Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mosquito post

Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man
by John Porcellino

La Mano, 2005

I will readily confess to my lack of status as a John Porcellino fan, but only because I have not followed his work. I have encountered his King Kat mini-comic from time to time, but will admit to never having sought it out or thought too much about it. This volume, a collection of works from 1989 to 2005 (which won the Ignatz Award in 20o5), caught my eye in one of my usual Half-Price Books haunts, and I was drawn to it by its subject matter and by its presentation, both of which demonstrated plainly in just the time I was browsing the development of the creator over the years.

It is in the artwork itself that this development shows up most strikingly. Porcellino's work would be described by some as cartoony and minimal, and by others as crude, amateurish, or inept, but a comparison of his early work with his later illustration shows the difference between the two.

While he never comes near anything approaching realism, Porcellino's early drawings had a lot of "realistic" details such as seams and wrinkles on clothing or fixtures and features on hardware. Combined with the unnatural anatomy of the characters and sketchy backgrounds, it gave the whole affair a messy, unsatisfying look. (I have heard some people refer to this as a "punk rock" sensibility; I'm not so sure of that label.)

Porcellino's later work, on the other hand, loses the detail and gains immeasurable reality in the process. By letting go of any pretense at trying to present what things really look like, and instead presenting an almost totally emblematic world of simple curves and shapes, Porcellino is able to connect to the heart of the actual.

As an example, here are two panels, one from 1989 and one from 2005:

In the older panel, Porcellino tries to include on his baseball cap the seams, the logo, even the adjuster-gap in the back; it's a confusing cluster of elements. In the newer panel, he represents the same hat with two simple lines, trusting that our sense of the world will fill in all the details we need to see, if in fact there are any.

That same reductiveness has been applied to the swamp. In the first image, there are lots and lots of straight lines scratched all about, as if their quantity could make up for the lack of resemblance to actual swamp grasses. In the second image, Porcellino has gone with something that is almost a glyph; a collection of three or four stylized strokes that reads as grass. (A similar effect, but with parallel lines instead of angled, is used for the dry-land grass.)

The anatomy in the first picture is just weird; you can call it punk rock if you like, but to me it falls into a sort of comics version of uncanny valley: the angle and perspective is sophisticated enough to raise my expectations, so the watery body just seems poorly executed. On the other hand, the anatomy in the second picture is just as "wrong," but the deliberate flatness of the figure makes me appreciate it as a purer graphic design, and I can actually relate to it more.

While everything about the later art has gotten simpler, it seems so much more controlled and effective. Sometimes growth manifests not by adding to, but by getting rid of.

Porcellino displays growth in the content as well as the art. This volume is a memoir, as the name implies, relating incidents and observations from the author's stint in rural insect control. The earlier pieces have a flaw commonly ascribed to comics in the "black and white autobiographical indie" genre, one I frequently find in my students' first attempts at personal essays: they don't have anything in them to make a reader care. Vignettes without context or consequence, texts that read like journal entries, no sense of audience: these are the hazards of the "personal" without the "essay," and they mark Porcellino's early entries.

The later work, though - that's a different story. The last two pieces, while based deeply in Porcellino's experiences and using them as foundations and support, actually have points - claims that they make, conclusions that they come to, positions that they take about life and its meaning and the choices we make. They are at the same time so much more satisfying and so much more challenging than the meandering and idle reminiscences that comprise the earlier work.

Porcellino has long been considered a valuable and important member not just of the mini-comics community but of the broader comics world as well. I have been remiss in not joining in; consider this my declaration of admiration.


  1. I have no idea who this person is but damn, you're a fine writer!