The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer

Last year, I was commissioned to create a comic as part of The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer, a research project based between the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and the University of Sheffield. Five other comics artists familiar with Graphic Medicine contributed work, including Mita Mahato and Andrew Godfrey – although we didn’t immediately know who else was involved. They can all be seen here.

The project began by looking at issues surrounding cancer, sexuality and relationships. The project team interviewed cancer survivors, asking them about their experiences. Excerpts from these interviews were then given to artists recruited from the graphic medicine community. We showed the resulting images back to the participants and assessed how they addressed their concerns. This work is vital because completing treatment is not the end of a cancer patient’s story: many are traumatised and vulnerable to further medical complications and a host of other concerns. Little is done to address these issues because cancer research focuses on treatment and prevention. These powerful, provocative and moving images have helped survivors come to terms with how cancer has effected their relationships and sex lives. There are many other issues that patients need support with. The Phoenix Project aims to use visual and digital means to address them by developing an holistic package of care, available to all.

(from The Phoenix Project website)

Here is the first page of my response to the brief. The rest can be seen here. PaulaKnight_Phoenix_Normal_p1

The interviews were provided to us as written transcripts, which I personally found challenging to interpret without meeting the people myself. I wonder how much was lost in translation or how much, as an artist, I could have gained in understanding and empathy had I been present at the interviews. Logistically, and for confidentiality reasons, this probably wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope I’ve grasped the right end of the stick with regards to characterisation, for example. I feel that without meeting the people, perhaps there is too much room to subconsciously project self into the interpretation. And, is this a bad thing or a good thing? I might have detected hints of humour in the dialogue of my chosen patient, because that is how I often deal with difficulty myself, and then projected that onto the unseen patient. Indeed, that might also be why I chose to concentrate on that particular patient for the work.

With that in mind, I must point out that I’ve never swung from a chandelier in my life – not for sexual purposes nor to transport myself from one side of a room to another. I doubt the patient has either; it’s meant to make a point – and to provide a little humour and irony when situated with the title ‘Normal?’. And, humour can help with affiliation according to Elizabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures.

My own project is autobiographical with a medical theme, so it was interesting to concurrently tackle biographical work with a medical theme – especially with regards to the confidentiality issue since my story also includes others’ medical narratives.

We have yet to be informed of the patients’ responses to the work, and I am quite nervous, but intrigued, about the prospect of this.

Happysad memory comic

These pages are from a longer comic I made about my late father-in-law, Pete. I made it towards the end of 2011 when he left hospital to return home to be with his family in his final days after a long illness. The title refers to something later in the comic, but I won’t be sharing those pages yet (if ever) because it’s probably too soon.

These first pages are about my favourite memory of Pete. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish the comic, but, at a difficult time, it felt cathartic to draw and it was my way of coping. Perhaps that’s enough and I’ll never feel the need to finish it. I wanted to share this, though, as my way of celebrating his life and what was an essential part of his character – humour. We laughed about this occasion for years afterwards and I prefer to remember this sort of thing rather than his illness.

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Panel two, page two, might worked better at a page turn – if I ever do finish it, I shall rectify that!

Synchronicity at Bristol Comic and Zine Fair

Yesterday I exhibited at Bristol Comic and Zine Fair, very-well organised by the Bearpit Zines people. It was a marvellous day, although I now have a sore throat – probably from six hours’ over-table chat, or perhaps from being a self-employed homeworker undergoing unusually prolonged exposure to public germs.

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A while ago I made a one-page comic using my cytogenetic report from a Bristol lab – it was part of a bank of NHS fertility tests myself and my husband underwent (this one to make sure that we were indeed male and female). It forms the centre spread of my collection X Utero, which I was selling at the fair. What’s synchronicity got to do with it? Well, one lady (pictured below) stopped to study that particular page in great depth and announced that she had recently secured a job at the very lab where my test was done (the address is on the comic/ report). She performs chromosomal analysis tests – there! What are the chances of that? A chromosomal analysis tester (I don’t know her exact job description) going to a comics fair and finding a comic made from a report produced at her workplace. She bought a copy!

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It’s the second-best incidence of synchronicity I’ve had so far – up there with meeting the American poet Robert Chrisman (who knew Maya Angleou) on a train-bus going to York, while I had Maya Angelou’s latest book right there in my bag. Synchronicity was first described by Carl Jung but I read about it in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She advises noticing synchronicity to help you to feel that you’re doing something right, in the right place at the right time. The idea borders on being slightly too mystical but it feels good when it happens – and that’s OK with me. Most people call it coincidence! Anyway – I guess you had to be there…

Here are some more photos from the comics fair:

Comics from Brighton and Bristol to the Lakes!

A long-overdue catch-up post:

Upcoming comics events

Next weekend, I’ll be tabling at Bristol Comic and Zine Fair, organised by the lovely folk from Bearpit Zines. There are 40 exhibitors – some from Bristol; some from beyond – it promises to be a fantastic day. I’m especially excited to see that Gareth Brookes will be there with his graphic novel The Black Project out from Myriad Editions (my publisher-to-be). I’ll certainly be buying a copy. Gareth was the winner of Myriad’s First Graphic Novel competition in which I was shortlisted with The Facts of Life.

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Then, on 18th October, I’m off to the inaugural Lakes International Comic Art Festival where I’ll have a table in the Comics Clock Tower sharing with Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine man). On the Saturday night I’m taking part in Quick Strips – Myriad Authors and Friends, where it is suggested that we will be ‘revealing all’. I’m hoping that this means a 6-minute presentation of work in progress! It will be my first time as a guest at a comics festival.

