In the movie world, this would be considered experimental: Artist creates a full-length story about the time she moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, drank a bunch of her meals, hung with fellow cartoonists or sacked out with a bottle of wine and DVDs of “The Gilmore Girls,” got canned from a bunch of jobs, struggled with guilt over her brother’s drug addiction, and then gets the A-OK to be a full time cartoonist. Then, the experimental part, a few years later she revisits a lot of the same territory but in a more detailed, novella-length way that really takes a toothbrush to some of the grit she washed over more broadly in the last go-round.
Julia Wertz’s collection The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is a series of three longer pieces where she considers 1) the litany of shit jobs she’s held, 2) her diagnosis of Systemic Lupus at age 20, 3) the public library and the reading spaces and books that shaped her. The three-pack follows Drinking at the Movies, which is told in quick-hit short bursts of misanthropic comedy and focuses on a year in her life after the big cross country move, but occasionally dips back and mentions things that appear in the stories of her new collection. For the most part, the re-tread works. Especially if both books — and I’d imagine her “Fart Party” stuff, too — is all read at around the same time. The gaps you don’t realize exist in one tend to get filled in the other book and it becomes a bit like piecing together a person’s life puzzle.
It’s the title story that is the reason for the season. Wertz says in the introduction the big deal book types at the kind of major publishing houses that briefly glommed on to the comic book biz in 2010 would never sign off on a comic book about her diagnosis of lupus, so she took this one to a small comics publisher.
Wertz is at community college when she starts suffering with joint pain, random fevers, fainting and inexplicable weight loss. It takes months for the doctor figure out what Wertz’s mom figures out in a single Google search: Systemic Lupus. There is no cure, it can be managed. She ends up on chemo-caliber drugs and eventually finds the right combination to live pain free. Then she goes through a period of remission. Despite the grimness of this forever diagnosis, Wertz has this really adorable back-and-forth banter with her brother Josh. He’s a more troubled character in “Drinking at the Movies,” but in these pages his own struggles with addiction are barely mentioned and instead there is just a friendship full of comic riffs and hijinks.
She stops by Josh’s house to tell him about the diagnosis.
Julia: This really isn’t that bad. I could be much, much worse. I could have …
Josh: CancerAIDS. Oh man. Is there anything worse than CancerAIDS?
The story kind of off-roads from lupus to some stuff about Wertz’s relationships, including finding out she was dating an old man and attending a party for people in the porn industry. The story ends with her off to profess feelings for a guy she slept with in high school so she could comfortably shed her virginity without getting feelings involved. The story ends where her first Fart Party story starts.
The first of the “other stories” is “Industry,” Wertz’s chronicle of about 25 years worth of employment, beginning with garden-variety rock sales to waitressing and newspaper delivery, a ball polisher at a pool hall and a short stint at a hipster mag. This also includes the early years of zine slinging at comic book shows.
The final story is “A Strange and Curious Place,” which is about young Julia’s affinity for forts and reading nooks and the book sale day at the public library. It’s kind of a love letter to all types of literature and the things she’s read and learned over the years. It’s definitely a different style for Wertz, who is rarely mentioned without a reference to the fart jokes that first launched her career. It becomes a bit oozy-goozy, as strange as the earnest moment when Josh tells her in The Infinite Wait that he’s sorry she has to go through this, and — she stops him and tells him to keep it light.
There is a weird set of repeated panels in the book and a few typos, which sucks for Wertz. There are also footnotes that cite the page numbers of where one of her autobiographical stories has been told more completely in another of her books.
I ended up re-reading Drinking at the Movies right after I finished The Infinite Wait. Writing-wise, I think the shorter form suits Wertz better. Her strength is in one-liners and dialogue that is smart, funny and sometimes hilariously cruel. She kind of loses the thread as the longer pieces go on. On the other hand, she’s got this great way of mentioning something briefly — like eating saltines and peppermints — in one story and then explaining its origin later in the book in an entirely different piece. It gives the feel of being in the inner circle of a long running joke.