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A Short Interview With Julia Wertz
posted January 26, 2008
 

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imageJulia Wertz is one of growing group of young cartoonists with a variety of projects on their plate, none of which have anything to do with traditional serial comics publishing. My primary interest in her comes through the Fart Party collection Atomic Books put out this Fall. Like the on-line comics turned mini-comics from which this volume is collected, The Fart Party perhaps shouldn't work as comics as well as it does. But you can't make things funny unless you see them funny first. Wertz's view of the world is so distinct that her decision to not get in its way, to be as direct as possible in telling her jokes and to use the simplest art style that still communicates what's going on, proves to be the best decision she could have made in bringing her unique sensibility to the page. I don't know if Wertz will be doing comics of this type ten years from now, but if she's making comics at all, I would like to read them. She was extremely nice during the brief exchange that led to the interview below. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Can you give me an idea of all of your comics work right now, what you have going on? You're still doing Fart Party on-line but you also have some other projects along with the Fart Party book coming out, right?

JULIA WERTZ: I'm currently editing an anthology of comics based on missed connection ads from Craigslist and newspapers, it's being published by Three Rivers Press in early 2009. I'm working on a review web site called The Cranky Clam and mulling over some longer stories I want to turn into comics. Since the Fart Party book is out already so I don't have to worry about it anymore, and hopefully there will be a second book since there's more than enough material for it.

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SPURGEON: How do you work? Is there a daily routine you follow? How much of your working life is given over to working on these creative projects instead of other work? Unlike a lot of cartoonists who write about themselves, I perhaps thankfully don't get much of your working life.

WERTZ: I work as a bartender in Brooklyn, and I have no set schedule so my routines are boiled down to the few mundane activities I can enjoy on most days, such as drawing at cafes and playing scrabulous on Facebook. Bars in New York close at 4 AM so I rarely get up before noon, which is the opposite of my old life in San Francisco where I opened the cafe at 5 AM. I used to have a much more set routine in SF and I got a lot more work done. I feel kind of lost in NY without any routine I can rely on for the comfort of stability. I don't make too many comics about my work because while a lot of funny stuff does happen at my job, those types of inside jokes and conversations with lonely regulars don't really make for good material. I probably should devote more time to my creative projects, but I'm still new to NY so I'm stuck in that adventure/touristy phase still. I wander around when I should be drawing.

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SPURGEON: Are you hearing back from new readers that just started to read you because of the book? Are those readers' reactions any different than fans who came at it from on-line work or the mini-comics?

WERTZ: Yes, and it's very interesting to hear what new readers have to say compared to the old ones. New readers who just read the book often have many misconceptions of how the relationship story panned out and how much my life has changed since then. My comics have changed since then too -- the content tends to be a little heavier and not as consistently humorous. Old readers sometimes express dismay with that, but I really don't really care because I'm making comics for them, I'm making them for me. It's kind of like a diary, but public. (And heavily censored -- I don't include most things that actually happen.)

There are plenty of encouraging, loyal, long-time readers, but there are also many people -- specifically people on the Internet -- who can be complete assholes about it. But I do really enjoy hearing from readers who were there from the very beginning when it was just a few comics on a really crude web site, because they've followed my life for the past two years, during which so many things have happened that it's almost difficult for even me to keep it all straight. It's a strange feeling knowing that there are strangers who've been watching my life for the last two years, and I don't even know their names.

SPURGEON: In the introduction, you talked about reading a bunch of comics while you were sick and that kind of driving you into comics. What were the comics that particularly grabbed you? I can maybe see Julie Doucet and perhaps Sam Henderson in the way you set up some of the comedic elements in Fart Party, but were there other comics that you liked or that really hit you hard, or was it just the group of them, or all of them at once?

WERTZ: I think that rather than specific individuals, it was just the medium itself that kind of just stormed into my life almost overnight. It was like being bitch slapped with destiny stick. I'd never paid much attention to comics before getting sick, and I'd definitely never drawn one before. I remember the day I got all those comics from the library and I was up all night reading them, furious that I hadn't found them until so late in my life. (I was 21) Then I remember drawing a comic as a joke for a friend's birthday but as soon as I was finished with it, I went over to my brother's and said, "This. This is what I want to do with my life." and he said, "Then fucking do it." So I did. And I still do. And hopefully always will in one form or another. So while I could give you a list of people I found influential, it was more of a whole package thing. I've been making comics almost every day since then, and honestly, I can't recall what the hell I used to do to fill that void of time. Lord knows I wasn't sitting around knitting or petting kittens. I guess I went to college, but, you know, meh.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk about taking the strip on-line? Was there a moment that made you think that was a good idea or did it just sort of happen?

