses that they couldn’t all fit into Tenements, a collection of drawings of urban architecture, and she repurposed some as scenery in Impossible People, slotting her characters in on their period set.
New Yorker cartoon editor Emma Allen publishes Wertz’s work on the magazine’s online platform, and calls herself “an obsessive fan” of Wertz’s “brilliant, Dada, goofy humor.” However “crass and sarcastic” Wertz gets, Allen finds her cartoons “relatable, like the banter of a best friend,” and “sincere without ever being sentimental.”
Impossible People is the first graphic memoir published by Black Dog & Leventhal. Koh says she eagerly signed it after the “tremendous success” of Tenements, which was a New York Times notable book of the year. “What I love about Julia is just how genuinely she presents herself,” Koh says. “There’s no BS; there’s no artifice.”
For example, in Impossible People, Wertz doesn’t shy away from critiquing AA, though she maintains the anonymity of people she met in the program, unless they gave her explicit permission to name them. “It saves people’s lives, but still I think it needs to be completely overhauled,” she explains, pointing to problems with the ways the program creates space for women. Nonetheless, she hopes readers take away that what AA can do is “sit you down and say, ‘Cut the shit. Be a real person, stop being sarcastic, have a real conversation about what’s going on.’ ”
An “ordinary recovery story,” per Wertz, doesn’t follow a clear path from rock bottom to salvation. She’s frustrated by popular narratives that skew toward dramatic highs and lows. Her story, she hopes, is low-key in a way that’s true to life—where relapses are part of a cycle that can be surmounted, even if it takes a few rounds. Mistakes get made.
“When I started drawing Impossible People, I was single, an alcoholic, and living alone in a basement in New York City,” Wertz says. “When I finished it a decade later, I was married, a mother, and living in a house in California. But if you would have told me that in 2011, I never would have believed it.” The biggest challenge in recreating her struggles on the page, she says, was drawing her own actions and wondering, “Why did it take me so long to stop doing this?”
“People would give me advice, and I wouldn’t follow it,” Wertz says. “I would just do what I wanted to do, and recovery requires that you realize that what you want to do is probably not the right thing.”
Maybe, she hopes, telling her ordinary story will help someone else who’s struggling—help them realize what isn’t working, “if they need that push.”