(Image courtesy of Uncivilized Books)

Ask most people to name the greatest working female cartoonist, and they’ll reply “Julie Doucet.” They’re wrong — Doucet stopped cartooning close to seven years ago — but their hearts are in the right place. Her comics are uniquely expressive, immediately recognizable, and provide instant, easy access to a compelling moment in history …. Ask most people to name the greatest working cartoonist, and you might hear Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Peter Bagge — men to whom Doucet’s work has often been compared. It is only when you add in the issue of gender that her work receives the recognition it is due.

— Anne Elizabeth Moore, Punk Planet #73 (May/June 2006)

Anne Elizabeth Moore, former co-publisher and editor of Punk Planet and current editor of the Chicago Reader, has been championing and elucidating the work of Canadian cartoonist Julie Doucet for even longer than the 12-year gap between the article quoted above and the release of Moore’s new book, Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet (Uncivilized Books).

Moore’s commitment to Doucet’s work could be dismissed as pure “fan girl” if not for her project’s careful, and very equitable balance between celebrating the irreverence and nuance of Doucet’s art, and building the canon of feminist role models for those (lucky? unlucky?) artists who find themselves floating between the worlds of writing and image-making.  

The book’s atypical, and implicitly feminist, structure is organized around which of Doucet’s “selves” is being examined. Enjoyably, only one of these selves represents Doucet “actual self.” The rest are more magical creatures — her imagined self, dreamed self, unknown self, and, maybe most exciting — the “not–self-at-all.”

For those unfamiliar with Julie Doucet’s graphic writings, a quick primer can be found on her author page at Drawn & Quarterly. Doucet is best known for her 1990’s comic series Dirty Plotte (“plotte” is French for “cunt”), which was wildly imaginative and raucous, pulled no punches, and teetered constantly and surreally on the delicious edge between gross and fascinating. Much of her work, whether autobiographical or fantastical, addresses the disparity between being something designed for public presentation and being  an unfiltered human; her portrayal of the human — and especially female — condition as one that we know through internal experience rather than societal norms, makes the mainstream portrayal of human behavior, particularly that of women, seem more artificial than real.  

Through Doucet’s work, Moore identifies and illustrates a category of American feminism that emerged in the 1990s, characterized by an embrace of ecstasy achieved through unencumbered creativity and fantasy (epitomized by a strip in Doucet’s Dirty Plotte #12 in which an elephant with unusual skills brings her main character to much-needed orgasm); “autobiographical performativity,” which Moore identifies as a generative exploration of potential identities (in Dirty Plotte, Doucet’s protagonist, Julie, tries out, for example, being male and having a penis in the usual place, having a vagina on her forehead, having breast cancer, murdering her fans, dying, and indulging in occasional cannibalism); “not giving a shit,” in Moore’s words, about how one is perceived (Julie is a proud daily drinker and intermittent drug user, laughs until she pisses and shits herself, happily menstruates to flood levels, and stores her boogers as a soothing bedtime ritual); and intentional transgression of behavioral norms (for instance, cooking cats and dogs and resistance to housecleaning).

Moore argues that these qualities definitively locate Doucet’s work as in the same post-punk feminist paradigm as that of Cathy Acker, Kathleen Hanna, and Chris Kraus. She also parallels Doucet’s work with the projects of Chantel Ackerman, Carolee Schneemann, and even Gertrude Stein. Though Doucet, herself, did not consider her work intentionally feminist at the time, in hindsight, she acknowledges this reading. And, tellingly, she cites the profound sexism in the industry as a primary reason for stepping away from the underground comics world.

Though it can be theoretically dense, Moore’s great gift to scholarship on Doucet’s work and/or the history of non-cis-male comic-makers, is her focus on the details of Doucet’s comics: from her alertness to moments when a character’s foot kicks through the outline of a panel because of the foot’s enthusiasm, to all of the graphic elements that add up to a sequence being a “dreamoir” (dream memoir), to the relative fragility of lettering and line weight. Moore’s attention is razor sharp and brings imagery that one may not have seen in person in many years to the forefront of our consciousness.

Another gift is that Sweet Little Cunt answers the question of many late-’90s Doucet fans: where is she now? It’s a relief and thrill to know that she continues to make visual and textual art, including printmaking and experimental, small-run, handmade books. And, in a 2017 interview in Moore’s appendix, she admits that she has begun to draw again. Whether she’ll ever publish comics again is still an open question, but hopefully the comics culture she left behind has shifted enough that if she does, it will welcome her back as a pre-eminent living cartoonist, with no gendered qualifications of the honor.

Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet by Anne Elizabeth Moore (2018) is published by Uncivilized Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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