John Porcellino still remembers his first encounter with a Jenny Zervakis comic.
“It must have been 1991, when Jenny sent me the first Strange Growths,” he says, eyes glazing over as he reconstructs the scene. “I had my stack of mail, and I was leaning on the doorway flipping through it. I opened up the envelope with her zine in it and just read the whole thing cover to cover.”
Porcellino, an award-winning cartoonist and creator of King-Cat Comics, saw something in Zervakis’s stories that he couldn’t find elsewhere. Although things had changed since the heyday of R. Crumb, alternative comics in the 1980s and ’90s were still something of a swaggering boys’ club. Zervakis’s art, on the other hand, had a “poetic, understated feel.”
“She still has this element to her work, even all these years later,” Porcellino says, “of rawness combined with subtlety.”
Zervakis, who was raised in the Chicago suburbs before making her way to Durham for graduate school, is still writing and drawing, 30-something years and two kids later. Her most recent zine, Love and Other Crack-ups 2, debuted at Durham’s Zine Machine festival in October. (This newest zine, along with Zervakis’ other work, is also available on the comic distribution website Spit and a Half.)
Zervakis has attended Zine Machine annually since its inception in 2015; as we spoke at her table, the Fruit—a former produce warehouse that’s been converted into a multipurpose event space—buzzed with printed-matter enthusiasts, arms and tote bags overflowing with books, zines, and comics. Zervakis, a self-described introvert who likes people, beamed.
Although Zervakis loved comics as a kid—Archie, Jack Kirby’s superhero stories—she never imagined making them herself until, living in Chicago after college, she was introduced to autobiographical comics like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Soon afterward, Zervakis discovered a community of like-minded zine-makers, linked by a publication called Factsheet Five that Porcellino calls the “internet for zine people.”
“My big revelatory thing was not only that I could do this myself,” Zervakis says, “but also that people were interested in exchanging and reading my comics.” She began sending her zine Strange Growths to addresses around the country; one of them belonged to Porcellino, who would, in 2017, help Zervakis collect several years’ worth of her early comics into a book published by his distribution service and press, Spit and a Half.
Zervakis’ new zine, Love and Other Crack-ups 2, returns to the years before she began making comics.
“I’d been cleaning out my attic,” she says, “and I found a big box of my old journals.” They spanned her college years and were, to her surprise, “actually pretty fun.” The resulting zine, about “first love and things breaking,” consists of photocopied selections from those journals alongside freshly drawn comics. She assembled it ’90s style, without a computer.
Zervakis’s drawings are loose and unfussy. Unlike the prototypical alternative comic artist who stockpiles specialized pen nibs and obsesses over the minute matters of craft, Zervakis prefers photocopy paper and ballpoint pen. But that doesn’t mean her art is elementary—far from it.
“There’s almost a ghostly quality to a lot of her imagery,” says Rob Clough, a comics critic, editor, and publisher at Fieldmouse Press who’s been friends with Zervakis since the late ’90s.
For Clough, the two defining characteristics of Zervakis’s comics are their observational acuity and their “total sincerity”—both of which are on display in the new zine, which centers on a tempestuous summer trip to Europe. Her sharp eye and sincerity align in a love for watching weird strangers: “The old lady on the train is cleaning her fingernails with a knife,” she writes with utter nonjudgment in Love and Other Crack-ups 2.
Like a DIY version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zervakis’s zines deal with in-between states, uncomfortable transitions, and struggles for self-knowledge. Instead of drawing on mythical subjects, though, Zervakis examines the material of her own life.
“Her stories are all anecdotal, except they’re all meaningful—about being human,” Clough says. Zervakis’s preternatural sensitivity extends even to the apparently inanimate. “When you look at a plant,” she tells me, “sometimes it looks happy or sad.” And in her drawings, it’s true. Faces, trees, radiators—everything swells with emotion, even though it’s not always clear what kind. This sensitivity runs in the family.
“Everyone in my family is an artist in some form or another,” Zervakis says, including two older relatives who worked as commercial artists, though her parents discouraged her from following the same path. “Our mother was like, ‘Of course you won’t do this as a career.’”
Zervakis has both abided by and resisted her mother’s advice: she has a PhD from Duke and a day job as a psychologist but has also been making zines and comics for 30 years.
It is no surprise, then, that one of Zervakis’s favorite poets is Wallace Stevens, who refused a professorship at Harvard because accepting it would have meant giving up his job at a Connecticut insurance company. At last month’s Zine Machine festival, Zervakis was selling prints of a Stevens poem, “Gubbinal,” that she’d turned into a comic.
“You know,” she told me, “some of his coworkers didn’t even know he was a writer.”
Zervakis, too, flies under the radar. “She’s extraordinarily modest,” Clough tells me—all the better for observing what’s around her. “The stories I do are about Durham and the people who live in it,” Zervakis says, adding, “Durham used to be a little more eccentric.”
In a 1991 issue of Strange Growths, for example, Zervakis illustrates a strange Friday night she spent at a Durham police station after her boyfriend was pulled over. In the waiting room, while another woman talks about why she quit playing field hockey, Zervakis notices two men dressed in perfect cowboy outfits; they also happen to have “the tiniest feet I’d ever seen.” One of them asks Zervakis if she wants company: “It seemed,” she notes wryly, “like he was propositioning me in a police station.”
When deciding on a place for us to meet, Zervakis told me that Parker and Otis was the first location that came to mind, before she remembered that three years ago, soon after its original building was purchased by a multibillion-dollar real estate investment firm, the restaurant moved out of the quirky Brightleaf location she loved. Zervakis and I met instead on more familiar ground: a picnic bench beneath a stand of oak trees on Ninth Street.
She might be most at home in a version of the city that doesn’t exist anymore, and she might still be making zines the old-fashioned way, but as Clough remarks, her art “still feels incredibly fresh.” Love and Other Crack-ups 2 is a compelling blend of the old and the new—a retrospective that manages to look forward, too. (The zine ends, “To be continued.”) Zervakis makes it clear that comics are not a money-making venture—printing is expensive, and putting together a zine takes considerable time. On top of that: “I just hate making photocopies.” Why keep making zines then?
“It’s still important to me,” Zervakis says. “I still like to tell stories and have people read them.”
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