April 2008

Rosette Royale

nonfiction

365 Days by Julie Doucet

A lot can happen to a person in a year: relationships may erode or take root; illnesses can strike from out of nowhere; bank accounts, like the tide, can rise and fall. But much of what takes place -- the eating of meals, the hours spent in slumber, the machinations of the mind that turn non-stop, as if propelled by a hamster-driven wheel -- ranks low on the excitement meter. In fact, much of what we call existence is about as enthralling as washing a load of dirty clothes. So how do you explain the pleasant experience of reading Julie Doucet’s 365 Days, her sweet hodge-podge of a journal that covers every single day of an ordinary year?

Is it because she leads a wild life? Not even close. Doucet’s an illustrator based in Montreal who’s acquired a modicum of fame, having published the comic-book series Dirty Plotte, while other works have been collected in a few anthologies. But outside of the alt-comic world, she’s not well known. She stays at home or travels to her studio, thinking up drawings, visiting art shows, spending time with friends and eating dinner out. Actually, Doucet takes her meals out a lot, if her journal’s to be believed -- sushi, Italian, Vietnamese and French fries, which apparently, she doesn’t like.

The pleasure, for the person turning pages anyway, derives partly from the visual of the book itself. The pages themselves are literally canvases, each one holding some sort of pen-and-ink artwork. Some days consist of line drawings, with 31.10.02 (or Oct. 31, 2002), the journal’s second day, revealing Doucet crying in her home office over an interviewer’s e-mailed question, “Why are you drawing comics, Julie?” By 20.03.03, she’s staring at TV placed on top of the fridge, the screen displaying a robot-like figure, while the text informs us that President Bush has ordered the bombing of Iraq. Occasionally, as on 19.05.03, there aren’t even illustrations, at least not of anything naturalistic. Instead, an abstract series of ever-shrinking rectangles grace the page, the blank spaces filled in with dots or prose that tells us, of a visit to a river, “It was really nice.”

But as the journal progresses, two events can be charted: one is the growth of Doucet’s illustrations. It’s as if, when the drawn journal begins, she’s not exactly sure how to best represent her life on the small blue-lined leaves that make up the book. But somewhere in December, two months along, her drawings relax into themselves, so that what had seemed rather ungainly in the beginning, feels more comfortable and loose. Quickly, distinguishing her friends visually becomes a cinch.

Which leads to the second noticeable occurrence: suddenly, you become interested in the people closest to her, though perhaps none of them is more intriguing than C. Early on, Doucet admits that this friend of hers doesn’t want to be identified through her illustrations. So Doucet, in deciding how best to represent him, attempts various potential characterizations (including giving his body a head shaped like a letter B, even though, two pages later, he’s called C, but… maybe she changed the name afterwards, to ensure anonymity?). After a sketching out a few ideas, she settles on drawing him with the face of a cuddly bear. Whenever his adorable mug pops up, it’s hard not to smile.

Though, really, all of her acquaintances, and their successes and travails, keep your interest. And as Doucet’s career begins to take off, she finds herself flying to Paris, visiting Berlin, meeting foreign magazine editors and musicians, and eating more food and drinking too much wine and… living a completely normal artist’s life. Almost all of it wonderfully evoked.

If 365 Days has one drawback it’s the text itself. Most of the time, she writes (draws?) her musings in big block letters. But every once in a while, she spools out her thoughts in cursive, a good portion of which is nearly impossible to read and, given the ease of the rest of the book, is pretty frustrating.

But as the year unwinds, and you follow Doucet recalling an epileptic seizure she had in the middle of the night, as you learn of an illness afflicting a close relative, you find yourself pulled into her not-so-unusual life. It’s a testament to her talent that, as the book’s last pages approach, you find yourself not really wanting it to end, because you realize you’ve gotten quite attached to Doucet. You find yourself wishing, as strange as it seems, that she’d written a book called 670 Days, just so you could spend a little more time with her. Even if it means watching her do her laundry one more time.

365 Days by Julie Doucet
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN 978-1-897299-15-9
360 pages