Bottled Up: Drinking At The Movies

Posted by on September 4th, 2010 at 5:54 AM

Rob reviews Julia Wertz’s new book, Drinking At The Movies (Three Rivers Press).

Julia Wertz has been an interesting name in the diary comics genre over the past few years.  Everything about her comics is crude: the figures, the jokes and the situations she winds up in.  Wertz’s self-caricature is one of the most memorable in comics, especially the way one eyebrow is perpetually curled up and the other is twisted, all resting above ridiculously bugged-out eyes.  For someone with limited draftsmanship, this caricature has been the fuel for her success.  Having a funny drawing in nearly every panel serves to make punchlines funnier and ridiculous situations look even more absurd.

The problem with this approach is that a little tends to go a long way.  Reading her The Fart Party strip online is the ideal venue for her work.  Reading these strips in a collection, one can see the seams showing in her work in terms of its repetitiveness and lack of emotional cohesion.  Wertz is such an unrelenting smartass (if a self-deprecating one) that it’s hard for a reader to grab hold of her persona.  As such, when bits and pieces of her emotional life slip through, it can be jarring.  The repetitiveness can be especially grinding when one considers that her character design outside of herself is workmanlike at best and distracting at worst.

Her new book, Drinking At The Movies, is a remarkable corrective for these flaws that still retains her acidic sense of humor.  Wertz hangs the usual jokes on a loosely-constructed narrative that’s part confessional and part love-letter to New York City (she moved there from San Francisco).  The simple use of these structures provides emotional and narrative contexts for her jokes & anecdotes, deepening seemingly innocuous gags and observations.  The reason why it works so well is that Wertz is careful not to tip her hand too far in any direction.  While the autobiographical and travelogue aspects of the comic dominate key sections of the book, they never threaten to completely take over or overwhelm Wertz’s gags.

An autobio comic that’s a love letter to a city is not exactly a new idea; Lucy Knisley’s French Milk is a recent example.  Wertz turns that idea on its head by using a series of frequently hilariously disgusting anecdotes about the realities of urban life for those near the poverty level.  Wertz’s accounts of her various awful jobs (including the ways she goofed off while on the job) was a particular highlight in that regard.

The confessional part of the comic contains material that Wertz has hinted at over the years but only in dribs and drabs.  Dealing with a systemic disease like lupus, coping with the guilt over moving cross-country when her beloved brother was either in rehab or else strung out on the streets, dealing with her own self-image and the reality of her own substance-abuse problems (in the form of alcohol) gets at the heart of the way that Wertz uses the deflection of humor to mask the pain.  I feared that once Wertz started talking about her problems in a bit more detail, it would devolve into a cliched rehab story, much like the awful The Impostor’s Daughter.  Instead, Wertz wisely skips those details and just notes the ways in which she “grew the fuck up”.

It’s that attitude that makes this book work.  The way Wertz evolved provided a framework for her childish antics that didn’t make the telling any less funny or cringeworthy.  It simply provided context for them.  She slowly came to accept that not only was New York great, but that this realization was key to snapping out of the self-described “pity-party” of her own making.  The difference between this book and Laurie Sandell’s The Impostor’s Daughter is that the latter book found the author looking back on her questionable life decisions and substance abuse and castigating herself, while Wertz looks back on events like waking up from a drunken stupor in a laundromat and laughing.  Like many who go through rehab, Sandell’s book had a lecturing tone, a trap that Wertz avoided.  The only person Wertz lectured in this book was herself–and even then, her (cranky and quirky but lovable) identity remained fully intact.

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6 Responses to “Bottled Up: Drinking At The Movies

  1. Uland says:

    I think it’s pretty dangerous to tell artists or entertainers dealing with substance abuse how they should present the matter so they can entertain you better. Fact is, you don’t know how Wertz is really dealing with these issues, you only know how she presents them in her comic. There’s a huge gap there.

  2. Rob Clough says:

    First, I didn’t tell Wertz how to depict substance abuse; in fact, I complimented her on the way she did so. Certainly, I don’t know the actual details of what Wertz through, and frankly, I don’t care as a reader. All I know is how she depicted it, and that’s what I commented on. Again, I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by how she did it.

    The artist I did criticize in this regard is Laurie Sandell. Have you read The Impostor’s Daughter? If she’s going to bring the language of 12-stepping to bear in her art, I have a right as a reader and critic to react negatively to it.

  3. Uland says:

    I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that there is a distinction to be made between what you might really think about an issue, and the way that issue is presented.

  4. Rob Clough says:

    I don’t think it’s disingenuous at all, because what I think about the issue (the issue is being lectured by a 12-stepper) and how it was presented (for Sandell: a lecture; for Wertz: all done off-panel) were one and the same. For all I know, Wertz might have gone through a 12-step program. She didn’t choose to tell her story as a “pilgrim’s progress”-type lecture, which is what I found repulsive about Sandell’s book. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

  5. JuliaWertz says:

    hi Rob,
    first of all, thanks for the great review! And as for this debate, I think the topic of addiction is so highly subjective that some people react very passionately to it. I didn’t read this review as any type of creative suggestion or otherwise, just a compliment on how on how I handled it in this book, not necessarily in “real life,” so, thank you.

  6. Rob Clough says:

    Thanks, Julia! Glad you enjoyed it, and glad you understood what I was driving at.