For many, starting a book publishing company would be an exciting, possibly life-changing experience. For comic artist Janelle Hessig, doing such a thing is “ridiculous,” and because she’s almost 40, must be a sign that she’s “having a mid-life crisis.”
“It’s a terrible idea, but I’m not gonna catch herpes from it or go broke,” she says.
Reactions to her age aside (in truth, she says she’s fine with turning 40), this so-called crisis that she’s having is actually beneficial to those who enjoy funny stories and crude humor, and have a high tolerance for comic nudity. Hessig’s first book, The Cruising Diaries, is an underground classic in the making — a blast of lewd, ultra-shocking stories of hooking up from writer/musician/dancer and bon vivant of the cruising lifestyle, Brontez Purnellaccompanied by Hessig’s unrefined, loopy drawings that help illustrate the cartoon-like qualities of Purnell’s escapades. It’s a work of literature that sucks you in at the first mention of getting it on in a bathroom and finishes prematurely, well at least too soon in my estimation.
But starting Gimme Action books and releasing The Cruising Diaries is also a logical next step for Hessig, who has been self-publishing her influential comic zine Tales of Blarg for over 20 years. The zine, which she started back in high school, has inspired comic artists across the country and somehow even resulted in two bands writing songs about her (and these weren’t just any bands). “The Real Janelle” was the title song of a 1995 EP by Bratmobile, who, along with Bikini Kill, established the sound of the Riot Grrl movement. (A picture of Hessig was featured on the cover of the release.) Bratmobile wrote their song in reaction to “Janelle,” which was penned by Screeching Weasel leader Ben Weasel and recorded by ’90s hardcore legends Born Against. Instead of the typical ‘dude writes pop song about girl,’ Bratmobile thought it was cooler for girls to write songs about other girls.
One look at her comics and it becomes obvious why she’s so beloved. Hessig is a master of turning the possibly horrendous situations in which she perpetually finds herself into tales of pure hilarity. There’s the time she tried to sleep with a guy in a squat and ended up spilling a bucket of urine on him, or the time she leg wrestled a man and ended up killing him (might not be a true story). She’s a comic artist for the people, in the mold of Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes — if they were accident prone and liked to draw butts.
“I guess I’m like the second-coming of Charlie Brown,” says Hessig. “My blood runs yellow with a big black zigzag around it.”
The Real Janelle
From her work, one might get the impression that Hessig is an uncontrollable force that takes over any space she enters with the grace of Sweetchuck from the Police Academy films. In reality, she’s the total antithesis of an attention hog and would rather gush about the work of others than herself.
“I remember her actually being pretty quiet and reserved, which surprised me,” says Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe when reflecting back on Hessig’s stint as a roadie for the group’s 1993 California tour.
According to Hessig, she had a typical white, middle class, suburban childhood in San Pablo. Both her parents worked for the government — her mom worked for Social Security and her father had a desk job at the FBI. She spent most of her time reading and began impulsively drawing her own comics early on.
“I didn’t really find out anything about comics being cool until I was 16 and found Hate, issue one,” says Hessig. “That was probably my first step on the terrible path I was to follow.”
Despite her early love of drawing, Hessig didn’t start publishing her own comics until she was in high school. Describing herself at that time as a reserved but enthusiastic punk who enjoyed cutting class, Hessig and her friend Holly Retzinger bucked the trend of using crafts class to make bongs and instead went to work on the first issue of Tales of Blarg. And though it started out quite different than what it was to evolve into — Hessig says the first issues included several collages made with images from fashion magazines, fiction and feminist essays — something clicked for her. She ended up printing two more issues that same year, and would go on to self-publish six more 48-page comics, each one funnier and more ornate than the last.
East Bay Enthusiasm
When pressed on the matter, Hessig claims that her notoriety actually didn’t come from Blarg, but rather her enthusiasm for being part of a community like the Bay Area punk scene.
“My parents aren’t that into art; they have their things that they’re into, but I wouldn’t say [art is] highly valued in the suburbs,” she says. “Finding a community where things that I liked were valued was really important to me, and so I threw myself into it. I think I found a sense of self-worth and validity in doing the things that came naturally to me that I don’t think I would’ve had if I had lived some weird, square existence.”
Hessig‘s enthusiasm was practically palpable back in those days, according to Stones Throw records co-founder and art director Jeff Jank. Jank lived with her for a year in a house where, he says, Owsley Stanley made LSD out in the open before it was outlawed.