I’ll be taking Spooky Womb, X Utero, and a newly repackaged non-limited edition version of A Fray, along with some pages in progress from my book. If you can’t make it to these events, my latest comic X Utero is available in Blackwell’s at Wellcome bookshop and Orbital Comics. Or you can buy them direct from me.

Ethics Under Cover – Graphic Medicine conference

In July, I went to Brighton to present at Ethics Under Cover, Comics Medicine and Society (Graphic Medicine) on the panel Whose story is it? with Mita Mahato, Peaco Todd and Linda Raphael. I talked about the ethical considerations of secondary characters when writing memoir – especially if their stories also contain medical details. I felt that it went well personally (I sold all my comics) and our panel was well received. Podcasts from the conference are regularly uploaded here. It was lovely to catch up with old and new Graphic Medicine comics friends and spend time eating samosas(c/o Mita) on Brighton beach.

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In other news

As a result of contacts made at the Brighton conference, I was approached with an offer of some paid comics work, which I did over the summer. I can’t say much about it yet for confidentiality reasons, but I was happy to have been able to use my artistic skills in a way that might be useful to others in a healthcare setting.

I’ve also just received a contract for a new children’s picture book text (as author only). I wrote it earlier in the year and Bright Literary Agency have been representing it since May – so I’m please to have had this interest so soon.

I expect that’s just about enough for now – phew – worralorralinks!

New comic: X Utero

Just back from the printers – my full-colour 20-page collection of 10 short comics created between 2011 and 2013 (many of which I’ve shared here). The themes are reproductive status, language used around miscarriage, heredity etc. Some are very personal but some seem to have proved relevant to others who’ve had similar experiences (judging by responses I’ve had since I began sharing them).

Availability: It’s for sale here at my comics shop. I’ll be taking it to Ethics Under Cover: Comics, Medicine & Society (4th International Conference on Comics and Medicine) where I’ll also be presenting work in progress at 9am on 7th July. It will also soon be available from Wellcome Bookshop on the Graphic Medicine bookshelf. Wellcome will have a table selling their Graphic Medicine titles at the Narrative Medicine Conference, June 19-21st, and X Utero will be included. I’ve just found out that Linda Humphreys MSc, will mention some of my images in her presentation at the same conference. She used some of my comics in her reflective writing class for Genetic Counselling students at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

This comic is probably the last on this particular subject matter I’ll share until my book is finished. And, I’m afraid the title and cover of X Utero comprise a shameless play on the band Nirvana’s final album In Utero. It seemed fitting!

My next printed thing is likely to be Motorways – more of a sketchbook collection and not an anthropomorphised uterus in sight!

Miscarriage comics – talking about it

Last week, The Miscarriage Association began a campaign – It’s time to talk about miscarriage. Of course, not everyone wants to talk about it and that’s fine – either they find it too difficult or prefer to keep that part of their lives private. However, the taboos surrounding miscarriage mean that many women who do want to be open about it feel that they can’t. Perhaps they are afraid of upsetting others or making people feel uncomfortable. This further compounds their isolation and grief.

I’ve been making comics on the subject for a couple of years now, based on my own experiences of repeated unexplained early miscarriage. I also wrote a post about the language and euphemisms used to refer to miscarriage. As well as a natural urge to express myself through creativity, my hope has been to express something that others can’t, and to help break taboos. Comics can do this because pictures replace the need for words which are hard to say – or it seems that the symbiosis of words and pictures can speak louder than words alone and the impact is more immediate. And perhaps this could help in breaking the silence surrounding miscarriage. Here is most of the work I’ve done on the subject so far:

Or does it have a positive affect? I’m not sure. The response to sharing this work has been varied: From supportive other creatives doing similar to befuddled relatives telling me I just need to ‘get counselling’. The funniest response was at Comica Comiket last autumn when a guy did a double-take at my comic Spooky Womb: he pointed at it, looked at me, pulled a ‘scary’ face, then ran away! I guess he wasn’t ready to come face to face with anthropomorphic female reproductive parts at a comics fair. Poor chap!

It has been very connecting in that women I barely know have spoken to me about their own experiences of miscarriage and not having children. Not that I’m offering myself as a comics creator-counsellor by any means – not equipped! But I appreciated these connections.

However, I often worry about offending people who’d probably rather not know or upsetting others who’ve had similar experiences. Of course this reflects some of the reasons women in general don’t/ can’t talk about it. In fact, I’ve read articles about comics mentioning that comics should be all about cheering people up and the lighter side of life. But a couple of years ago I was excited to find that there’s a whole website about the intersection of comics and medicine/ illness (Graphic Medicine) where it’s accepted that comics can play an important role in empathy, understanding and education. Hello! I thought.

I’ve started writing warning messages on posts recently. But perhaps that’s me pandering to the taboo – just another way to steer it off the radar. Though I feel it’s mainly out of respect. I’ve discussed these issues with Mita Mahato and Katie Green recently (comics creators also sharing emotive work). On conclusion, I’m inclined to think that people have a choice as to whether or not they look, and this recent campaign by The Miscarriage Association has given me cause to believe that perhaps it’s OK. After all – not all my social networking updates are about this subject – there’s a peppering of other interests too – music, wildlife, politics, goats shouting like humans etc.

Here’s an interesting post by artist Lily Mae Martin, about sharing intimate, honest and often difficult details of her life as a mother. I met Lily when she spoke about her work at Laydeez do Comics.