Books·How I Wrote It

Celebrated Montreal underground comic book artist Julie Doucet reinvents herself with memoir Time Zone J

The Canadian illustrator and author spoke to CBC Books about reinventing her style to create her new graphic memoir Time Zone J. Doucet was recently awarded the Grand Prix at the 49th Angoulême International Comics Festival.

'I’m just zigzagging through whatever comes to my mind.'

Julie Doucet is a Canadian cartoonist. (Kate Mada)

Like the drawings in her latest graphic novel, Julie Doucet refuses to be boxed in. 

Time Zone J is the author's first inked comic since she famously quit in the '90s, but as she reflects: is it even a comic? One could argue as much. The nearly 150-page book is rife with human and animal illustrations who narrate the autobiographical story using the genre's signature word balloons. But, as the Montreal artist emphasizes, she's much more interested in experimenting on the page than being contained by any one medium. 

The book's dreamy collage style and publisher's instructions to "read mostly bottom to top but sometimes sideways, too" suit the high-octane romance driving the story. It's 1989 and 23-year-old Doucet is flying to France to meet a soldier. He's someone she only knows through the letters they send one another, a typical development in the zine era when cartoonists often sent readers their comics by mail. 

The two developed a bond and now, with only a few days before the soldier is shipped off, they must make the most of their tryst. In contrast to the whirlwind affair, which the author based on diary entries from her youth, Doucet draws herself as she appears today, in her 50s. 

Doucet began drawing and publishing mini comics in 1988. She started her groundbreaking strip Dirty Plotte in the 1990s, becoming an underground comics heroine and winning the Harvey Award for best new talent. 

Her comics have been published serially and in collected formats. She famously quit the male-dominated comics industry in the late 1990s to focus on her other artwork. Time Zone J is her first inked comic since that announcement.

Doucet spoke to CBC Books about reinventing her style to create Time Zone J

Drinking the milkshake 

"It's a fantastic story of meeting someone through mail and writing to somebody for months and months, discovering that person little by little and feeling so close to them. 

It's a bit tempting to think, 'Those were the good old days.' And at the same time, you're like, 'Oh no, no — they can't be.'

"Dealing with the past was like a big sugary milkshake. It was a bit heavy. [laughs]

"It's a bit tempting to think, 'Those were the good old days.' And at the same time, you're like, 'Oh no, no — they can't be.'

"The story really stuck with me. I tried to tell it in so many different ways before. I tried to write it just as a novel, and it didn't work out at all. I tried to type it with a typing machine. With cutout words, it didn't work out. I tried to write it as a script. I tried to write it as if it was something in the 1800s or something, and it didn't work out. But then I found this very strange way to tell it, and it worked out."

Pages from the graphic novel Time Zone J by Julie Doucet. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Endless reinvention 

"For me, it really was about doing it. When I work on a book, I pretty much never think too much about the reader. It's about doing the piece. 

"I drew it in a Japanese sketchbook, which was really impractical for printing, but it was so nice to do it in that form. The original is very beautiful because of that. 

"It's five Japanese sketchbooks, so it's five really long pieces of paper folded in accordion books. It's like five never-ending drawings. 

"It's completely improvised, so I had to start from the bottom of the page and go from there. I was forced to draw the narrative in that way. Drawing comics in the way I drew it back in the day was so controlled. I did very, very tight penciling. It really drove me crazy. After that, I couldn't do it in that way. I just do freehand drawings and really improvise. 

I really wanted to force myself to reinvent myself.

"Since the drawings don't fit the text, I would take anything from magazines or newspapers and draw whatever would come up in my mind or whatever I would find lying around. 

"Drawing from a model forced me to draw in a different way. Drawing from the top of my head would mean I would draw too much in the old way, the comic way. I really wanted to force myself to reinvent myself."

Listen | Influential comics artist Julie Doucet discusses Time Zone J:

Talking heads

"The repeated way I drew myself was inspired by Charlotte Salomon. She was a young Jewish girl who made a painted diary during World War II. It's an amazing book. At the beginning, it's like a comic. The more it goes on…she died in the camps. Toward the end of the diary, there are more and more emergencies, so she draws less and less details. You can see more and more heads instead of details. 

"Her drawings were beautiful, but she also made the pages very interesting — pages of her having conversations with her lover, which were only heads talking. 

"That really stuck with me, and that's where I took the inspiration of heads talking. That's really what changed my mind first when I had the idea of using myself speaking with a word balloon and telling a story. 

"When I think that I swore to never draw myself again [laughs] and I did it again, but I did it so many times. Well, who knows? 

"More and more visual artists are doing comics, which is good news because now it's possible to do both. That's one thing I hated about comics. You were forced into being married to comics and not being able to do anything but comics. 

That's one thing I hated about comics. You were forced into being married to comics and not being able to do anything but comics.

"In the past 20 years, I did whatever went through my mind. I tried so many different things. This time, I went back to drawing and telling a story using word balloons. Next time, what will I do? I'm not sure. I'm just zigzagging through whatever comes to my mind."

Julie Doucet's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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