Long live the King-Cat | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Long live the King-Cat 

A history of John Porcellino’s midwest influence

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click to enlarge King-Cat Classix is a collection of John Porcellino's zine content from 1989 to 2002. - COURTESY DRAWN & QUARTERLY
  • King-Cat Classix is a collection of John Porcellino's zine content from 1989 to 2002.
  • courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

The graphic novel Map of my Heart begins with a cartoon map of Hoffman Estates: the high school, the Barrington Square Mall, a good spot to pick raspberries behind the hospital. At the bottom, everything is labeled: "Map of the Known Universe Circa 1982."

The cartographer is comics artist John Porcellino. For the last three decades, he's self-published his influential autobiographical zine, King-Cat Comics and Stories (last month he released King-Cat #80.) On February 9, comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly reissued three Porcellino titles: Perfect Example, a coming-of-age memoir set the summer after high school, and King-Cat Classix and Map of My Heart, both of which collect zine content from 1989 to 2002.

Together, these publications represent the coin flip of Porcellino's career. On one side, he's a lauded comics giant, with titles so treasured they demand reprinting. On the other, he maintains a thoroughly DIY approach to publishing, running the Spit and a Half zine distro from his Beloit, Wisconsin, home, and releasing King-Cat totally independently.

"Once I started King-Cat, that became my focus right away," Porcellino says. "I knew it could always grow and evolve, so it felt like something that could just be a home to me."

When the first issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories came out in 1989, it cost 35 cents. Porcellino was 19 years old, drawing simple stories about his surreal dreams, suburban Chicago upbringing, and the stray cats of Dekalb, Illinois. He ran off copies to sell to his friends or drop at bookstores around town. Even from those humble beginnings, he imagined King-Cat as a long-running, all-encompassing endeavor: the record of his whole life.

An issue of King-Cat could be a textbook in midwest sensibilities. Porcellino's spare, unhurried lines perfectly capture prairie grass and Lake Michigan horizons. Over decades of drawing comics, Porcellino's artistic approach became more and more simple. A philosophy began emerging, quietly threading all of his work together. Moving slowly allows for true appreciation of things: a snowfall, a groundhog, a suburban house all lit up at night. He started translating his deep appreciation of the midwest landscape into every issue of King-Cat.

"It's not like the Rocky Mountains where it's going to hit you over the head with, 'Look how majestic I am,'" Porcellino says. "It's Paw Paw, Illinois. That beauty is there and that majesty is there, but it's a thing that you have to learn to recognize. Once you learn to recognize it, you see it everywhere."

As a teenager, Porcellino discovered the Hairy Who, the unconventional 1960s art collective that formed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Around the same time, he found Matt Groening's Life in Hell and Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek in the pages of the Chicago Reader. Those three influences began shifting his ideas of what comics could accomplish. (In a full-circle moment, Porcellino published his own comic strip, Prairie Pothole, with the Reader in 2019.)

As photocopiers became more ubiquitous in the 80s, zines and minicomics began flooding into bookstores, record stores, and other counterculture establishments. The growing zine movement spawned Factsheet Five, a zine review magazine run by Mike Gunderlay. In the days before the Internet, Porcellino connected with other zinesters through the magazine.

That's how he discovered Montreal cartoonist Julie Doucet, and her elaborate, raunchy zine Dirty Plotte. "I thought, 'Wow, Julie is doing every single inch of this little zine,'" Porcellino says. "That was my direct inspiration . . . A real direct, personal way of trying to connect with the world. Shortly after I saw my first Dirty Plotte, that's when I started King-Cat."

If you were scouting for zines in the 90s, you would eventually encounter King-Cat. Back in the early 90s, comics artist Ivan Brunetti would scour Chicagoland comic shops for indie creators. Discovering Porcellino's comics felt like permission to create his own. "The charms of [John's] comic are actually its intimate scale, modest production, unfancy presentation, and accessibility," he says. "Paper and mark, that's as essential as one can get, the very heart of cartooning."

From the zine's earliest days, Porcellino chronicled midwest mundanities. Early issues explored fiction and experimental writing (including the Madonna 'n' Me issue, which just records his daydreams about the pop star), but Porcellino really hit his stride when recording quiet moments of everyday life.

click to enlarge From Perfect Example by John Porcellino - COURTESY DRAWN & QUARTERLY
  • From Perfect Example by John Porcellino
  • courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

A 1991 comic recalls an uneventful walk home from school—hopping a fence, cutting across a yard, greeting his mom. The sparse dialogue is so commonplace it might as well be white noise—"Would you take the dog out?"—and when John goes into the backyard, he looks up to the sky. The final page is shaded totally black with little gaps of white: It has started to snow. A moment of quiet profundity, surrounded by routine. These moments would become Porcellino's specialty.

