Growing up Catholic

By Hal Niedzviecki

Kicking the Habit
cartoons about the catholic church
by Rina Piccolo
$9.00, Laugh Lines Press
PO Box 259, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004 USA

Rina Piccolo is sorry she offended you.

“There are a lot of things people think you can’t make fun off,” Piccolo says. “But you can make fun of almost anything. You just have to do it tastefully. I mean these cartoons make fun of what people really believe in, they make fun of their religion, but they do it in good taste. People always say to me, ‘how could you do that, you’re sick’, and I think, ‘no, it’s not that bad’, I could have gone a lot farther, but for me, if things go that far, they aren’t funny.”

In Kicking the Habit: cartoons about the catholic church, Piccolo demonstrates her keen comic reserve — her ability to look down into the canyon of profane sacrilege without ever deciding to jump in. One of her panels shows an angel striding furiously away from a group of his laughing winged peers. ‘You’d walk funny too,’ he says, ‘if you spent the winter with a Christmas tree up your ass.’ In another more specifically Catholic panel, a young girl says to a priest: ‘Father, why did Jesus die?’ ‘Because you were bad,’ the priest explains without ever taking his glorified gaze off a picture of Christ on the cross.

This is Piccolo at her best: she cuts, but leaves you to drive the blade down into the vital organs. And her comic technique — as witnessed many times by readers of US magazines like The Funny Times, Comic Relief and Mademoiselle — works best when her subject is something as painful, as mysterious, and as immediately recognizable as the Catholic Church.

“The Catholic religion is such a funny religion,” Piccolo explains. “So even non-Catholics will laugh, I mean they find a weeping Mary every day practically.”

It is the sublime ridiculous that Piccolo identifies, mocks and celebrates in Kicking the Habit, her second collection of comics. Even though she grew up Catholic, her panels avoid the well-springs of self-pity and refuse to admit the blatantly or even subtly autobiographical into their scope. Piccolo does well to keep her cartoons non-confessional; we sit with her in a secret chamber where we can see and hear the priest and the sinner. By not using personal experiences to send up the church her pithy panels give us sarcasm without trauma — her reluctant jokes become our own reluctance to directly explore the many incongruities our spiritual lives are fraught with.

“I don’t take directly from life,” Piccolo explains. “Life isn’t funny enough. I need to go beyond reality. When I sit down to make a comic I have a blank sheet in front of me and I just make it up. Still, I wouldn’t be able to do a book of, say, Jewish comics…”

Another thing Piccolo wouldn’t be able to do is find a Canadian publisher for her work. Piccolo, who grew up and still lives in downtown Toronto, employs the rye sarcasm Canadian cartoonists are, well, almost famous for, but she hasn’t managed to find a home for her work in her own country.

“Canada has not been nice to me,” she says. “My publisher is American, all the magazines I send my work to are American. I thought my work should be seen in this city, so I showed it to the art director at Saturday Night Magazine. She said she loved them, and was going to show them to the editor. I never heard from them again….”

Piccolo’s vision, like the nuns staring rapturously at a crucified scarecrow on the cover of her new book, might just be a little too warped for the magazine editors of the world’s most cautious country. Or possibly, more people find her cartoons disconcerting than she is willing to admit. Some of those people might even be offended by her irreverent but blistering look at Catholicism.

“No no no,” she says. “I thought it would offend a lot of people, but it’s totally the opposite, they say it’s great because the thing is, it’s really not about being Catholic.”

What it’s really about is finding our world in Piccolo’s caricature of faith and its many peccadilloes. Strange, ugly, and frighteningly funny, Piccolo’s comics admit what we don’t know about our faith by showing us what we do.

An interview with Rina Piccolo

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