WERTZ: It just kind of happened. I never meant for it to be a web comic, I actually had no plans for it and no idea what I was doing. Back then it was just me drawing funny comics for friends, and then finally they convinced me to put them on the Internet so they could look at them at work. I did, and then it just took off from there. I was just as surprised as everyone else was. It probably was a bad idea since I hated -- and still do -- most webcomics, I refuse to read comics online and because I didn't plan anything out, the name Fart Party (which was a total last minute joke) stuck. It's kind of the equivalent of getting drunk and getting a really horrible, giant tattoo cause it sounded funny at the time but the next morning you're like, "Fuuuuuck I will have this huge tattoo for the rest of my life." Um, I've never done that, just for the record. I got my stupid tattoos when I was sober.

SPURGEON: Was there a point then at which you knew you were going to be doing Fart Party for a while, that it might become something that could turn in a major project?

WERTZ: I never really thought it would turn into the major project that it has, but I do recall that after my first convention, which was APE 2006, after finally meeting other cartoonists, that I realized it was a world I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my life, so I threw myself into it head first. I went to tons of conventions and traveled all around the US meeting other cartoonists, many of whom are now roommates, close friends and collaborators. I don't know how long Fart Party itself will last, I keep thinking I'm going to quit or start new projects and then someone says something really funny and I'm like "Well, there's another Fart Party comic," so I can never actually stop making them.

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SPURGEON: Peter Bagge makes a point in his book introduction about the moments of rage that come through your stand-in character at inexplicable times. Is that a fair assessment?

WERTZ: The whole rage thing is the most fictionalized part of the book, which many readers find disappointing when they figure that out. I'm actually a very even tempered person and it takes a lot to make me mad. I'm from Northern California, where everyone is nice and mellow so all the overreactions and violent comics I do are more just because I think it's funny. I don't really have the desire to rip off peoples' heads and shit down their neck, but thinking about doing it amusing.

SPURGEON: Have your cartooning peers been valuable to you in terms of how the strip has developed? How are those professional friendships meaningful?

WERTZ: The manner in which the strips have developed has been mostly influenced by the circumstances in my life, and less so by my cartoonist friends. Since I do autobio comics, there's really not much advice they can give me, and since the style of the art is so simple. I have done some other projects that they've been a great help with. Matthew Bernier has helped me learn a lot about perspective, Laura Park taught me a lot about realistic drawing and Alec Longsreth showed me how to get mini comics out there and self promote. However, all of those relationships are anything but professional- we're just a bunch of kids drawing pictures in boxes at cafes and bars together.

SPURGEON: Peter also talks about the direct nature of your approach. Is that why you go with the style you have? Because it seems pretty clear you have other styles available. Does the way you draw most of the Fart Party strips appeal to you in terms of it being direct and easy to communicate that way.

WERTZ: When I started drawing comics, I had practically no art background beyond a year of high school art class, which I cut most of the time anyways so I didn't learn anything. The style I came up with was simple and served the purpose of telling silly jokes, so I just kind of stuck with it. I did a lot of stick figure comics before I came up with the current style, but I stick with it because it's simple, I can draw them quickly and they kind of match the overall tone of the comic. I mean, can you imagine if I drew the Fart Party like Craig Thompson or Phoebe Gloeckner? It'd look fucking ridiculous!

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SPURGEON: I swear to God I only have one and a half questions like this, but: Most of the Atomic Books collection covers the breadth of a long-term relationship you had. How do you feel about having that work out there where people can read it? Has anyone commented on the relationship aspects of the book in terms that you've found interesting, or have you yourself seen anything in looking at all these comics at once that maybe wasn't as obvious at the time about hat relationship? I don't know many people who have a record like that when it comes to a relationship.

