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.

Early pregnancy transvaginal ultrasound comic page

Hopefully this will be a page in my graphic memoir, so it’s not intended as a standalone comic. It will have context!Paula_Knight_transvaginal_ultrasound

I used a blank scan of white paper to make the ultrasound image, turning up the contrast to pick out texture. And I fiddled with ‘warp’ in Photoshop. I liked the connection between scanning this artwork about having a scan, and making my own scan image by scanning ‘nothing’ to illustrate my ‘nothing there’ scan at the Early Pregnancy Assessment Clinic (EPAC). The results of the actual scan are in my medical notes, which I extracted from the hospital last year. The medical notes helped me to remember certain details about it.

It’s probably a bit odd to those who understand comics that the radiographer’s speech isn’t in bubbles. She has taken over my narration – I did this to reflect the feeling of having no control over what happened in my story at that point. It was more about the scan machine governing my story – telling me what might happen next. Maybe it will be too confusing in context – any thoughts welcome.

Pixelmix 8-bit font by Andrew Tyler: http://andrewtyler.net/

Pregnancy test comic

Click to view gallery. The numbers relate to actual blood hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) readings taken from a notebook I was keeping at the time. I hope to use something like p2 in my graphic memoir. Page 2 is the original drawing I used to trace p1.

I considered using other text such as: Shall we watch Curb Your Enthusiasm again tonight? Coz it helps. Or: Once, twice, three times a lady not having a baby (bit cheesy). But it was mainly about drawing itself: giving the lost,  the thing that never came to fruition, some permanence by drawing it.

Thinking about it – this is something I’ve done in the past. As a lovelorn teenager dealing with unrequited love, I would draw the object of my affection – perhaps my way of ‘having’ something of them in the absence of ‘having’ them – or the only tangible way to express secret feelings!  This must surely be a common occurrence with artists – sometimes obvious in their work – where secrets are hidden behind seemingly fictional characters.

Here are the pages bigger in case the gallery is too small (click to view larger).

Once a collection of lines p1

Once a collection of lines p2

How a Baby is Made

To celebrate my invitation to join the Mumsnet Bloggers network, I thought I’d share the first incarnation of my graphic memoir in progress, The Facts of Life.

I drew How a Baby is Made in 2007, a few years before the story was over and I could begin writing it properly. This was really my first attempt at a comic strip. I entered it for the Observer/ Cape Graphic Short Story Prize in 2007, the competition’s first year. It was always intended as part of a larger story, but I needed a deadline!

It’s frightening to think that I started this project such a long time ago. Between 2007 and 2010 I kept a card index file of memories and relevant thoughts. In 2008 I was ‘diagnosed’ with ME/CFS so that put a spanner in the works for a while.

I eventually, and tentatively, gave this its first public airing at Laydeez do Comics in May 2011, where the encouragement was such that it spurred me on to get stuck in.

Click 1st image then spool through gallery to read whole strip:

Although I’ve been vexing over how long it’s taking me, in a way I’m glad. Over those intervening years I’ve learnt such a lot – not only about comics but also about accepting my limitations due to my health, and accepting that the baby thing wasn’t ever going to happen. This time lapse has also given me the chance to re-evaluate and become more acquainted with where I want to go creatively – something I lost a grasp of while I was ill.

Looking back at old work can be thoroughly excruciating: ‘Yikes – what was I thinking?’  But the exercise has its uses. For example, I won’t be drawing wings on babies, and things will be altogether less twee stylistically. It’s not that I don’t like this at all – I appreciate it because it’s a marker of how far I’ve come with the project despite thinking it’s not far enough! And it’s almost like a diary entry too – it reminds me of how far I’ve moved on in life and how relieved I feel not to be in the middle of those tricky few years.

You could say that this was the conception of my project and now it’s reaching its acne-ridden angsty teenage years. Now, I realise that people might think that my ‘book’ has become my ‘baby’ but watch this space – I intend to write all about that knotty notion in a future post.

Spooky Womb comic

My first printed comic, Spooky Womb (A true-ish uterine tale), is back from the printer. I’m just hand colouring the covers. I’ll be taking it to Comica Comiket on November 10th which takes place at The Bishopsgate Institute, London. After that, I’ll make it available online.

The grey covers have hand coloured elements – painted whites of eyes and rosy cheeks (Karisma pencil ‘Scarlet Lake’). The cover paper came from a local recycled paper wholesaler, only a ten-minute walk from my house. The comic is printed on 100% recycled stock.

