I came late to The Fart Party, only discovering the wonderfully funny work of Julia Wertz long after her diary comics zines [RE1] of that title had been published as a collection in The Museum of Mistakes. I found this hilarious book in a comics store in Ashland, Oregon, and bartered for it with my own Tiny Joys zines. I’ve been a Wertz fan ever since, so I’m super psyched to share a brief interview with Julia Wertz.
RFE: Do you storyboard, thumbnail, write a script or have another creative process, like, do you draw every day, in bursts, at home, in a notebook, only on a certain kind of paper?
JW: “It depends on the project. For my autobio stuff, like my stick figure diary comics, I just write/draw as it happens. I do make notes, which are close to a script, but it’s not carefully thought out the way real scripts are. If I’m working on a graphic novel, I write a script, but only about 2 pages at a time. I’m not good at bigger picture stuff, so I work in small batches, creating a bunch of tiny stories I stitch together later with narration that connects them. It’s not a foolproof plan, my graphic novels are not smooth, but that’s okay with me. The best thing about comics is there are less rules than when writing a regular book, so there’s more flexibility in the creative process.”
Reading Museum of Mistakes is like watching a stranger grow up in fast motion. You get to witness her heartbreaks and hilarity as they happen, her daily travails revealed in three or four panel spurts of clean, minimal and expressive drawings and words. The fact that the collection includes her Hotmail e-mail address clues you in that this work should be read as retrospective. What is wonderful about the book—beyond its raw honesty, comedic timing and clean ink work—is seeing the beginning of Wertz’s careful studies of place, especially cities.
Her most recent book, Tenements, Towers & Trash, is a graphic hybrid of personal narrative, urban history and guidebook for New York City. It reads like a visual love story between a cartoonist and her adopted city. Wertz’s funny voice continues into this new form that highlights her expertise in drawing architecture while revealing her unique take on history, walking, doorknobs, pinball machines, egg creams and all that she loves of NYC.
RFE: What’s your favorite kind of comic/drawing/hybrid to do?
JW: I really love drawing buildings, but I loathe drawing people, which is dumb because only one of my books is about buildings and all the rest are character driven. There’s something about the repetitive, neat process of drawing architecture that allows my brain to go on autopilot and it becomes almost meditative. But with TV or podcasts blaring in the background.
Sometimes when we look at drawings, we forget they are, like words, just lines on paper. We can forget this because drawings, like words, can create a magical world for us to escape into. Without doubt, there is magic involved in making drawings. It’s the reason we fall in love with certain artists. Same for wordsmiths. The charm is in the voice and the million little decisions a person makes while creating art. But there is also craft. When I read Julia Wertz’s books, first I follow the magic of the story, laughing or tearing up from insights born of her experiences. I return to the books to study the lines. The contrast. The balance of detail and editing in each drawing, particularly in Tenements, Towers & Trash. It’s a treasure trove of ink lines.
RFE: What’s your favorite drawing tool(s)?
JW: I have a lot of fancy pens, but at the end of the day, I always go back to Microns. Almost all cartoonists I know do as well, but somewhat reluctantly. Microns suck because the nib wears down fast, but for the first page of inking, it’s the perfect pen. For cityscapes I usually use a platinum carbon fountain pen [RE2], but mostly because I like how it feels as it moves on the page. As fun as some of the fancy pens might be, ultimately they don’t make my work better. I like to keep things simple. But I do make sure to always work with archival ink, for the sake of selling originals and not having my work look like garbage in ten years.
Beyond trying to excite people about reading books with pictures, my column invites readers to make drawing part of their writing lives, so here’s a final tip from Wertz on diving into drawing.
RFE: What advice would you give to writers with a hankering to draw?
JW: Just do it! Don’t wait around to get good enough to do it, just start doing it. Get a cheap notebook, get any pen you have around, and get out there and draw whatever strikes your fancy. Get some how-to books from the library, even those old cheesy 60’s gag cartoon books will work. Copy those, copy other people, copy everything until you find your own style. That’s basically what everyone does. Don’t wait for the perfect notebook, the nicest pen, inspiration, or talent. That’ll all come later, if it isn’t already there, but don’t worry about it now.
Notes from Rebecca Fish Ewan
[RE1] RFE sidenote: zines is pronounced zeens and are magazines that most dictionaries describe as inexpensive made-by-hand booklets that have little to no commercial value, but I think of them as delightful havens for free expression.
[RE2] RFE sidenote: fountain pens are finally returning from their hiatus into uber-expensive collectorville, so you can find fountain pens for reasonable prices that actually work (versus ones encrusted with diamonds that would feel like sandpaper in your hand, but you never use because what if you leave it on the counter while signing in for your pap smear and then you’re out 8 million bucks)
Julia Wertz is a professional cartoonist and amateur historian. Her books include Drinking at the Movies, The Infinite Wait & Other Stories, and Tenements, Towers, & Trash. She is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. You can get a regular dose of Julia’s stick-figure diary comics on Patreon and find links to all her work and other cool stuff on www.juliawertz.com.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Arizona with her family. Her cartoon/free verse memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, was published in 2018 through Books by Hippocampus. You can connect with her at rebeccafishewan.com