“Yeah, Why Not? I’m Going to Keep Making These Silly Comics and Fill the World With Dumb Anecdotes and 10% More Fart Jokes!”
review by BK Munn
As I get older, I find my comic reading tastes calcifying. It’s sometimes a struggle to push myself out of my crusty comfort zone and embrace exciting new work when I really just feel like reading about things near and dear to my heart and relevant to my daily life, like alcoholism, masturbation, fear of deadly illness, flatulence, and the prospect of creepy 40-something men having casual sex with funny 20-something women. Luckily, The Infinite Wait by Julia Wertz has something to offer the jaded reader on all five counts.
This new autobiographical collection published by Koyama Press picks up where Wertz’s previous books, Fart Party and Drinking at the Movies, left off, chronicling her life as an underemployed cartoonist in San Francisco and New York City, including romantic entanglements (like the creepy one-night-stand referred to above), relapses into alcohol abuse, and 57 varieties of waitressing. I’d previously experienced Wertz’s work only in small doses online and wasn’t sure her approach would translate to longer comics on a serious subject matter, but The Infinite Wait is a strong collection that uses Wertz’s distinctive, funny cartooning skill set to great advantage.
On first glance the book doesn’t have much to offer, threatening to tread familiar coming-of-age autobiographical cartooning territory presented as a grab-bag of largely unrelated short memoirs. The book is divided into three distinct sections or chapters. The first, “Industry,” is essentially Wertz’s resume in candid comics form, detailing the entirety of her lifelong work experience beginning from early childhood and climaxing with her recent restaurant and cartooning jobs in New York. It’s a chronological, job-by-job litany that sets into a more-or-less clear pattern of hired to fired, passing through dollops of angst and binge drinking along the way. The same is true of the book’s last chapter or coda, “A Strange and Beautiful Place,” detailing Wertz’s love of libraries and reading, an almost book-by-book history of her fairly typical love affair with the universal canons of precocious children, alienated teens, and budding cartoonists. These fairly dry travelogues are enlivened by Wertz’s bug-eyed self-caricatures and droll take on the minor-key triumphs and tragedies of her life. She uses her palette of solid blacks, simple hatching, funny pacing and an ear for remembered dialogue to good effect, giving her panel-by-panel plod through life an amusing and thought-provoking lightness that is very readable. And finding a way to make an autobiographical tale of the cartoonist demimonde, in which the author draws herself in almost every panel, page-after-page, readable, long after the novelty factor of the pioneer works of the autobio genre has worn off, is no small task.
If there is a serious drawback to Wertz’s stories, it is this over-reliance on first-person perspective, to the extent that other people in her life get short shrift and often come across as barely-sketched comic types or foils. The one exception being Wertz’s brother, a more-or-less constant presence in her life with whom she seems to share a refreshingly close rapport, characterized by a private language of in-jokes, several bad habits, and the sort of “us vs. them” comraderie common to many children’s relations with their parents. In spite of these formal shortcomings, Wertz manages to carry the entire story mostly on her own personality and cartooning skills.
This skill set serves Wertz well in the most ambitious, funny, and moving piece here, the titular story “The Infinite Wait,” in which the cartoonist tells the tale of her mysterious sufferings, eventual diagnosis, and subsequent life with systemic lupus. It’s a harrowing tale, told with great humour. Wertz’s early brush with death due to her inability to tell the difference between the onset of a serious wasting disease and the temporary effects of debauchery is especially poignant.
Wertz’s breezy, funny-ironic style is extremely accessible, with a potential broad appeal: a male friend of mine who never reads anything, let alone autobio graphic novels, read the book over the course of a few days and found ways to reference Wertz in almost every conversation for weeks afterward. How many cartoonist’s can claim that sort of reader response?