Drinking at the Movies is hilarious, irreverent and almost immediately charming. The book might seem like an innocuous compilation of comics from the cartoonist’s life, but Julia Wertz is a remarkably shrewd storyteller. More than once, you might find yourself reading a certain type of comic only for Wertz to shift the perspective just enough to see that the story is going elsewhere entirely.
The book begins with a cross-country move to New York city, on a whim, when things seem to have stagnated in the young artist’s life. One is instantly drawn into a dizzying cluster of short-stories chronicling a woman in her twenties adjusting to an unfamiliar city.
Drinking At The Movies is set against the political backdrop of the near-end of the Bush administration, a year before the 2008 recession. She comments on the political events casually while clearly grappling with uncertainty of her own. The book is split by the apartments that she lived in for her first year, each section marked by a detailed whimsical drawing of the exterior building and interior layout.
Wertz’s deceptively childlike drawing style belies the fact that her themes are anything but. Simple lines, cross-hatching and bendy arms populate this book, but the skilled cartoonist while joking about jumping on a king bed also observes the times she has drunkenly fallen asleep in public spots. Wertz lovingly renders the Brooklyn buildings, bars, and the trash heaps she encounters, even as she’s seemingly apathetic, almost disdainful of them.
Between her apartments, job-hunts and relative penury, Wertz cracks wise about the lacklustre Mexican food in NYC, the sloppybreak-in at her neighbour’s, her signature dishevelled look and a possible creeping depression. Wertz’s sense of displacement is only magnified as she begins to reference her brother’s addiction issues.
The comic “Phantom Limb Syndrome” is where the book begins to show its true form. Julia Wertz draws and writes in a very matter-of-fact tone about her brother’s repeated relapses and trips to rehab.
Sharing such a deeply personal, and possibly difficult aspect of one’s life is an impressive feat unto itself. But to do so, totally devoid of pretense and self-pity speaks volumes.
Wertz’s account of misplaced guilt and her subsequent alcohol-habit is grim but funny in only a way that a skilled storyteller could maneuver. A point worth noting is that the book begins with Wertz finding herself drunkenly waking up at a laundromat, having just turned 25. She recalls this night around halfway through the book, finally recognizing that she might actually have a problem. But no, this isn’t a redemption story with a tidy ending.
The readers are treated to delightful stories of her first and last internet date, the time she worked in a “freelance factory” and several instances of nearly pooping her pants because — vegetables! Wertz documents her extensive travel to attend conventions and shows as a comic artist as well as to see her family back in L.A.
The stories The Ambush and Bad Brains stand out in particular — the former where large, villainous anthropomorphic whiskey bottles have attacked Wertz and tossed her into a “whiskey well”, and the latter which is set up to seem like an episode of Mystery Theater with Holmes (presumably Sherlock) and Watson in search of her missing brain.
In the latter half of the book, Wertz finds herself back in Brooklyn from a trip to San Francisco — her feelings towards NYC significantly softened. We see her come a full-circle making peace with her nostalgia for L.A. whilst also realizing that “New York is fucking amazing”.
She does eventually acknowledge that she had been drowning her guilt with booze. Julia Wertz’s self-awareness and simultaneous self-destruction are fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking and yet so completely human. Fittingly enough, the book ends with her farting on her couch because of course, this is a woman after my own crusty, little heart!
by Bo Doodley