Page detail from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (Drawn and Quarterly, 1999/2010).

DARK, FUNNY, FEMINIST, and executed in gorgeously controlled rich black-and-white, the iconic comics work My New York Diary (1999) sealed the reputation of Montreal-based cartoonist Julie Doucet. The publication of Doucet’s first long-form narrative (originally serialized in her acclaimed comic book series Dirty Plotte [Dirty Cunt] beginning in 1993), earned her a surge of recognition from multiple corners of contemporary culture, and paved the way for a whole host of graphic memoirs to come, especially by women. One can see the influence in Doucet’s work of underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who has published her own edgy autobiographical stories since the early 1970s—especially in the attention given to the everyday grain of romantic relationships and to the force, as a negative or positive proposition, of the bodily. Indeed, Kominsky-Crumb was the first to publish Doucet in the US, in the hugely significant post-underground comics venue Weirdo (1981–1993), the anthology founded by R. Crumb that Kominsky-Crumb edited from 1986 on. Weirdo saw itself as a more populist counterpart to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s high-production and design-oriented RAW (1980–1991); Doucet appeared there in 1989 and 1990.

But even while Doucet emerged in Weirdo alongside important autobiographical cartoonists such as Phoebe Gloeckner, in retrospect the publication of My New York Diary in 1999 feels as though it banged open doors that were already ajar. My New York Diary became a signal text: for its intimate revelations (miscarriage, drugs, epilepsy); its bold, confident draftsmanship; and its spot-on presentation of decline—of crumbling relationships and of charismatic men overwhelmed by insecurity. My New York Diary charts the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that brings Doucet, in her late twenties, from Montreal to Manhattan. While it brilliantly reveals a young person’s early 1990s New York—the characters take in a Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black show, for instance, and go to a RAW party at Limelight—the book’s central theme, one might say, is timeless and translocational. Anybody who has lived in New York—or had a romance with its grittiness, as the central characters here are wont to do—will relate with pleasure to the thick visual texture of the book and Doucet’s love of detail: the swarming streets, full of trash and possibility, and rooms in which no patch of space is unattended or insignificant.

But the book appeals so widely because it is such a canny chronicle of a bad relationship. The cover to the original edition (there have been several reprintings and translations) features an angry Godzilla Julie, drawn in black ink, looming over a colorful, photographic Manhattan. She grimaces and throws off what Mort Walker called emanata from her head—the classic cartoon symbols of perplexity and consternation—as planes and helicopters circle close. (On the back cover she’s crying—and a plane is taking off above her.)

My New York Diary is a riff on the künstlerroman genre of the novel, in which one witnesses an artist’s creative maturation. The book opens with two episodes before Julie moves to New York: “The First Time” (nine pages) and “Julie in Junior College” (twenty-five). The title page of the first, with its awkwardly arranged vertical slabs of handwritten text, brilliantly forces the reader following the words (“I (Julie) was 17 at the time….”) to optically traverse the looming face of a dark-haired man; we sense the adolescent awe and longing for the romantic figure he cuts with his shaggy tresses and aviator frames. On the next page, we first encounter Julie with a pencil in hand at her desk, happily sketching a man and a woman. Sexuality and mark-making are intertwined as registers of desire. Soon Julie falls for the classic “I’ll show you my paintings” line out of earnest desire to connect with other artists; at the painter-in-question’s apartment, she thinks “YUK!!” at the work but “Oh well . . .” when he kisses her; and so she passively loses her virginity. In art school, she takes on lovers, all fellow students, in an almost distracted state as she tries to fill her sketchbook.

