Time Zone J
Written and illustrated by Julie Doucet
Published by Drawn and Quarterly
Much of comics as we know it is the indirect fault of Julie Doucet. We see comics as books, sold because of the authenticity of their creators, long form works of sequential art capable of the utterly unhinged and totally awesome; Doucet is part of graphic novels’ generative movement. So of course this is her first comic book in 20 years. Time Zone J sees a legend return to the medium she elevated and dropped, through dilated pupils.
It’s a book about compulsion, obsession, the things you can’t forget. Doucet is trapped in a web of memory and habit, and her book is like the sweet ache of a bruise pressed. The result of putting one’s mind on the page when it’s wheeling out of control. Time Zone J is a book of desire. A correspondence love affair that never got the chance to bloom, only to burn. Read Julie’s love letters beside her. Bear witness to her ardor, her present day mortification- the past and its bloody fireball trysts. Sometimes what we think is love feels like being ripped into a thousand pieces. This book is more than remembrance, it is experience. The chaos of the heart in a comic book.
Though Time Zone J is quite unlike most comics I’ve experienced. Doucet’s comics are kind of known for crowding the pages with art. Her Dirty Plotte is loved for the content, dreams of having cat babies and saddling up one’s penis like a pony, but also for the detritus of her life invading its every page: all the dishes, cutlery, and coffee mugs forming a dance line passing from panel to panel, from the drawing desk, through the apartment, and into the sink.
There are no panels in Time Zone J, and so time happens all at once. The zoetrope isn’t moving, so Doucet’s telling a story becomes another kind of parade. A progression of heads cross the page like an animation smear. The art and text is a swirling labyrinth, weaving through a hundred branching associative thoughts. Behind all the people and wildlife everywhere- in what negative space is left- patterns simmer over a low heat. There is no escape from the Zone, no rest for Doucet until the story hits the flap on the end of either cover.
No panels, and no pages either, as Drawn and Quarterly’s release of the book is a French fold printing. Time Zone J is printed on only one side of a long, uncut piece of paper, then folded against itself and bound to resemble a normal graphic novel. The edge of each page is a crease, not an end, and can be flatten into nonexistence. Time Zone J is an endless single drawing. The fantascopic frozen head chain crosses the pages! As do arms, with the hand on the page flip pointing the way to the next stretch of dialog. Animals pass in front of the action, this way and that, disinterested in a story’s traditional progression. Excuse me, cat, you’re blocking the plot!
Reading this comic turns into a game where you’re chasing thoughts. It says THIS BOOK WAS DRAWN FROM BOTTOM TO TOP in block letters on one of the last pages with next to nothing on it, right after the book’s credits. PLEASE READ ACCORDINGLY. I found myself kind of following directions, kind of following the art and the word balloons. Up the first page, over, and then down, across each paired-page spread, picked up again at the bottom after the page turn. A sine wave that reminded me of the winding way in which you read a Brian Chippendale comic (both members of Lightning Bolt make excellent comics about cute little guys just tryin’ to make it in the world). It follows a logic that runs contrary to tradition but holds up in practice. You can intuitively navigate the trees. It’s the forest that’s an overwhelming mess.
There’s more to remembering than old photographs. Doucet is reliving the experience. Submerging into memory puts the clutter in Doucet’s head onto the page. Crowded repetition is part trying to capture the moment as it flies away from you, part how every thought is multifaceted, with those facets flattened because comics. Each strand of remembrance brings up a series of emotions in Doucet, and so it fits that a five-headed woman describes the events causing their collective heart so much grief. Intrusive thoughts. A sea of faces. Dreams.
And it is trippy. This book has both the look of being on acid and the blotter you take a tab of it from: the strings of heads in a chain, repetitive patterns and textures come in around the edges of animals and eyeballs and other freaky stuff. The overwhelming presence of everything all around you begging for your attention. Doucet’s art style, bold contours and magical hand lettering, screams classic cartoonist. The emotion and trauma of the story and the visual overload of its telling, the weaving immersion of the read, all ultimately left me shaken. A Hubert Selby Jr kind of feeling. Though Hubert could never write a book like this, Time Zone J’s concerns are closer to Jenny Hval’s.
The story that Doucet is recounting is largely absent from the art in the book. You can see how it emotionally is affecting Doucet as she tells it on her face. But you don’t see much else, or maybe you do in the chaos? Places, people, there is no real demarcation between memory and fantasy. The visuals share some generative themes with the story (obsession), but its separation from the “story” frees the art to ply the reader with its own motives. The desire that drives Time Zone J isn’t for a partner but a writer’s ambition. Doucet’s dominant fantasy is to be a novelist, no caveats. Is there enough story here to make a novel? Yeah but you’d have to tell it completely differently. The piece of the novel that we get is made into a full book in another medium- but not by adapting it.
When I say I think this is the essence of diary comics, I mean it like in the kitchen. Her past has been boiled down to a syrup, thickened and condensed and powerful. Bittersweet. Doucet’s is an act of ultra-confession; not just offering an honest depiction of her life, she’s peeling away her skull to let you into her head. Art in the head story in the head, and the diary aspect feels the same way, a sketchbook where the whole page is filled up. Little details are added to every square centimeter of negative space until every page is exhausted. The artists’ journal is a portrait in visual communication, freed of linear chains of thought suspended in prose. Doucet tells with comics what can’t be told.
Time Zone J is available from Drawn and Quarterly or wherever finer comics and books are sold.