Julie Doucet is done with autobiography.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Montreal artist built a following for her comics, which featured unapologetically sloppy, crude female protagonists and stories detailing menstrual mishaps, sexual encounters, and dirty apartments. Her graphic novels, including 1991’s autobiographical My New York Diary, continue to attract a generation of new fans, although she hasn’t produced any new comics work since the 2007 graphic memoir 365 Days. “I suppose I could be drawing comics about having my period for the rest of my life and people would love it, but that’s just not interesting at all,” she says.
Doucet has spoken about her exit repeatedly in interviews: how she felt physically exhausted and frustrated with the comics “boys’ club”; how she burned out and couldn’t draw anymore. But while many mistakenly think she’s disappeared, Doucet has in fact been producing new work in poetry, collage, printmaking, and animation. She’s stayed active in Montreal’s francophone arts community, which explains why the English-speaking comics world thinks she’s just re-emerging now. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the reason why nobody has heard about me,” Doucet says, laughing.
With her new book, Carpet Sweeper Tales – a collection of collaged photo stories released in March by Drawn & Quarterly – Doucet seems to have found a happy medium. Initially, Carpet Sweeper Tales was meant to be entirely textual, but, Doucet jokes, that wasn’t a great idea “money-wise.” The book combines images from Italian fumetti – photographic comics published in the 1960s – and text from magazines like Better Homes and Gardens from the same era.
Composed of 21 short works, Carpet Sweeper Tales begins with the story of blond, mod-eyelined Mrs. Jones; her lacklustre husband, Ford; and a nun. The three characters speak to each other in a mix of nonsense and captions from vintage advertisements. Doucet’s experiments with writing and collage led her to sound poetry, which infuses Carpet Sweeper Tales – the book includes a directive to “read it out loud.”
Beyond the ’60s hairstyles, Doucet’s women are all trying to escape from something: their lives, their overbearing boyfriends, a gang of obnoxious bystanders. “Maybe it’s autobiographical, I don’t know. I’ve always been obsessed with going places. … I guess it’s more about hiding,” Doucet says. “I just can’t stand using myself as a character anymore.”
The men in Carpet Sweeper Tales are distant and monosyllabic. In one story, a group of guys in leather jackets simply repeat “ggggirls,” “dddolls,” and “bra”; in another, they speak through text taken from advertisements for sanitary products.
Over the past decade, Doucet has also been experimenting with text collage. For each project, she creates a collection of words, from which she builds a dictionary. “I end up with a lot of syllables,” she says. “ I ended up working at some point on a new language.” Any words she doesn’t use, she holds on to as potential content for the next project. She knew that for Carpet Sweeper Tales, she wanted play with abstraction and sounds.
Most of Doucet’s books were composed in French, but Carpet Sweeper Tales is among a handful of works she wrote originally in English, which she says allows her to experiment in ways she finds difficult when working in her native language. “When I write in French, it’s my own language. I get very self-conscious about it, so I have to really choose the right word. I’m very careful, it’s more work, in a way,” she says. “But when I write in English, it’s free. I know I will never be perfect, so it’s more instinctive.”
Ironically, Doucet’s forays into sound poetry have led her back to drawing. She’s recently started spending time in her studio and is seeing where it leads. “So far, I don’t see any narrative going with [the drawings]. But it’s too early in the process,” she says. “I’m just trying to not draw how I used to draw, and trying to go back to the basics and learn to draw again.”
And if all goes well, readers can expect a future book of drawing, she says. As for a return to comics, Doucet simply offers an ambiguous “I have no idea.”