It was May of 1989 when John Porcellino ("a 20-year-old, hormonally charged, punk-inspired Rock 'n' Roller," in his own description) got the idea that would become a creative odyssey. "I wanted to publish something that I could make all on my own, that could contain whatever I wanted, that could reflect my whole life," he writes in one of Drawn & Quarterly's new reissues of his work. In a zine called “King-Cat Comics and Stories,” he chronicled prosaic or absurd experiences that, by '80s standards, were usually considered too trivial to merit documentation. “King-Cat” helped spur the rise of the '90s zine scene and shape its distinctive culture. In the decades since, Porcellino has kept the flame alive, continuing to self-publish and operating the indie distributor Spit and a Half. Now Drawn & Quarterly has picked the ideal time to revisit his early work with three volumes: “King-Cat Classix,” “Map of My Heart” and “Perfect Example.” Porcellino's introversion, nonconformity and perpetual struggles with ill health made him the consummate poet of the pandemic — 30 years before anyone ever heard of social distancing. I spoke with him about getting married last March, self-publishing during COVID and watching the zine world undergo an unlikely renaissance.
So, how was your 2020?
My 2020 ... was just as miserable as it was for everybody else, except I got married, and that seems to be working out pretty good. We talked about getting married at the early part of the year. Then, when it started to become clear that COVID was going to impact everybody's life and screw everything up, it kicked us into gear and we ended up just ... going down to the courthouse on a spur-of-the-moment thing. So that was definitely the highlight of the year. [Otherwise, 2020] wasn't super different for me, because all I do is sit at home and draw. And I run a little distribution company for small press comics.
Spit and a Half.
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Yeah. Spit and a Half. I was filling orders and drawing. I got another issue of King-Cat out, and just adapted.
In the '90s, when you got started, the culture was led to some extent by people who saw themselves as loners or weirdos. Do you feel like the past year, which has forced so many people to grapple with isolation, has increased society's tolerance for outsiders?
Sure. Clearly, people are discovering how hard it is emotionally and mentally.
I'm sure you've seen the statistics about the rise in depression.
Yeah. Yeah. Sure. We're social beings, and like you said — it sounds terrible, but zine people are used to being by themselves. One of the main reasons I ended up making zines was because ... I had stuff on my mind that I wanted to express, but I felt super awkward in social interactions. ... Doing zines enabled me to find my voice and find a little bit more confidence because I was able to express myself. ... [Zine creators] are used to being on our own, being a little bit "off," and finding weird ways to communicate. And now everybody else has had to figure it out, too. So hopefully, there's a little bit more understanding, a little more empathy, for the person who doesn't fit in.
The new books collect King-Cat Comics from the '90s. How has the zine world fared since then?
The Internet siphoned a lot of people off. There were less zines being produced, but the quality of them went up quite a bit. There's [been] a reaction to the way, ... [in] the mainstream world, ... everything is mediated by some big corporation, right? [Zine makers] are intentionally trying to create a true alternative to traditional media. It always psyches me up. I guess what I'm saying is, even though the days of the zine revolution of the '90s are in the past, the zine world is still really strong and it's still really vibrant. It's so wonderful in so many ways. Since the moment I discovered the small-press zine — making something, photocopying it and sending it in an envelope through the mail to other people — there's been no doubt that that's my true home as a creative person. After all these years, it's still what I feel jazzed about.
Are you worried about how the pandemic is affecting the zine world? I just read that CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, has been canceled this year.
Well, that's one thing I was going to say when you asked how my year was: Spit and a Half is going gangbusters. I can hardly keep up with the orders. ... I think there's been a very real understanding during COVID that if you love something, if you value something, support it. That's one positive thing ... the pandemic really drove to the forefront: That a lot of the people who do the stuff that you love are making great sacrifices to do it. They're particularly vulnerable now. If you can kick in something, show some support ... it seems like people were very receptive to that.
How can people find the most exciting indie work that's being produced these days?
If you go to the Spit and a Half website, I have a page of maybe 20 other comics distributors and zine distributors. ... There's a distro in Miami called Radiator. ... It's very homey and ... all-ages-friendly. And there's Domino Books in Brooklyn, run by Austin English. His stuff is ... totally cutting-edge — not super-accessible all the time, but that makes it even more rewarding. I feel like Spit and a Half is somewhere in the middle.
It's great that you're so optimistic about the future of the zine world.
Yeah. I worry about the things I love, and the ways of doing and being that I love, becoming old-fashioned or whatever. But there's two sides to everything. The crazier the world gets, the more there's people looking for ways to make it not so crazy. I've put my foot in the camp of the people who are trying to make the world less crazy.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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