"Whether it's the super exciting moments or happy moments or super low moments in life . . . In between those extremes is this vast swath of mundanity," Porcellino says. "My work became focused on those simple, nondescript, seemingly superficial moments. When you learn to look at that stuff, this kind of beauty emerges in everything."

Drawn & Quarterly editor in chief Tom Devlin was the first person to publish a collection of Porcellino's work—the original run of Perfect Example, which came out under his former press Highwater Books in 2005. He recalls how, even in the early days, Porcellino's comics felt different. "The 90s were a very sarcastic time, and John's comics were not sarcastic at all," Devlin says. "They did not fit in with the tenor of comics that people were making. He was celebrating small moments instead of puncturing big targets."

Perfect Example is Porcellino's memoir focused on the summer after he graduated high school, rife with house parties, unrequited crushes, and a depressive episode that teenage John doesn't know how to handle. It's also a portrait of suburban teenager-hood—and how much that involves piling into a car and driving into Chicago.

A pivotal early scene takes place at Belmont Harbor. While John's friends mix 7-Up and vodka, he moves away from the crowd. Suddenly, the lake turns into frenzied lines and the bushes crush in like black clouds. John becomes a lone figure surrounded by darkness, and then the panels begin to zoom out. The beach, the parking lot, the Chicago skyline rendered in the simplest lines. The chapter's final page shows Chicago viewed from above, as if Porcellino is saying: "Look, all of my conflicts and chaos are contained right here. And from this height, you can't see them at all."

In 20 years of working at Quimby's Bookstore, Chicago's emporium for all things zine, manager Liz Mason has seen a lot of King-Cat Comics move off the shelves. "Chicago can claim him as its own, but really, it's suburban Chicago," she says. "He writes about what it's like to be skating around in the suburbs. I sort of take pride in the fact that one of my favorite artists grew up not far from where I grew up."

Porcellino immortalizes the places that most people would drive by without a second glance. The cover of King-Cat #54 shows a cloudy sky, a parking lot, and the Hoffman Estates water tower. There's nothing glamorous about the view. In fact, when he was growing up, Porcellino didn't give it any thought at all. But when he moved back in with his parents after college, he found a new appreciation for the formerly unremarkable water tower.

click to enlarge From Map of My Heart by John Porcellino - COURTESY DRAWN & QUARTERLY
  • From Map of My Heart by John Porcellino
  • courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

"When I lived in Hoffman Estates, I saw it ten times a week," he says. "I came back and there it was. It was there the whole time, waiting for me to recognize it."

His subject matter may be unassuming, but Porcellino has become a major influence to up-and-coming comics artists in Chicago and beyond. Nick Drnaso's Booker Prize-longlisted graphic novel Sabrina details the aftermath of a young woman's abduction. The book's sparse panels and blank-faced characters were directly influenced by Porcellino. "I was thinking about [John's] work when I made the conscious decision to pare down the lines on a given page as much as possible," Drnaso says. "There was some desire to strip away everything and start fresh, and John's work gave me permission to do that."

This summer, Porcellino's work will appear in the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit "Chicago Comics: 1960 to now." In addition to original comics pages on the wall, the entire King-Cat print run will be available for visitors to peruse. That's important to Porcellino. "When you pick up a King-Cat at Quimby's, that is the art," he says. "The pages that you hang on the wall are kind of the detritus of the process."

Seeing the entire run of King-Cat in one place really highlights Porcellino's work ethic—the sort of Rust Belt grit you need to shovel a driveway while it's still snowing. King-Cat has remained constant for more than 30 years, through marriages and divorces, cross-country moves, sickness and health. "This sounds a little highfalutin, but I think at a certain point I wanted to at least set an example for people," Porcellino says. "You don't have to quit. You can do this thing exactly how you want to do it, for the reasons you want to do it, without compromising."

Porcellino published King-Cat #80 in the exact same format as the first issue in 1989 (though the cover price has gone up to $5). It's still black and white and staple-bound, with the familiar circular logo of a cat with a crown and a scepter. The subject matter feels classic Porcellino, too—birdwatching, a dream log, and a record of the first groundhog sighting of spring (March 12, 2020).

The zine's final page shows two panels of a hillside in summertime, busy with Porcellino's squiggles of grass and flowers. Under his pen, the hills seem both alive and beloved. It's the kind of drawing that makes you want to go outside and pay attention to the world.

"Over time, all those little moments add up into a larger story," Porcellino says. "That's how life is, you know?"   v

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