Julie’s enthusiasms, and thus the book’s scope of attention, always feel stronger for art than for the predatory men who walk into her life and siphon off her energy. Yet these relationships are always lurking. This narrative is amplified once she moves to New York, where she finally dispenses of the unhealthy pattern with vehemence. The New York boyfriend is a medium dashing, Nick Cave–manqué skinny-jeans and boots-wearing pen pal—Julie is part of a punk culture network of through-the-mail exchange—who quickly becomes a lover once they meet. (Cartoonist John Porcellino, of King-Cat Comix, is another more benign pen pal here.) The boyfriend is an aspiring cartoonist collecting unemployment and living in Washington Heights. When she moves in with him in 1991—Doucet dates each scenario precisely—she is already a cartoonist of note. Doucet shows herself trying to draw the next issue of Dirty Plotte at the kitchen table while the boyfriend encourages her to drink more beer. She never lets go of the work of being an artist, while he’s content to drop acid, snort coke, do whippets, and play Candyland. One serious breaking point comes when he demands to accompany her to an invited appointment with the Village Voice; when she draws a cover of the alternative weekly New York Press, he calls to tell her he’s seen it all over . . . in trash cans. The book tracks how shy Julie ultimately comes to accept the public recognition of comics and art communities over the sealed-off universe of her sulky, unambitious lover.

My New York Diary is the trenchant, charming result of the efforts of control and independence featured in its own narrative. Its stunning visual density, in which every drawing, enclosed in a frame, feels like it is about to walk off the page, lends Doucet’s work a constant sense of movement and animism that indicates future horizons of her work, and comics at large.

Hillary Chute is a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Outside the Box; Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010). For more on Julie Doucet, see Chute’s article in the Summer 2014 print issue.

Dream Time


Keith Mayerson, My American Dream, 1991–. Installation view, Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

MY EXHIBITIONS are non-linear narratives, where the juxtaposition of each image together tells a specific story, like Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in his great book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994). My American Dream, recently included by curator Stuart Comer in the Whitney Biennial, was a giant comic composition, in addition to being a salon-style installation of paintings. I created “horizontal” installations in which paintings still tell stories but in a contemporary format. In homage to the early days of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the forthcoming arrival of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Breuer building, I thought salon-style was an appropriate way to create this composition. And it felt like there might be more freedom, in a vertical reading, in how the viewer’s eyes could flow from one image to another to create meaning.

My American Dream was an uber narrative, born from a large cosmology of mostly the last four years of painting personal images from photographs I take of my own life—of my husband and myself, our family, and world—but also from a long (I’ve been exhibiting for twenty years now!) career of painting from appropriated imagery and abstraction. Stuart and I worked together to select the paintings from this larger group, and then I created the layout, thinking about the narrative and visual flow, the relationships between the works and the way viewers might navigate them and come to their own conclusions of what ultimately My American Dream could mean for the twenty-first century.

The Beatles, one of the subjects I paint, I feel were the first postmodern band in that they would speak through avatars—they weren’t the Beatles, they were “Sgt. Pepper,” they weren’t lonely, but “Eleanor Rigby” was. And I love John and Yoko, post-Beatles, and perhaps post-postmodernism, when they wrote and sang about their own lives and it was powerful and emotional enough to relate to others. Pictures of Superman, Kermit, Tintin, and more are icons that, as McCloud describes, we “suture into” while reading and watching them, letting them become our avatars, like in a RPG video game, as we go on their journey. Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks are icons who really lived who we can also relate to—painting their portraits gave me hope and inspiration, and I hope people who view my piece will be reminded that what these historical figures stood and struggled for is still all-important.

In an act McCloud deems “closure,” a viewer of a comic is a participant in the creation of its ultimate content when he or she completes the action from one panel to the next, in order to go along on the journey with the story’s main characters. I hope that the viewers of my work will similarly relate to these important figures and scenes that helped to forge the great America we currently live in, thanks in part to some of these very icons. And I hope that My American Dream will inspire people to continue the struggle to make our country a better place for freedom, and—to quote Superman (if it’s not too patriarchal or nationalistic!) for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

Keith Mayerson is an artist based in New York, where he is Cartooning Coordinator and has taught comics since 1995 at the School of Visual Arts. Horror Hospital Unplugged, his 1996 graphic novel in collaboration with Dennis Cooper, was republished by Harper Perennial in 2011. His two-person show with Peter Saul is at Robert Blumenthal Gallery, New York, July 8 through August 8th.

For more comics-related material, see Artforum’s Summer 2014 print issue.