When Julie Doucet opens the front door of the Atelier Graff, the studio she shares with several other Montreal artists, she looks just like she draws herself in her autobiographical comics -- wide-eyed and casually pretty.
At 36, Doucet still has a girlish innocence about her, and it's hard to picture her as a nihilistic punk kid in any era, much less 13 years ago.
Walking to a neighbourhood café, it feels like we're in one of her surrealist strips, and it would be quite reasonable if a fire hydrant followed us inside for a latté, or if Doucet gave birth to a cat. She even speaks in the same slightly broken English as her cartoon doppelganger -- a stripped-down dialect that shuns all ceremony. I want to tell Doucet how acutely she represents herself in her cartoons, but I don't. Doucet doesn't draw comics any more -- or so she says.
"I never set out to have a career in comics," says Doucet, who grew up in St. Lambert, a Montreal suburb. At 18, she moved to the city to study fine art at the Collège du Vieux Montréal, a harrowing experience she later documented in her comics.
"I left art school in the late eighties. It was very dark and depressing, just after the Reagan years. Everybody was thinking, 'No future.' So I quit school and went straight on welfare, thinking, 'I will never make it as an artist -- I will never make it doing anything, so I'll just go on welfare and draw.' "
But Doucet failed at obscurity.
Chris Oliveros, who was just starting an art-comic anthology called Drawn & Quarterly, happened across some of the photocopied "mini-comics" Doucet had produced, and decided to publish her. Doucet kept on drawing, and soon had enough material for her first solo book, Dirty Plotte (a naughty double entendre from Québécois slang). Her work was intensely personal and highly sexualized, with all the raw honesty of comics' forefather R. Crumb's older autobiographical strips. But Doucet shared none of Crumb's nervous self-loathing: the Julie of Dirty Plotte was an innocent guide through her real and imagined lives, a cartoon Candide.
When Oliveros saw the work, he offered to take it to print.
"That's how it started for me," remembers Doucet, "and for him too, because that was the first comic he published."
Drawn & Quarterly became the name of Oliveros's printing company, which went on to launch the careers of many respected cartoonists, including Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth -- the three Toronto artists who, along with Doucet, defined Canada as the home of the new autobio-comics style. D&Q built on these successes, becoming one of the most respected art-comics publishers in the world.
Dirty Plotte was an instant success, winning Doucet the industry's highest laurel -- the 1991 Harvey Award for best new talent.
Doucet found herself warmly welcomed by a new school of "underground" cartoonists, including Daniel Clowes and Pete Bagge, whose smart, satirical art comics were finally gaining hipster recognition. Titles like Hate and Eightball -- formerly banished to the back-shelf ghetto of superhero shops -- found an audience in the rising "alternative culture" crowd.
What stood in the way of distinguishing these subversive, independent "comix" from juvenile, commercial comics was the embarrassing absence of a strong female voice. Dirty Plotte was the book many had been waiting for.
Doucet moved to Seattle in 1992, where this tightly knit community of cartoonists were basking in the atmospheric light created by the grunge-music phenomenon.
"There were quite a lot of cartoonists," Doucet remembers fondly. "It was kind of a big family. We all thought we would be rock stars and everything."
But the art-comix movement failed to separate itself from the music scene it was piggybacking, and when interest in grunge waned, so, too, did the readership for this "misfit-lit."
Doucet continued on with her series, but left Seattle, following illustration jobs, boyfriends and cheap rents to New York and Berlin. "I was able to make money out of it," she recalls, "but not that much money, so I ended up working all the time, like a madwoman."
After returning to Montreal from Germany in 2000, Doucet announced her retirement from comics, citing professional burnout and a frustration with the insular "boy culture" of the scene.
Doucet spent the past two years creating a series of whimsical, sexually charged art prints, recently compiled by D&Q into Long Time Relationship.
"It's my favourite book," Doucet says, with the unabashed pride of a new parent. Asked if it's been liberating to break free from the six-panel grids that have constrained her drawings for so long, she responds with a pantomime sigh of relief and a big grin. "I got so tired of it. I tend to be obsessive with the comics, with the pencilling and planning -- I just couldn't do crazy things -- it always had to be very clean, I just had to escape that. It's been great."
Oliveros expressed a similar excitement toward Doucet's new direction. "I think it will show people another aspect of her," he said in a telephone interview. "She's not just a cartoonist -- she's a fine artist."
But isn't Long Time Relationship a sort of free-form autobiographical comic book? If not, why divide the images into chapters? Why the constant interplay between image and text? "I just can't help it," Doucet admits. "It's not like I plan it -- I love to tell stories, that's the greatest thing. I think I will always, in any form, tell stories."
Long Time Relationship is clearly meant to be read, not just seen. Rather than opt for the art book's standard coffee-table format, the volume appears as a handsome, readable, smaller edition. It somehow amounts to something more than an assemblage of disparate images. The very order of the pictures themselves offers a deliberate narrative sequence.
A section titled Men of Our Times presents portraits of 19 skinny, nervous oddballs, annotated with notes on their thoughts and behaviour. The final image is of a hairy, bulging muscle-man in a Speedo, titled simply: "My Grandfather."
The prints are as expressive as Doucet's best work but with a newfound confidence in their draftsmanship.
Doucet is rarely content to create a wordless image, and never satisfied to present an image that does not gain further meaning by the images that surround it. This is sequential art -- this is comics.
"I shouldn't say never," Doucet finally confesses. "Maybe I'll draw comics again."
We part ways, and Doucet returns to her studio, eager to get back to her silkscreen press. For now, she's delighting in the liberty of a panel-free page.