This is a story about achieving financial solvency! (Sort of.)
Discovering creative independence! (Painfully.)
And finding personal satisfaction! (Eventually.)
This is a story about how you can lead the life you always wanted! Become your own boss! And though you might not always feel secure — and who does? — act now and you will find some measure of peace for those restless nights. There is no catch, and I am not selling anything.
Here’s what you do: Move to Beloit, Wisconsin, outside Rockford. Luck into a large Midwestern craftsman home a stone’s throw from the palatial campus of Beloit College. Also, before doing that, grow up in Chicago, then move to Hoffman Estates, and later DeKalb. Decide early on to draw a comic book about your life. Very important: Make sure you decide this in the 1980s, before autobiographical comics became a semi-viable calling. Take random jobs. Don’t alienate your coworkers. Move around. Live cheaply. Mine your life for moments, keep the art stick-figure raw, staple every issue of your comics yourself, and set up a distribution network in your home.
Now repeat for 30 years.
It worked for John Porcellino, eventually.
Before I started this story, I was a reader of his poetic comics. I often wondered how sad, transient and exhausted John Porcellino must feel. His work is full of ennui, uncertainty, uneventfulness. But after a conversation or two with the guy, I wondered if I should practice Buddhism, too. Maybe move to Beloit. I pictured Porcellino in the 21st century, still living the punk DIY ethos he embraced as a teenager, still toiling over rough embryonic-looking zines, still writing about the most prosaic bits of his day, still publishing new issues of his comic book “King-Cat” 30 years after it was ubiquitous in a once-edgy Wicker Park underground. I pictured one of those guys who stumbles out of a forest years after a war and asks: “Did we win?”
I imagined Porcellino, at 52, as a relic.
Instead, I found a man who, despite years of struggle, stayed true to that seminal youthful daydream, to do only as one wants, on one’s time, in one’s way, answering to no one. This guy actually did it. In fact, he stayed so uncompromising, I assumed that either he’s naive or I sold out my own hard-lined ideals long ago. The truth is simpler: Porcellino, like his hero Thoreau, set out to live deliberately.
And then, he did.
Visiting Porcellino in Beloit after years of reading “King-Cat” is like visiting Charles Schulz and finding a beagle in the front yard, beside a dog house, a stone wall and a Great Pumpkin patch. Beloit, in early March, was as stark and snowy as Chicago was muddy and melted. As in a typical issue of his black-and-white comic, the landscape is a stiff, empty horizon, a few trees, some clouds and a lot of white space.
He greeted me with the same modest sincerity of his comics.
“Good to see ya’. Take a walk?”
When Porcellino is looking directly at you, the thickness of his eyeglass lenses amplify his age and wariness. As he speaks the da thuddy vowels of a lifelong Chicagoan punch out. He walks briskly, head down. There’s a lot of walking in “King-Cat,” a lot of hikes and short strolls around local parks. And a lot of sudden realizations the natural world is remarkable. Porcellino finds moments of wonder at life itself. To be fair, after decades of self-publishing his own rambling story, there’s a lot of everything inside “King-Cat:” Dreams, romances, college stories, travel itineraries, letters from readers, Zen teachings, Illinois history, childhood memories, facts about groundhogs. “From the beginning back in 1989,” he told me, “I wanted this work to be whatever came up, and I wanted it to stay open enough to change alongside me, as I changed.” So, across 32 years of the comic — and several graphic memoirs — drunken nights and bad jobs in his 20s gave way eventually to family, marriage, disappointments, told in the most streamlined of ways.
As a guest editor, the famed Oak Park-based cartoonist Chris Ware made room for Porcellino in the “Best American Comics” series and a beloved 2004 all-comics edition of McSweeney’s literary journal. Ware, an admirer of Porcellino, said: “His unassuming drawings drop me right into his quietly quotidian Midwestern existence. I’ve never come away without some appreciation of the essentialness of living and renewed sense of the importance of observation — and most importantly, an odd sense of comfort.”
A Porcellino comic, in other words, is about nothing and everything.
Corny as this sounds, dear reader, to read him is to be reminded you are a part of a larger world, and broader existence — and all of the spiritual whatevers that suggest.
