Julia Wertz’s Eisner-nominated Drinking At The Movies, originally from 2010 but here with a handsome reissue from Koyama Press, is renowned for its humorous self-deprecating pile-on. At its root is the suggestion that beating yourself up is probably just part of personal growth. And that’s not just meant to make you feel better, but an actual truth imparted through Wertz’s work.
Starting out in her home town of San Francisco, we find Wertz facing some family challenges and looking for a change, since her life has little momentum. Once she gets to New York City, it’s up for debate whether there is any more momentum than she previously had. The new surroundings, mixed with the reality that a normal day in New York can offer a good story, do lead to some good cartoon tales. Structured around her changing living situations and jobs, Wertz tracks the trajectory of someone who is stumbling her way into the future.
But we know what the future holds for Wertz as we read this reissued edition, and now Drinking At The Movies feels like a secret origin story the cartoonist and illustrator she is to become. The book appropriately ends with a collection of her beautiful cityscape illustrations, capturing her new surroundings with an amiable precision, while predicting the kind of exciting work she now creates for The New Yorker and Harper’s. It’s proof that the move ended up to be not only the right one, but a fairly transformative one, ushering in a dynamic relationship with her surroundings that seeped into her work and her being.
The autobiography covers how she gets there, and though Wertz isn’t quick to portray it so, there is a wider method to her personal madness. And while it’s funny as hell, this is not a surface-level effort to present pathetic behavior — or reckless behavior — for laughs, just another autobiographical comic about a loser. Wertz’s tale reads less like a laundry list of self-insulting incidents than a process, and an important one that has her taking stock, connecting dots, finding patterns, being honest with herself, and moving towards something.
Wertz is not trying to be the eternal lovable loser who makes us laugh. The Wertz that stands outside the pages and fashions the panels of her life as capture in comics is trying to work things out, and she is letting us in on her journey.
I hesitate to call it brave, since Wertz does not seem to be seeking sympathy or cheers by putting her life down on paper. Instead, it all comes off as a practical method of self examination and improvement, with elements that anyone living outside Wertz’s skin can enjoy and maybe even take to heart. Wertz offers up her own experience as a blueprint for getting better and seizing some control, while still being true to yourself, and acknowledging that hard decisions can still be made with good humor.