There’s something I feel when I read a new issue of John Porcellino’s King-Cat Comix & Stories that I don’t experience with most other comics. I feel calm; I feel at peace even while the world around me is completely falling apart. Porcellino has just sent his newest comic, King-Cat #81, out to his subscribers and the peace that comes with the book couldn’t be better timed.
For over 30 years now, Porcellino has been telling his life story through his comics. And it’s not so much that he’s telling a story but he’s sharing his life with us, the good and the bad. In the last issue from about one year ago, he wrote a text piece about the death of Gibby, one of his dogs and then he lets us be part of his wife and him adopting a new dog even while they were still grieving over Gibby. He let us in on the process of his grief. As Porcellino has shared countless stories about his dog and cats before, we’ve gotten to know the varmints as he calls them. More than the people in his life, we get to know the animals that surround him, that live in his home as well as the wildlife that lives in his area of Northern Illinois/Southern Wisconsin. Each issue includes a count of the groundhogs he’s seen in a year– an impressive 478 in 2021 as accounted for in this newest issue. I live about 70 miles southeast of him and I can’t even be sure that I’ve seen one groundhog in the 21st century.
But with every new issue of King-Cat Comix, I feel like I’m being gently nudged and reminded to just look for the groundhogs.
And the goldfinches.
And the squirrels.
And the chipmunks.
This is how Porcellino relates his life to us– through visual poems, remembrances of his teenage years, and snapshots of last year’s little moments. One story is him reflecting back on what Saturdays throughout his life have been, from being able to lounge about all afternoon watching monster movies on TV, to hitting Moondog Comics to pick up a new issue of Neil the Horse and then to Saturday’s having to work a retail store. But all comes almost full circle to now where he can spend his weekend afternoons just playing guitar. It’s a cycle of growing up and having responsibilities that most of us can relate to but Porcellino packs so much into seven pages that just feel like this breezy story. There are the Saturday afternoons and all of the activities done on them but there is also what Saturday afternoon is and means at these different stages of our lives.
Maybe we should count our own Saturday afternoons the ways that Porcellino counts the groundhogs.
But with stories like that, there are also just simple, single-page visual poems where the cartoonist is asking us to just live in the moment with him. Standing in some hyssop, enjoying the dew on the powerlines, or walking the dog down a street on a summer night during 2020 where most stores and businesses have been closed since March are these things that really only Porcellino would or could share with us. His artwork is so simple, so nondescript that it’s like he’s taking any artistic ego out of it. He’s wanting to deliver a pure experience of the moment to his readers and his uncluttered, direct linework just so perfectly reflects the emotional weight of the scene he’s illustrating.
But that makes Porcellino sound like some kind of Zen cartoonist, sitting on a mountaintop (or maybe just a very tall hill in Illinois,) dispensing his wisdom to all of us who have come to learn from him. Sure there are elements of that but Porcellino has a very interesting way of breaking out of the Zen-ness of his cartoons in his hand-lettered prose.
His opening letter to his readers feels anything but Zen or peaceful. He reflects on his own personal “golden age,” thinking about a Henry Rollins spoken-word show that he once saw. He remembers his early days as a cartoonist, young and free from responsibility (a theme later mirrored in his tale about Saturday afternoons) but then takes a bit of a darker turn. “Sometimes, nowadays, I feel like the only thing I have to look forward to in life is seeing my friends and loved ones grow old, get sick, and die.” He writes. The uncertainty and bit of fear he expresses here, written just over a year into our Covid lockdowns, counterweights the peacefulness and reflections of his comics. Even the forms of both offer this fascinating contrast. His comics have so much space and airiness to them that let you just take them in with no pressure or rush to them. But his prose, these letters that he’s writing to us, are personal, immediate, and intimate. Porcellino can be both this Zen philosopher and a modern man pressed down by the weight of the world. And there’s room in his comic where he can show these different expressions of himself.
King-Cat Comix & Stories #81 is that letter from a long-distance pen-pal, catching up with them after not hearing from them since last year. He even includes fan letters he receives, which just enforce the feeling of a regular correspondence between the cartoonist and his audience (“I have a groundhog sighting for you…”, “It’s snowing here today in Paris, which is not that common…”) It’s been a year since we last heard from Porcellino in KC#80 and while we see the John we know and love (at least through his comics) in KC #81, there’s a way to read his comics as Porcellino offering us these regular reminders of how to pay attention to the world around us and how to appreciate the things that are here. He doesn’t just block out the bad things; he even acknowledges them) but that’s not what he wants to focus on or what he wants us to get trapped in. His comic to us is his regular reminder to just look at the world around us and to find pleasure in these observations.