When I asked about the transcendent undertones in his comics, Porcellino looks sheepish, and deeply Midwestern. His grin was shy. He tells a story: “So my earliest memory, I was maybe 2 years old and my family lived on Foster Avenue in Jefferson Park and we had an old wire fence that was rustic looking and it was taken down and rolled up — it looked like a big Ho-Ho. It seemed immense, and while we were waiting for scrap collectors one day, I climbed on it and looked down and saw this intricate net of interlacing wires and — I feel squeamish saying this — it was a religious experience. It was kind of cosmic. I didn’t understand it then but I knew it was important, you know? In a way my whole life has been trying to understand that, and the ways that our threads dissolve into one. Then again, that’s me, at 52, trying to explain it rationally.”
He shows a kind of openness with strangers that makes you blush.
“John’s comics kind of make me smile inside,” said Jeffrey Brown, the Chicago cartoonist probably best known for his popular series of “Star Wars” books for children. “Even when he’s telling you about some kind of trauma, it’s with this quality of peacefulness. He shows perspective. Even when he writes about a tragedy in his life, it comes with a bit of reassurance.”
Porcellino, essentially, is the sort of artist whom you grow protective towards, not because he’s fragile himself or unable to argue for his own importance, but because his vision advances incrementally, feels deceptively minor. It can look unchanging. In early January, Porcellino mailed out his 80th issue of “King-Cat,” and last month, the Montreal comic publisher Drawn & Quarterly re-released much of Porcellino’s collected work, along with his remarkable graphic memoirs, “The Hospital Suite” and “Perfect Example.” But unless you’re paying close attention to that work, it all resembles a lot of one thing, the same life told, and retold, the same nature walks, the same awkward encounters. Which, in a way, has been precisely the point.
From the start of “King-Cat,” he aimed to “nurture a community (of readers) who grow older with this work in their lives,” whose lives age and repeat and thrill and bore alongside the comic itself. Indeed, of his roughly 700 regular subscribers, a handful have been with Porcellino since he first sold subscriptions in the early ’90s. It’s a touching model for leading a creative life. And also a somewhat precarious model.
After the walk, after we returned to his home, which he shares with his wife, who inherited the house, Porcellino said: “This is the first time, in a long time, I have had a secure roof over my head. Before here I lived in South Beloit, half a mile into Illinois. I had intermittent water, the heat didn’t work. But it was cheap. I have friends who are artists who have been homeless. That was never me, but how do I do this the way I want when I know it will never be a secure life? There were moments I been utterly broke because I chose comics. And now I don’t kill myself every month to make rent, which helps. The story of my adult life is the search for less overhead.”
Left unsaid is what he laid bare in the harrowing “Hospital Suite,” his 2014 account of a decade or so of cascading, unexplained health emergencies. In the mid-’90s, he developed hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes minor everyday sounds painful — a dropped fork, a flushed toilet, a dog bark. Next came the tumor blocking his small intestine. Then he developed food allergies. His white blood count plummeted. After that, years of intense OCD. “I felt a real before and after in my life,” he said, adding doctors never knew for certain what was wrong. He spent a decade with serious OCD, trying to manage it himself, mostly without medication. “Basically it destroyed my life, so 11 years ago I went on a small dose (of medicine).” Still, he lost a marriage — he’s now on his third — “and for a while I looked like a skeleton.”
Friends, of course, were concerned.
Jenny Zervakis, who in the early ’90s was another mainstay of Chicago comics, said: “I used to worry about John. A lot of people in the early ’90s were doing personal comics and they would find each other through (the zine directory) Factsheet Five and make their work and trade it, but eventually real life caught up. John really never stopped. I went off to North Carolina and had a normal life” — she got a Ph.D. in psychology, now works at a hospital, and still makes the occasional comic — “but John wanted to make it work, to stay as authentic to himself as he could. He was going to kick against the bricks. The whole punk rock thing. He explored Eastern philosophy — I got into it, too. You accept, yes, things are messed up and imperfect, and that is part of the world. But I often wondered if John was being a little too Thoreau, supporting himself by day with jobs, and burning the candle at both ends. He was trying to be too much of a purist.”
The litany of day jobs he took to support his lifestyle reads like a program of quirky indie film plots — machine operator, janitor, health food store employee, person who holds up Oriental rugs at auctions, person who chops old furniture for wood, and most significantly, mosquito abatement man. Porcellino believes that last job, exposed regularly to pesticides, daily for five years, contributed to the sharp decline of his health. “It certainly plugs in a lot of puzzle pieces.”