WERTZ: Most comments I get about the relationship angle is along the lines of other people's relationships being so similar, or that they could relate to a lot of it. When I read over it all again, I still think it was a very sweet, fun relationship, but I also realize (with the help of the knowledge of stuff that I didn't put in the book) that there's no way it would have lasted. I wasn't completely honest with myself about what I really wanted out of a relationship and while it was a great two years, it was time to move on. I grew a lot, changed a lot and learned a lot about myself during that relationship, but I've done even more so since I've not been in one. I really enjoy being single because I can be selfish, I can stay out all night and the cheese is always on the right shelf in the fridge. I don't think I'll ever chronicle another relationship to the extent that I did with that one, because there's nothing worse than coming home from the bar at 4:30 AM, feeling homesick and nostalgic and then rubbing your face in it with 200 pages of the past.

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SPURGEON: The half question is I wonder how you approached doing the strip called "Oliver Left For Vermont Today," which I thought was affecting, particularly for the shift in point of view. Do you remember how that strip came about?

WERTZ: I really couldn't think of what to draw without it being way too sappy, so I just settled on a simple door and suitcase scene. I thought it was a more temperate way to end the book than some crying/goodbye/cheesy comic.

SPURGEON: Has your relationship to your inspirations and influences changed as you yourself have been doing a comic now? Is there someone you admire more now?

WERTZ: There are a few cartoonists whose stuff I liked before I knew anything about comics, and now I can't even look at them because they're just awful. My relationship with comics has been more extreme than most only in the manner that I went from knowing nothing at all to the last two years being a crash course in a world I knew nothing about. And it's not like learning about something in the classroom, it's like being thrown into a lake when you've never even taken a bath before. Man, this interview is full of retarded metaphors, sorry!

There have been many influences and inspirations from outside of comics, such as the Sedaris', Jonathan Ames, Lesley Arfin, Neva Chonin, Ira Glass, Tina Fey, Aaron Cometbus, and even some musical inspirations such as when you're listening to a certain record and then you have to so something really lame like draw a picture of yourself listening to it. I tend to do that with Okkervil River, Blind Willie McTell and Cat Power. Yeah, I said Cat Power, and I'm not embarrassed about it either!

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SPURGEON: How do you feel about the self-promotional aspects of what you do, going to shows and meeting your readers and representing yourself on deals? Is that comfortable for you?

WERTZ: I really don't enjoy conventions. I enjoy after the conventions, the parties, karaoke, etc.... but sitting behind a table is kind of uncomfortable. And I feel like people expect me to be funny or to entertain them somehow when really I just want to get the hell out of there and hang out with my friends. I'm not normally an awkward person, but there's something about conventions that is just inherently awkward and it rubs off on me. As for representing myself on deals, I actually have an agent now (due to the missed connections book) and she does that for me since I have no idea what I'm doing. The contract with Three Rivers was 14 pages long, and I understood about half a page of it, so I'm very grateful that she can sort things out for me. I did all the work for the Fart Party book since it was done before she came long, but it's smaller press and Rachel and Benn of Atomic Books are awesome so it was no problem. They really care about the artist and not the money and they've been great to work with.

SPURGEON: Is there a strip or a joke you like more than any of your readers do?

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WERTZ: I like the reoccurring strips titled "today everything is shit" and "today everything's alright" because it's a good way for me to remember little things that happened that aren't worth making a whole comic about, and it breaks up the structure. I think maybe for readers they're kind of boring though since there's no punchline. And people seem to dislike whenever I complain about being homesick, but I love making comics about San Francisco. (Thus the entire cheesy mini comic I made about if after I moved to New York.)

SPURGEON: Five years from now, ideally where will you be and what will you be doing?

WERTZ: I really have no idea where I'll be in five years. I know I plan to move to Chicago in about a year or so, and I'd like to live in Seattle for awhile too. I think people should move around a lot before something ties them to one city for a long time.

But in 10 or 20 years, I hope to be living in a cute one bedroom in a Victorian back in San Francisco. I'd like to have a dog and maybe some houseplants. And maybe I'll stay there forever, cause, you know, you can't just leave your houseplants!

SPURGEON: Which guy from the TCJ message board was mean to you?

WERTZ: K Thor Jensen. If I ever see him, I'm going to kick him in the shins.

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* art from the Fart Party site or book except for the Cranky Clam picture, which was cross-posted to the site

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* Fart Party, Julia Wertz, Atomic Books Company, soft cover, 178 pages, October 2007, $12.95

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