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John Porcellino at the Cartoon Art Museum

Relating To Your Life

"I feel lucky that I got to experience that great western sky.
The stillness of Nevada at 3am.
The silence of a thousand stars shining down.
The roaring of -- not one word spoken anywhere."
John Porcellino, July 03-Feb 04

The Cartoon Art Museum is a rare gem in San Francisco's cultural necklace. It is a traditional looking gallery space set behind a wonderful bookstore, Photo Graphix (formally the Friend's of Photography bookstore.) The museum formally showcases comics and cartoons ranging from familiar animation cells and historical baseball cartoons to underground horror and sex comix throughout the 20th century. Ultimately though it is a quiet space of two long hallways flanked on all sides with a cornucopia of illustrations and words to read.

At the end of the museum's gallery, almost hidden, hanging on a back wall near the bathrooms are seven panels of John Porcellino's work currently on display as part of the Small Press Spotlight at the Cartoon Art Museum. It's a shame that the work ended up in its location. His simple line drawings and subdued exposition might be easy to miss among the far more colorful and recognizable comic characters that flank the main galleries.

The text at the opening of this article is from John Porcellino's King-Cat comics and stories, and in many ways it describes the end of John's story for now. His award winning work, spanning more that ten years, allows us to notice the times in our lives when words are not spoken -- and using the medium of comics is a perfect venue for this lesson. The act of reading a comic book is a solitary one. It is an act of spending time looking at words and pictures shaped together in grids and boxes until a story is revealed.

King-Cat comics follow Porcellino's life starting in his late teens as he embarked on a career as a Mosquito Abatement man. It moves on through levels of spiritual awakening until we find him, with wife and cat in tow beginning a new life in San Francisco to pursue his professional and private aspirations of a peaceful co-existence amidst like-minded people (and the great trees in the city don't hurt either.)

The most striking comic of his on display at the Cartoon Museum is Chemical Plant/Another World. Porcellino, behind the wheel of his mosquito spray truck, driving only 12 miles per hour as the job demanded, enters a chemical plant in order to spray large quantities of chemicals in the air to kill mosquitoes. His drawings here are eerie and lonely. He allows irony and fear to creep in. As the comic continues his lines of smoke stacks, looming buildings and nefarious streets consume each panel until his truck is entirely covered by the chemical plant's labyrinth. It is a touching sampling of Porcellino's life at its most surreal and isolating.

John Porcellino's illustrated book, The Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, in which Chemical Plant/Another World is included, is a coming of age tale of a regular guy becoming a good man. Porcellino did not come from significant trauma only to rise above the odds to accomplish heroic deeds. He did not rewrite his history to craft his identity into one of a great man. John simply collected years of his life into a linear sense of discovery for no other reason that he had the material to do so. As a young man he sketched comics that depicted his experiences of growing up on the edge of suburban sprawl.

As he grew a bit older and his comics continued, Porcellino wrote of admitting to wanting to be a mosquito abatement man and further on we see him admitting to spending many years drinking his emotions into puddles of tears between forgettable parties. Then slowly, very slowly, we see John finding himself in a position to accept change. He did change and through studying various Buddhist texts he accepted a new life of being at peace. From the open pages of Mosquito Abatement Man (in fact, throughout his entire body of work), where Porcellino was killing mosquitoes with angry glee or reluctantly helping a hapless wanderer or ultimately accepting of a Zen-like existence, his writing and illustrations remain solid, flat footed and simply honest throughout.

His comics don't read as inspirational hyperbole nor do they read as glorified justifications of his past. Instead, Porcellino creates these stories because they happened to him and this silent form of expression is his marker of time between each moment. It is this elementary approach that makes up his true appeal. Reading these comics, coming upon his drawings and spending time with his private reflections is more akin to getting to know that guy you sit next to on the MUNI everyday or noticing a tree in front of your apartment building you swear you've never seen before. John Porcellino's comics are not intended to be relatable to your life -- they intend for you to relate to your own life in a way you hadn't before.

Small Press Spotlight featuring: John Porcellino
Exhibition runs through 2/05/06
at the Cartoon Art Museum
$6 – Adults
$4 – Students & Seniors
$2 – Children (ages 6-12)
FREE – Children (age 5 and younger)
The first Tuesday of every month is "Pay What You Wish Day"