His mother, a former nurse, pleaded with her son to have a degree of security. Be a meter reader! (He went as far as filling out a ComEd application.) His father suggested, if he must be a cartoonist, maybe draw something like “Garfield,” something you can live on. But the twin tendrils of indie comics and punk were woven too tightly. As a kid, by the time his family moved to Hoffman Estates in the 1970s, he was drawing his own comics. He says his father, who died 16 years ago, was “a lawyer but not really an attorney. He didn’t have a regular paycheck, and people owed him a lot of money. Sometime they would pay in goods and services. This one guy who worked for a candy distributor paid him in Velamints. You know, sugar-free mints. We had a closet full, and whenever I would ask for candy, my father would say ‘You have candy at home!’”
He became fixated on the poignant, often painful personal comics of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening, then staples of the Chicago Reader, then went on to study painting at Northern Illinois University. After college, he stuck around the DeKalb music scene for a while, played in bands and drove a forklift for cash. “After college, I wanted to start a conversation with an audience and painting didn’t encourage it. I wanted to make art the people I worked with could just pick up and get. Punk mattered to me because you are not this passive consumer. You don’t just listen, you started a band. You didn’t just buy records, you started your own record label. I remember shows where bands would not even set up on a normal stage because that two-foot tall riser felt like a barrier between artist and audience. I really liked that. I was attracted to the simplicity.”
For the first couple years, Porcellino self-published “King-Cat” about twice a month.
And by the end of the ’90s, when Liz Mason first started at Quimby’s bookstore in Wicker Park — she’s now the longtime manager — Porcellino’s comics were “firmly entrenched around here. He’s become pretty influential now. What makes him so intriguing is he has shown you can do the thing you set out to do and believe what you set out believing and still act like a highly-functioning adult. You can self-publish your zine for 30 years and still exist in 2021!”
Nick Drnaso, the Chicago-based cartoonist whose 2018 “Sabrina” was a Man Booker Prize nominee, said by the time he went to college a decade or so ago, “Porcellino was one of those guideposts that told me that it’s OK to work this way. I first read him probably when it was a good time to read him and I needed to hear it. There’s a pressure in art school to be impressive or bold or offensive and attract attention, and John relieved a lot of that pressure for me. It’s like he said, ‘Here, see how you can be calm, sparse and still confront difficult things.’ I can draw a direct line from thinking about how John understands reduction to my first book.”
As if to put a fine point on his philosophy of simplicity, in 2008, for Disney’s publishing division, Porcellino retold the story of Thoreau’s “Walden” as a graphic novel. In some ways, showing the famous silence at Walden Pond, rather than filling it with words, improved “Walden.”
Porcellino eventually decided (“if I may be so bold”) he shared a lot much with Thoreau. Particularly, the constant hustle to do more with less. Porcellino, for instance, has stuck with self-publishing “King-Cat” because: “I make twice as much (at $5 an issue of “King-Cat”) as I do on a $30 hardcover of my work published by anyone else, and I have a good-size subscriber base.” Also, since 1992, he’s run a small distribution company for small-press and self-published comics, Spit and a Half, out of his home. There are times he has lived off entirely his comics, but it’s not fun, he said. Without Spit and a Half, the occasional portrait commission and a handful of books in print, survival would be tenuous. That said, he also hasn’t had a day job since 2006.
So, Porcellino remains a hidden treasure, tucked away on the Wisconsin line.
He moved here years ago because it was cheap, and then met his wife, Stephanie, a jewelry designer. They were married last year, just before shutdowns. The usual sore joints and failing eyesight of middle-age aside, his health is the best it’s been in ages, he said. He’s only doing one “King-Cat” a year right now, but he’s planning to pick up that pace. He feels pretty good.
He cringes a little.
“Being a Midwesterner without a lot of gumption and probably low self-esteem, I feel embarrassed saying it out loud — it kind of hurts my stomach to say it: But if you told my younger self I would be able to have the creative life I wanted, and that I would do it the way I wanted, and that I would have some size of an audience that looks forward to it regularly, and that now I have the economic stability to sustain it? I’m just going to appreciate that right now. I never compromised and I made exactly the comics I always want to make. And I’m content.”
John Porcellino in his art and book-filled home in Beloit, Wisconsin on March 3. Porcellino self-publishes King-Cat comics and stories and has been doing so since 1989. He shares the home with his wife, Steph, as well as two dogs and two cats. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)