Hessig was “enthusiastic in the East Bay way, which is a little cynical and [into] people, places or things that a lot of others aren’t going to want to touch,” says Jank. “But even if you’re enthusiastic about obscure lost causes and bad band ideas, that enthusiasm is infectious.”
Hessig and Jank started a zine together called Jank, a free monthly newsletter that was typically one page long that the duo would cram full of their hilarious, off-the-wall writings and cartoons. Some of Hessig’s funniest comics were debuted on the one-sheet, which they gave away for free via a stolen newspaper box they had set up near the downtown Berkeley BART station.
“I used the word ‘janky’ around Janelle one day. She stops and asks in the serious tone of a linguist, ‘What is janky?’ A week later she had an idea: we do a one-page pamphlet-style zine once a month, all inspired by the nonsense around the house, and we call it Jank. Simple as that,” said Jank. “To this day I have Janelle to thank for me being stuck with the name Jeff ‘Jank.’ It basically means ‘crap.’”
(Though Hessig only worked on the zine for about two years, Jank says he continued to use the title for publications he would include in early releases from Stones Throw.)
Hessig’s collaboration with Jank definitely wasn’t her first, as the majority of her works are collaborations. Even Tales of Blarg featured contributions from writers like Purnell, legendary zinester Aaron Cometbus and Lookout Records founder/Punk Planet publisher Larry Livermore and included drawings from artists as notable as Richie Bucher and Eric P. Butte. And though Hessig can’t explain why her publications are conducive to partnerships, Jank once again credits her infectious enthusiasm.
“The collaborations come out of a sense of community and connecting with people in a very basic, fun way,” says Jank. “To put it as simply as possible, the main motivation is laughs and enjoying life, even if you’re complaining about it. It’s easier to do that with other people than on your own.”
Moving On Up
Despite being a fountain of stories from the heydays of pre-tech-takeover Bay Area, Hessig doesn’t like to linger in the past.
“I’m definitely not embarrassed by those days; I just don’t want to be defined by them,” she says. “I’m into the present, and maybe dipping my toe into the future a little bit.”
Hessig’s refusal to be bogged down by her history is exemplified in her output from the past 10 years, when she published only one issue of Tales of Blarg. It’s not that she didn’t put out anything; it’s just that her efforts went to other projects that she didn’t helm herself, such as a long-running column for Punk Planet, several contributions to comic anthologies and other zines, and a stint as guest editor ofMaximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, for the magazine’s first comic issue. (She also went to San Francisco State University to learn animation during that time; you can see her work on her YouTube channel.)
But being so busy was an issue for Hessig, as it meant she was unable to work on her own publications. She was even offered an opportunity to have a collection of her comics published by Sparkplug Comics, but the main engine behind the project, Sparkplug owner Dylan Williams, died of cancer in 2011 and her energy for the book dissipated. Hessig finally had to adopt a policy of turning down almost all work offered to her to free up time to concentrate on her own publications, but even then a lack of capital kept her from cranking out more comics.
“I began self publishing in 1990 at age 15 and knew for most of my life that I wanted to always be making books. The drive and the ideas were there, but the money part of the equation has always eluded me. Thank god I was hit by a car while walking in a crosswalk last year!” says Hessig.
Yes, you read that right. A project that Purnell said the two had been discussing for almost a decade — a collection of his best cruising stories from his long-running zine Fag School paired with her drawings — finally came to fruition after Hessig was hit by a car while crossing the street in Oakland in January of last year, two days before her birthday.
“I hear a lot of backlash and griping about using crowdsourcing platforms as a way to fund creative projects, but given the choice between being hit by a car or starting a Kickstarter campaign, I think I’ll go with Kickstarter next time,” she says. “I literally paid for this first Gimme Action book in blood.”
With her first book hot off the presses, Hessig says she already has the next three Gimme Action publications lined up, one of which she plans to release before her 40th birthday next year. And as this new chapter of her life begins, we can only hope that she continues to bring that same infectious enthusiasm to her work that was so palpable in years past.
“Though she’s a real deal DIY punk, it makes sense that she’s now properly publishing her work,” says Wolfe. “And why not? She’s leagues above most other ‘zine or comic book authors; one of the only people I ever wanna read.”