We learn a lot from Dan Stafford’s documentary on cartoonist John Porcellino. “Root Hog or Die” provides us with some basic truths that resonate as we explore the life of someone both unique and, by his own account, just an average guy trying to make a life. The whole point here is to embrace the average. As Porcellino states at one point, he’s concerned to see an erosion of “the middle ground, when a person can live without an elaborate ambition and yet not be sleeping by some dumpster.”
You know, living in the middle ground doesn’t sound bad at all. It’s a place that I call home. But you listen to enough ads and you might think you’re supposed to have the latest gadget and whatnot to live a meaningful life. As cartoonist Mr. Mike states in this documentary, some people might think that John Porcellino has denied himself by his relatively spartan existence as an underground cartoonist. But, he points out, the only thing missing in Porcellino’s life is “all the fluff.”
How did a guy who states he was never looking for fame come to be recognized as one of the great artists of his generation? 2014 marks 25 years of King-Cat Comics & Stories, John Porcellino’s magical journey through comics. There isn’t anything out there quite like it. Porcellino’s work is, at once specific and highly personal as he recounts moments in his life in his direct style. And, because of its simplicity and clarity, it has a universal appeal.
The funny thing is that, without really seeking it and even working against it, Porcellino has achieved the notoriety that many members of his Generation X dismissed as a general rule. If you go about seeking fame and fortune, the credo had been, then your activity is already suspect or, at least, it’s not pure. It’s a belief that has taken many twists and turns, and remains a linchpin for many young artists today for better or worse.
Perhaps the Beat Generation, in general, took the most rigid view of artists versus squares or sell-outs. For the Gen X set, it seems some wiggle room was conceded but maybe not that much. By the time the John Ps of the world came of age, the landscape had shifted to where all the big causes and goals seemed to have receded from the stage. And mainstream media was seen as having taken a nosedive. Things were shifting and becoming scattered. A different kind of counterculture was evolving. And an ironic sense of humor, found in zines and other independent media, helped pave the way.
There’s a moment in the film when writer/musician Jason Heller speaks to the great “Illinois sarcasm” that served John and his band, Felt Pilotes, so well. The band would play a mix of stuff that sometimes did not go over well with purists. In between songs, the band always had the perfect comeback for any heckler which could be as little as three words. They would play some thrash and then something soft: a grinding cover of Flipper would be followed by a sweet cover of Linda Ronstadt or Neil Young. You followed your authenticity wherever it took you, let the purists be damned. This mixing up, go by your instincts, multi-layered approach is what you find in the pages of King-Cat Comics.
As with any good documentary, you get a variety of voices speaking on the subject of the film. You have some revealing moments with both of Porcellino’s former wives, lifelong friends, and contemporaries. During the course of the film, we go from youthful ambitions to charting a course that focuses on the audacious goal of making a living through comics to the life-changing series of illnesses that have taken Porcellino to a higher level in his life and work.
It is through Zen Buddhism that Porcellino discovered a deeper meaning to “do it yourself.” As he says, Zen teaches you that “your own effort is the most important thing. No one else can do it for you.” As there can only be one John Porcellino, so too there can only be one you. What we come away with from this film is what Porcellino would wish for you: an appreciation of life, made up of all these little moments.
Root Hog or Die is part of the HOSPITAL SUITE – ROOT HOG OR DIE – 25TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR. Both the documentary and John Porcellino’s new book, “The Hospital Suite” are featured. You can read my review of the book here. You can follow the tour at the Root Hog or Die blog right here.
If you’re in Seattle, you’ll be able to catch the tour at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival. Check out the Short Run schedule with related events which include a screening of the documentary, November 15-16, with Porcellino in attendance as well as the director, Dan Stafford. If you’re in San Francisco, you can catch the tour at the Cartoon Art Museum on November 19.