Underground Film Journal

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Dori Stories vs. My New York Diary vs. Potential

By Mike Everleth ⋅ February 6, 2003

Book cover of Dori Stories, featuring Dori Seda drawing

A few years ago there was a rather large boom in the field of autobiographical comic books. The genre was pretty much pioneered in the late ’70s and early ’80s by Harvey Pekar and his self-published AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Maybe it was Harvey’s appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” that inspired a new generation of comic book writers and artists to pen their own lives to paper.

It’s a safe bet to say that the autobiography boom was not a result of cartoonists leading exceedingly interesting lives. Those that wrote and drew about their own lives probably just thought they did. What’s fairly obvious to determine when reading personal stories is when cartoonists actually have an entertaining tale to tell, or when they’re simply being lazy and have run out of other ideas (and just to let you know that I am aware my pot-ish attitude of calling kettles black, tons of boring mikE stories abound on the Underground Film Journal).

Another pioneer of the illustrated autobio movement was Dori Seda. Unfortunately, I have to talk about Dori in the past tense since she died of respiratory failure on Feb. 25th, 1988. She was 37, her untimely death the result of a life lived hard filled with too much booze, drugs and, especially, cigarettes. While Dori didn’t limit her work to transcribing her wild adventures and penned several fiction stories during her brief career, her autobio work is her most memorable.

Most of Dori’s work was sold to and published in anthology comics, mostly in the seminal WEIRDO, but also other books such as WIMMEN’S COMIX, RIP-OFF COMIX and TITS & CLITS. Dori’s only full-length solo book was “Lonely Nights Comics: Stories To Read When the Couple Next Door Is Fucking Too Loud”. Most of her stories are filled with wildly degenerate behavior with Dori right at the center of the maelstrom.

DORI STORIES collects the entire oeuvre of Dori’s work along with tons of memorial essays by her friends and lovers. I personally fell in love with her (not in love with her work, but in love with HER) when I started buying old WEIRDOs in the early ’90s. I didn’t know anything about her (including the fact that she had been dead for 3 or 4 years), but her comix are all at once frightening, sad, tragic and hilarious all at the same time.

Dori could look at her life, and life in general, and boil it down to its pure essence. Supremely self-aware, Dori lived one hell of a rollercoaster of a life and she made sure that her readers would be sitting in the front car right next to her. DORI STORIES is one of the most intensely riveting and emotional comix collections and an immense treasure. And for the millionth time: Dori does NOT have sex with her dog! (you’ll have to buy the book to figure that one out)

My New York Diary book cover featuring a drawing of a harried woman

Julie Doucet seems like a decent successor of the Dori Seda tradition. It’s probably not fair to compare the two women’s work, but Dori set such a high standard it’s impossible to ignore or forget.

MY NEW YORK DIARY by Julie recounts about a year in her life when she moved to NYC from Montreal to live with a guy she didn’t even really know. They were pen pals who met once and “fell in love”. Of course, the guy turns out to be a psychotic douchebag and the two lovebirds spend most of their time having sex and doing coke. Also, at the same time Julie was fast becoming the new darling of the underground comix scene thanks to her comic DIRTY PLOTTE, from which MY NEW YORK DIARY is reprinted. Her boyfriend quickly becomes jealous of her since his comics suck and he couldn’t sell one to save his life. After a couple of pages you start to wonder why Julie ever got involved with this guy, but then you figure, hey, at least he makes for an entertaining story.

The best part of the book is when Julie’s epilepsy starts making a serious comeback. She takes her medicine regularly and so can’t figure out what’s wrong. When a friend suggests that maybe all the coke and acid might be having some sort of effect on her physical state, Julie dismisses that as an outrageous idea. In one incident, Julie has an epileptic attack in the bathtub and almost drowns but is saved by her psychotic douchebag boyfriend. That’s all she needs: To owe a life debt to a psychotic douchebag.

MY NEW YORK DIARY is an interesting book. I like Julie’s portrayal of herself as a wide-eyed naïf being fed to the emotional sharks. Being a recent transplant to NYC myself, I could semi-relate to a lot of her stories even though my life is nowhere as hectic and crazy as hers. But the book does lack a little in that Julie is such a passive character. It’s tough to criticize an autobiographical book because of a person’s character, but when you open your life for examination that’s what you get.

Potential book cover featuring a drawing of a woman standing in a forest

Next, I have to admit I don’t have the full POTENTIAL by Ariel Schrag. Originally, it was published as a six-issue mini-series, of which I have issues #1-2 and 6. Just looking to try new stuff one day I bought number 6 and found I didn’t completely like it. The story was a bit choppy and hard to follow and the art was a little on the crude side. But I found that a couple days later the story was stuck with me and I went on a crusade to find the previous issues. I found numbers 1 and 2, but discovered that 3-5 are sold out and out of print. Now I have to debate if I want to get the collected graphic novel even though I have three issues already or if I should continue to try to hunt down the missing issues. I’ve already searched all over New York to find them and couldn’t so I don’t know what to do.

Ariel’s autobio work is much different than Julie and Dori’s. For one thing she’s much younger. POTENTIAL is all about Ariel’s life in high school and her coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. The title of the book comes from Ariel’s ambition to see potential with various girlfriends. The main thing that struck me odd about the book is how Ariel presents her school as being very open about the students’ sexual preferences. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if because Ariel grew up in California, but when I was in high school not only were there no obvious lesbians but I probably only had a vague understanding of the concept at the time. Or maybe I was just naïve. I mean, I have had a good friend for about six or seven years now that I only discovered was a lesbian maybe a year or two ago.

I haven’t read much lesbian literature (comix or otherwise), but I don’t want to limit Ariel’s book to a lesbian niche either. POTENTIAL is a book about youth struggling with burgeoning hormones. I think that’s something everybody goes through. But is there anything extra special or interesting about Ariel’s life that would make a comic about it worthwhile? Her behavior isn’t as outlandish as Julie or Dori’s, but there’s something very touching about POTENTIAL that I can’t quite put my finger on. I really started to care about Ariel and hoped her relationships worked out, while at the same time I got angry with her for wasting her time with girls who obviously didn’t love her. Ariel definitely has a talent for making the commonplace interesting.

DORI STORIES is published by Last Gasp.

MY NEW YORK DIARY is published by Drawn & Quarterly.

POTENTIAL is published by Slave Labor Graphics.