I’ll be honest: I skipped most of the prose stuff. I’ve never felt much kinship with zine culture, and among all the other things that John Porcellino’s legendary, long-running, self-published minicomic series King-Cat Comics and Stories is — most notably a pioneering combination of pointilist autobiography and minimalist cartooning without which the careers of Kevin Huizenga, Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka, James McShane, and virtually every webcomic diarist would be unthinkable — it is also a zine. Over the years it’s functioned, essentially, as one end of a pen-pal conversation between Porcellino and his readers, and thus his lengthy handwritten digressions about fishing trips or local wildlife or his Top 40 lists of stuff he’s recently enjoyed serve a necessary and fruitful role during that particular round of correspondence. But that’s never how it’s functioned for me: My experience reading Porcellino and King-Cat has come either from buying a bunch of issues all at once and reading them in one go or from seeing his work in collections like this one. I’m here for the cartooning, not for the conversation.
Fortunately the cartooning is fantastic. The stretch of “comics and stories” collected here run from 1996-2002, a pivotal time period for Porcellino not simply in personal terms — he became critically ill, recovered, moved back home to Illinois after years spent in Denver, married, divorced, and remarried — but in artistic ones as well: I’m reasonably sure his long-form memoir Perfect Example was constructed during this time, and within King-Cat his art made its second quantum leap. After what looks to my admittedly inexpert eyes like an experiment with a brush in issue #57 (which followed and revealed his divorce), his line becomes a true thing of beauty in issue #58′s story “Forgiveness.” It’s smoother and thinner, its curves more graceful, the sense of space between them less cluttered and more balanced. With no captions to guide us, we’re left alone with young John in this reminiscence of an unintentional act of cruelty that clearly still haunts him; the image of his younger self twice curled into a fetal position, repeating “I’m sorry” over and over again, is devastating. Similar flashes of remonstrance and self-loathing creep up occasionally and unexpectedly in some of his Zen-influenced comic poems, a powerful juxtaposition with their serene images and contemplative words. Can it get a little twee? Sure, but I think there’s a sharpness and a coldness to that line, and the occasional glimpses of despair it affords us, that make writing Porcellino’s stuff off as cutesy hippie stuff a big mistake. To flip through the comics material in Map of My Heart is to get a picture of a man fighting to find beauty in the world even as what he’s seen of it buffets him around like one of the leaves on the breeze that he draws. No wonder people loved to hear from him.