I knew I wouldn’t be quite so busy with paid freelance work in October, so I gave myself last month to write, draw and get a comic printed – with a Halloween deadline (I made it but the printer didn’t!) And I had to get the whole ‘anthropomorphising a uterus’ thing out of my system. It’s been quite a learning curve but one I wanted to get on, so I could take part in comics fairs etc.

Spooky Womb is a short autobiographical 10-page spin-off from my work in progress, The Facts of Life. The story isn’t all that spooky in reality. ‘Spooky’ in this context refers to the nature of our bodies, which can behave in unexpected, mysterious and hidden ways that we can’t necessarily control, especially hormonally.

It was a good exercise in sorting out how to draw myself for the graphic memoir – something I’ve been struggling over. Still not sure I’ve cracked it, especially continuity-wise, but it’s getting closer to what I want. A friend once said that I draw ‘lollipop heads’ i.e. out of proportion (too big) with the rest of the body. It was an observation rather than a criticism but it’s something I’m trying to avoid. Some illustrators do this on purpose to achieve a ‘cute’ style. For me, it’s probably a habit formed from years in children’s illustration where head-to-body ratio is smaller (children’s heads being larger in pro to the rest of their bodies than adults’ heads are).

Anyway, I’m pretty pleased with the comic but plenty learnt for next time! After Comiket, I’ll be getting down to The Facts of Life again, so to speak.

Medical record comic page

I recently obtained some medical records from my time as a reproductive medicine outpatient and a hospital stay in the same department. I wanted to see them to help figure out what happened when in that period of my life to help with writing the memoir. It’s all a blur of blood tests and appointments now.

One of the tests involved in investigating reasons for repeated miscarriage is a chromosome analysis test. This is to make sure that the parties involved are the sex they think they are. How we laughed! The no-nonsense fertility doctor just said: ‘You’d be surprised!’ That left us feeling a little anxious and so it was with much relief that our minds were set at ease.

This treatment of text and form of writing owes a lot to the artist Tom Phillips and I’ve seen it used by others also. I like to think of it as a writing technique and it’s fascinating what comes up if your mind is fixed on a certain subject. I’m sure someone else who hadn’t had the same experiences would find other words. They might not make much sense but to me they embody a feeling, not just about my own experience but perhaps of those around me in the gynae ward too. Here are the words (make what you will of them, I’m not even sure):

I Heal

She is red; Labor spit me out into hospital; Pedigree product not known; Numb; Blood is revealed; Her state is supplemented with opiate.

[By me and Bristol Genetics Laboratory]

Comics-wise I’m not sure if the ideas are a bit mixed up. I have at least 50 medical records pages so I’m thinking this might comprise a comic of sorts. I didn’t leap around naked in front of a mirror trying to draw myself – the legs are from a Muybridge Figure in Motion book and the rest from memory. It’s meant to be a bit like that old M&S TV advert ‘I’m normal!’

I’ve deleted names and personal info from the page – I didn’t think my fertility consultant would thank me for appearing in a comic without his/her consent. Maybe I haven’t deleted enough…

A cluster of cells?

This was originally intended as a one-off piece, but, on finishing it, I’m thinking that it might just be one panel of something bigger (something bigger I haven’t done yet). This is another example of reasoning about miscarriage – early miscarriage in particular. Again, it might help some people to think of it in a purely biological way. For many people, though, it’s much more emotional and involves the broader legacy of what has happened rather than the physiology alone. It’s about what the cluster of cells represents.

I drew the cells diagrammatically, as you might see under a microscope, to represent the cold biological facts. The photos in the DNA strand are of my grandmothers, and I hope these add an element of humanness to a statement which is very pragmatic. I’m not sure it works on anyone other than me though. Feel free to let me know, but, as I mentioned, it might be the start of something more in-depth.

Not sure if a ‘speaking arm’ works or not (rh speech bubble). What can I say? It was all very ‘bodily’ and vocally unexpressed at the time. Not that my arm has ever had the ability to speak other than what comes out of the end of it onto a page in the hope of communicating something.

Also – having trouble with colours. This is meant to appear as warm browns and browny-pinks. I’m hoping to get a better monitor more geared to truer colour generation. Last time I was producing digital work, many moons ago, I was using an iMac, but have since ‘gone over to the other side’!