Places that Exist in Our Minds-- a review of John Porcellino's From Lone Mountain

John Porcellino’s mini-comics contain essays, cartoons, letters, memories, poems and ultimately a portrait of a cartoonist trying to find his place in the world. From Lone Mountain, collecting issues of King Cat Comics and Stories from 2003 through 2007, find Porcellino, his wife, and his cat moving cross country and from city to city a couple of times during only a few years. This new compilation of his mini-comics has some big events in it, the many moves, but Porcellino’s King Kat Comics aren’t about the grand movements and gestures of his life. If you want some in-depth exploration of his life, find his The Hospital Suite from a couple of years ago where the cartoonist spends a good deal of time exploring his own physical and mental health. The comics in this book hone in on the smaller or tender moments of life such as finding a stray kitten or an aimless road trip but he does also deal with the passing of his father in one of the comics. In these events of a life, Porcellino uncovers these small, reflective moments of life that many of us just take for granted and gloss over.

Reduced to simple, defining lines, Porcellino draws these stories with little decorative embellishment. He uses the basic visual language of cartoons to practically take the focus off of his artwork. A few well-placed lines are all he needs to show a person, a cat, a car, or a house. If it were any simpler, his artwork would practically be abstract because that’s how few marks he uses in his drawings. But every line and mark creates a huge world around and beyond him. With as few ink strokes as possible, he creates a visual and comprehensible order to his worldview.

“Freeman Kame,” a piece in the middle of the book, tells the story of an impulsive visit to one of the many forest preserves in northern Illinois. Large parts of this story are wordless as Porcellino let’s the images tell the story. “It’s beautiful,” he writes about the road and the sky on the way to Freeman Kame. You could imagine other artists pulling out all of their tricks to create a grand and splendid picture but Porcellino puts down just a few lines to suggest the road or a fence and a puffy cloud up in the sky. It’s almost an insane amount of trust that Porcellino has in his readers as he’s confident that they can imagine the beauty that he’s barely suggesting with his drawings but it’s all there on the page.

That clear visual element opens up his ability to explore some complexly human moments in his comics. Some pieces are recountings of events, some are poems and there are some straight text pieces in these pages. In all of these pieces, Porcellino manages to find a memory, an experience, or some tidbit of knowledge that helps define him. His comics read like he’s a man who is trying to order his life. One strip is just him on the phone with his future wife, asking her the important questions of life; does she like The Smiths and how does she prefer toilet paper to be oriented on the roll- with the end of it hanging in front or behind the roll.

These aren’t the capital “I” important questions of life but that Porcellino has captured this important moment of courtship shows how important that time and memory was to him. For the two pages of the book that he devotes to this memory, it becomes the capital “I” Important question of his life so it becomes that for us as we’re reading the comic. Just as he trusts his readers to understand the images he’s suggesting, he also trusts them to understand the importance of these small, tender moments of life. Some of the stories he tells in this book are experiences he just had right before he committed them to paper and others stretch back to his youth as he finds these instances that all mean something to him.

This trust that Porcellino has with his audience lets him play with the form of his stories. It allows him to have pages of text recounting his days in Dekalb, IL and the co-workers he had back in those days. It also gives him the opening to create these little comic poems that have the same focus as his more narrative comics. There’s even these strange little diversions into philosophy. Porcellino has a gift for making his comics about the things that interest him without them being so self-centered and closed off that they’re only about the artist and not the people, places and events around him.

In the comics in From Lone Mountain, John Porcellino wants to share his life with you. But his comics aren’t just observations or recountins of the days events. In his stories and short pieces, he is trying to capture the spirit of the moment, that sensation of experiencing something in a new, unique, and personal way. Most of these events aren’t some spectacular or earth shattering moment in and of themselves but they become these because of the ways that Porcellino relates the experience of the moment or event. And for the reader seeing these events through Porcellino’s pages, his capturing of it creates a new experience for the readers who now get to relate the experiences to their own lives and worldviews.