By Brendan Mackie
John Porcellino has been churning out the seminal comic zine King-Cat for nearly two decades, making him one of the longest-running self-published authors out there. Over that time, the zine’s honest sensibility has garnered Porcellino armies of fans. Though the plots of King-Cat are underwhelming—memories of teenage crushes, stories about taking a walk on a beautiful night, dreams, illustrated Zen koans—Porcellino's simply drafted panels belie an inner weight. They’re more about expressing a particular feeling than they are about huge life-changing events. "The thing I was always interested in was this thing called Real Life," Porcellino explained during a recent talk at Minneapolis' Big Brain Comics.
Because of the zine’s personal nature, King-Cat has changed as Porcellino has matured. When King-Cat first started, Porcellino was a rambunctious young punk-rocker and his strips were wild. But somewhere along the line Porcellino started slowing down. He began meditating and reflecting more intensely on his life. Eventually, a more conscious tone resonated from King-Cat’s pages. Porcellino has just released a collection of the comic from 1989 to 1996, King-Cat Classix. Utne.com fended off a line of awkward hipsters clutching their own zines at Big Brain to talk to Porcellino about making comics, meditation, and “doing King-Cat.”
You've been making zines for more than 30 years, and King-Cat for 18. What do you attribute your longevity to?
Making zines is exactly what I want to do, not only the content of it, but the format, too. I just love the connection with people. And to a certain extent I'm just stubborn: I started something and I want to see it through as far as I can.
In your talk, you spoke about how the business side of King-Cat—the photocopying, the distribution—was as important to you as the actual writing of the zine.
To me, the process of writing isn't complete until this [zine] is in somebody else's hands.
How did you get into meditation?
When I was in my mid-twenties I came down with some health issues, and like a lot of people in that position I suddenly started taking a look at all these things I had taken for granted—my life and what I was doing and how I was doing it. I probably picked up a few books on Zen, and it made sense to me. The way I describe Zen, Soto Zen in particular, is that it's kind of like finding an old pair of shoes in your closet that you forgot you had. You put them on and they're beautiful, a perfect fit for you; they're all worn in, and you're ready to go. It connected with these interior feelings, these ideas that I'd idly felt below the surface but could never give voice to. Zen helped me fit those ideas together.
So much of your internal life is portrayed in King-Cat. As you started to change, did the comics change?
The change is reflected in the comics themselves. I was at a point in my life when I was naturally slowing down and paying more attention to things. To a certain extent I went through a period of withdrawal; I went into a more interior world about the same time when I was looking around at different ways of practice. The comics show that slowing down, and hopefully they show that I've been paying more attention. But you can also see it in that kind of unified approach that I have taken to King-Cat: For me, standing here talking to you is doing King-Cat as much as drawing it, writing it, putting it into the mail is. Doing the dishes or going for a walk can be doing King-Cat. I don't know how much of that shows up to the reader, but for me it's a big change.
How did your readers react to this change?
I heard that some people didn't like it, but I never really talked to a lot of them. There's a continuity and an underlying approach that's been consistent in King-Cat, even though I was a very different person back when I started it. I'm sure there are people who appreciated or enjoyed those older comics more, but at the same time there are a lot of people who have gone with it for the whole time.
Can comics be Zen?
There's probably something Zen to anything.