Memory Re-Drawn: Julie Doucet’s Time Zone J

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Fish swim out of a head of hair, menstrual blood rains down, anonymous faces smirk: The comics of Julie Doucet have always been subversive, sly, and honest. Her newest work, Time Zone J, is no different. Recently awarded the prestigious Grand Prix at the 49th Angoulême International Comics Festival for lifetime achievement as a comics artist, Doucet has completed her most complex comic work yet.

Montreal-born-and-based Doucet began making photocopied and stapled zines in the late 1980s, influenced by her time in art school. In 1987, Doucet self-published Dirty Plotte; over the course of fourteen months, she drew, wrote, and collaged the fourteen issues of the minicomic in her apartment. These comics frankly showed a woman’s sexual desires and her unique experience of the world, mixing fantasy and reality in a playful and sometimes violent tableau. Because of the comics’ tonal range–in one story, Julie’s anthropomorphized dishes threaten to kill her, in another, she quietly loses her virginity–Dirty Plotte became a touchstone for readers and comic creators alike. Drawn & Quarterly released the first compilation of these zines, Dirty Plotte #1, in January 1991. The angsty and humorous comic won the Harvey Award for “Best New Series,” and Doucet herself won “Best New Talent.” The Comics Journal soon listed Dirty Plotte as one of the top 100 comics of all time.

At the height of this success, Doucet made the startling announcement that she was quitting comics. “I had vowed to never ever draw myself again,” her drawn avatar tells us as it duplicates across the page in Time Zone J. Tired of the boys club, the low pay, and the grind of comics-making, Doucet turned to other art forms. By 2010, she was focusing on other forms of artwork, notably collage. From past interviews, one might get the impression that Doucet had a negative experience making comics in the 1990s. But in Time Zone J, there is a real nostalgia for a lost culture of xeroxed zines, PO Boxes, pay phones, and the relationships cultivated through those media. We see Julie lovingly look at Dirty Plotte fanmail, thinking, “incredible!!” The graphic elements in these panels recall the popular Memphis design movement of that bygone era—the zigzags, elbow macaroni-looking confetti, simple geometric shapes, and patterned squiggles that one critic called a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” Against this evocative backdrop, one of the many anonymous figures notes, a straw between her smiling lips, “the past. it’s like a big sugary milkshake.”

But it’s not all fan letters and zine-sharing. Alongside the fun mail in her PO Box, a correspondence with a much darker edge emerges. The story she plumbs here begins elliptically. Our narrator—the present-day Julie, dark haired, bespectacled, and subtly expressive—begins the story of her love affair with “the hussar.” “There was this French man writing to me,” Doucet writes. “It was not a dream!” Readers do not know much about him except that his handwriting is “askew,” his letters are lovely, and that he and Doucet quickly develop an intense connection. We learn that he has just been called to carry out his military service (France only suspended peacetime military conscription in 1996), and he writes her from the barracks. The letters contain his unhappiness with everything but Julie: “I feel castrated, emasculated, broken . . . [you]’re the only one that can understand.”

Memories trouble present-day Julie as she revisits her diaries and the stacks of letters the hussar wrote her while conscripted. She recalls how she and a friend planned a long European adventure, providing the opportunity to finally meet the hussar in person–would the real man live up to the beautiful letters he wrote? Their rendezvous is when the story truly ignites. The audience can easily enter such a scenario: The long-distance relationship about to become real. But this is not the meet-cute of rom coms. When Julie and the hussar finally meet, they wander through the cemetery and hide in a vault, where a violent and romantic scene follows. They cut themselves and kiss. There is much more blood than Julie expected. He scares her. She can’t tell if she likes it. Is this love?

The theme of violence in relationships is present in her other work, such as 1998’s My New York Diary. As comics scholar Catriona Macleod has pointed out, Doucet’s male characters are often described as “mentally unstable or sociopathic, and as constantly destructive and repressive influences, disrupting Julie’s focus on her developing artistic career.” Even in her collage work, such as the 2016 fumetti (the Italian word for comics) Carpet Sweeper Tales, she is interested in the potentially volatile relationships between men and women.

In Time Zone J, the influence from her collage work is clear: images are layered, and many appear to be “found.” A lemur shares a spread with several named women (Carole B., Yvonne B., and Francoise A.) who are quoted giving grooming advice, as though from ads in a girls’ fashion magazine. In the same spread, there’s the word “sex” in all capital letters, a talking jaybird, a variety of graphic marks, and six renditions of Julie herself all recalling a single memory. The effect is a kind of “horror vacui,” where all the pages are filled with image and text. The lack of white space reinforces the chaos of memory, of being inside someone’s head when all the synapses are firing at once. Eclectic and clever, Doucet’s use of image complicates a story of a love affair the audience knows is doomed from the beginning.

In the introductory pages, Doucet invites us to read the book “from bottom to top,” the way she claims it was drawn. As Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, the traditional grid layout in comics creates a “Z-path,” where the eye is led across and down the page, starting from the top left corner. Doucet flips this canonical hierarchy—reading Time Zone J as if it were any other comic would be like reading a William Burroughs cut-up. Quoting Tristan Tzara, Doucet reminds us that Dada is “against and for unity and definitely against the future; we are wise enough to know that our brains are going to become flabby cushions.” She has planted us in a kind of Dadaist comic that refuses to adhere to external expectations of compositional structure.

As much as the text can read as a re-assemblage, though, the images seem as though they scroll indefinitely left to right. Not only do they connect across spreads, but across page cuts, like a long accordion book or the Bayeux tapestry. Doucet originally drew the book in an accordion-style Moleskine, and Drawn & Quarterly has reproduced this form in their printed version of the book. This re-creation serves Doucet’s frenetic panorama as memories “unfold.” Rather than taking the audience back into the memory, drawing scenes of a younger Julie with a young man, we stay with the middle-aged character, who recounts the tale. The hussar attempts to weigh in, to defend himself, to tug at her memory—he is depicted as the bird that appears to be a French jay.

The narrative details may be soupy, but Doucet’s interest in memory remains clear. Through her images and storytelling, she effectively makes concrete the abstraction of memory. Representations of cultural influences, personal influences, and sensations accumulate to create a full sense of the act of remembering. Unlike three-act stories, human experience is not actually linear; our personal cacophonies can erupt even while doing something as simple as sending a letter. Daringly, Doucet choses to capture this mix of memory and experience. The reader who comes for a straightforward memoir might find this tale challenging, but they’d be remiss to treat this book as just a trippy experiment in comic making. In fact, it is a comic that opens itself up to multiple readings, a book where a single page holds the unraveling of a love affair as well as a box of tampons, while smoke from a cigarette wafts across it all.

Even after a twenty-year absence from comics, Doucet proves she is still at the top of her game with Time Zone J. It’s rare to find a graphic memoir where Pussy Riot, Tintin, and a King Cat Comics membership card all comfortably share space. Uneasy yet playful, Time Zone J may prove to be another canonical work of graphic memoir by Doucet.

Amaris Feland Ketcham and Nora Hickey teach courses on autobiographix and poetry comics. They have co-authored several reviews of graphic narratives and contributed articles to the Women in Media reference handbook. They have presented “Get Inked: Creative Nonfiction Comics as Cultural Critique” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and “Toward a Definition of Poetry Comics,” “Casting Narrative Aside: the Poetry Comics of Bianca Stone,” “Comics on the Road: Drawn Records of Women Traveling” at the Southwest Popular American Culture Association Conference. Amaris and Nora co-edit the comics newsletter Autobiographix at More from this author →