Greenpoint resident Julia Wertz is a storyteller and cartoonist who’s met enormous standards as an accomplished artist through an extensive body of work – but not without an equally extensive journey that brought her there. Purely self-taught, she’s championed her way through golden American rostrums like The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine.
Her books and comic strips have been claimed to show people slivers of some candid truth to their own lives, which one could say is the ultimate social responsibility of The Artist. Julia shares her insight with Greenpointers into the realities of becoming a professional cartoonist, and what the future lies ahead for her.
GP: When did comics become your line of work?
Julia: I discovered comics when I was going to school at San Francisco State. I was very ill with an autoimmune disease and couldn’t focus on normal books, so I borrowed some graphic novels from the library, and I got into it all by accident. I grew up with the staples – Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, etc. – but I didn’t know how broad the genre was until much later. I started making comics about my daily life just for fun, and put them on a website for my friends. Unexpectedly, it got really popular and it all unfolded quickly from there. But it was never part of plan. I never had any kind of plan for my future, it just happened. At that point, I basically stopped going to college. I attended just enough to get a BA, but honestly I’m not sure I ever graduated. There’s this whole thing where I didn’t go to graduation, never got a diploma and just am not really sure. I could easily find out but I kinda like not knowing. The state paid for my education because I was poor, so I don’t feel bad about it.
GP: How did you land in Greenpoint?
Julia: I ended up here on a fluke, the Craigslist listing was wrong… it said a basement apartment with no windows. I was free, so I went up just to see because I liked the area, and turns out it wasn’t that at all – it’s sub-basement, which in New York basically means the first level, still above ground, and it has three huge windows. And it was a junior one bedroom, not really a studio. It’s still pretty small but I don’t have to sleep in the living area and it has a surprisingly big kitchen. The rent was $800 and it still is, 10 years later. It’s a bit of a golden prison – like I’d love to have a bigger place, but I can’t leave this one or I’ll be paying three times as much for a shithole.
GP: And it’s been how long since you’ve been drawing?
Julia: I’ve been making comics for 13 years, and working professionally as a cartoonist for about seven years. Like I said, I kinda got into it all by accident, and I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, but that’s just what it’s like working in an unstable industry. But doing it professionally doesn’t equate to financial stability, it’s still a month to month scramble. But I consider myself incredibly lucky to even be able to pull it all off. I waited tables and bartended for 10 years, so every day I don’t have to do that, I feel very lucky.
GP: How did you develop into your signature style?
Julia: I used to draw pretty differently, but I developed my main character by sitting down and drawing a bunch of really simple cartoon features and combining my favorite ones. I like to say that I did it because Charles Schultz said the simplest face is the easiest one to identify with, but really I chose it because it’s easy to draw. The cityscape stuff came a lot later, but I always enjoyed drawing random things and sets for apartments way more than I liked drawing people. People don’t interest me… things and spaces do, at least from an artistic standpoint.
GP: What is your most favorite piece of illustration/story you’ve done so far?
Julia: My favorite was a New Yorker piece about the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens. I did the history of the fair and got to draw all the little expos, and then took the angle of finding out where all the original lampposts went. They were scattered all over the states. Right before I did the piece, I was contacted by these guys from Pennsylvania, who had seen a blog post I did about the abandoned Penn Hills resort in the Poconos. I photographed and talked about the world’s fair lampposts, since the resort had about 20. Turns out they’d purchased them, and were in the process of restoring them. We struck up a dialogue, and one of them decided to use my piece to propose to his boyfriend. So in the second to last panel, there’s a marriage proposal. He said yes. I’m not a romantic person, but it was fun to be so involved in the piece in so many ways, beyond just drawing it, so that’s why it’s my favorite.
GP: Your body of work is quite impressive – do you keep drafts of ideas on hand? How does your creative process work? Do the conversations, characters and overall themes of your comics draw from conversations or people in your personal life?
I have so many typed and handwritten idea pages, it’s out of control. But I like to jot down the ideas and then let them sit for a year or two, because usually after enough time passes I can tell which ones are good and which are just shitty. But for daily stuff, I keep a little comics journal where I make stick figures comics of convos and interactions. My book Drinking at the Movies existed entirely in stick figure form before it was drawn for reals and published.
GP: Given your experience, what do you feel is the most important aspect of what you do?
Julia: Based on feedback I’ve gotten, I’d say the most important aspect of my work is when readers can identify themselves in it, and somehow that helps them deal with an issue, either by just feeling more connected, or using my story as a cautionary tale. As much as I love the history and cityscape work, that is just pure visual entertainment and people don’t connect to it personally the way they do the memoir work. I don’t draw for an audience, as in I make exactly what I want and I don’t consider how it will read, but it’s great when it becomes so personal for someone else.
GP: What kind of things have you been working on lately or have planned?
Julia: Starting last year, I moved into monthly illustration and comics pieces for The New Yorker and Harper’s, and I illustrated a book for actress Eden Sher, it comes out next spring I think. And I’m starting a monthly comic I do with my older brother, in the Believer. So it’s been a big change from doing comic books, and it’s a challenge having three deadlines a month. I don’t know how long I can keep it up though, it’s insane. I know I’ll burn out, I just have to figure out how to do it gracefully. I hope none of my editors read this.
I’m also doing a book about Greenpoint. It’s mostly then/now cityscapes, some history comics and random illustrations of things and places around the area. That should come out later this year.
GP: What kind of advice do you have for aspiring comic artists out there? Or alternatively, your younger self?
Julia: The best advice I can offer, which is what I did, is to just get to work. Don’t sit around waiting for the right publisher or the right pen or notebook, just do it. Start right now. The only people who survive in comics are those who truly love making comics, and if you truly love it, you’ll already be doing it, you won’t be wasting time trying to figure out how. Comics is not a well paying industry, so there’s no financial incentive to stay with it if you don’t love it. So get to work, put it on the internet, attend conventions and get connected with your peers in the industry. If you do all that, and your work is good, you’ll find your foothold eventually. But listen to your parents and have a backup plan, and don’t quit your day job. Chances are you will need both.
To see more of Julia’s work, be sure to check out her website.