Ten year comicsiversary!

It’s ten years since I drew How a Baby is Made, a short strip which was to be the genesis for my recently published graphic memoir The Facts of Life. I entered it to the very first Observer Graphic Short Story Prize, even thought I knew it was probably going to be a much longer story (240pp, as it turned out!) I didn’t get anywhere with that, but, never mind, I eventually reached the shortlist of Myriad Editions’ First Graphic Novel Competition in 2012, and, they published my book. It is also published in N America by Penn State University Press as part of their Graphic Medicine series.

At the time I started it, I’d had two early miscarriages, and the reality was beginning to dawn that we might never have children. I began to reflect on life’s expectations and where they had come from – social priming, family, education and politics etc. I began keeping a card file of memories stretching back to childhood. I’d also become obsessed with graphic novels and gobbled up Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Jefferey Brown’s back-catalogue – and Maus by Art Spiegelman. I was an illustrator – I could make autobiographical comics, too! This unavoidable urge to draw about my looming personal situation and its societal background would not go away.

It was the first time I turned to drawing as a means of exploring and expressing hurt and complicated emotions. As I pointed out at my book launch, if someone had told me the project would not come to fruition for another ten years, I’m might not have believed them, and, if I had, I’m not sure I would have had the wherewithal to continue. As it turned out, I couldn’t do much more about it until 2010, because I was diagnosed with ME and had to cease work. The story wasn’t over until then, anyway, and it would have been a very different book if I’d carried on with it straight away. It was definitely better for having been put to one side for a few years: As is the case with some stories, it simply isn’t their time yet, and you fold them away at the back of the airing cupboard where they mature – at least until you shake out the moths which have left the holes in your story more clear to see.

Here is the strip I drew in 2007, plus a page from my book The Facts of Life.

 

Page from The Facts of Life, pub. Myriad Editions (UK) and Penn State University Press (N America), 2017

If you’ve read my book, you’ll see how different the drawing styles are from the original strip – another element that benefited from percolating. I wanted to move away from cute, and, if I was going to spend a few years working on something, it needed to be a style I was comfortable with and one that people familiar with the subject matter, but not necessarily with reading comics, could relate to. Many elements from this strip remain in the book, such as our Sindy dolls enjoying relations under the bed, and the whole sorry sandpit debacle.

I’d like to say here’s to another ten years, but, since my book came out I’ve had a bad ME/ Fibromyalgia relapse which left me bed-bound at first, and I’ve been unable to draw without considerable pain. Once again, many ideas have been consigned to the great airing cupboard in my mind (and a few sketchbooks), so let’s hope there comes a time when I can unearth them and get back to the only work I love. Let’s also hope for a cure for the chronic illnesses ME and Fibromyalgia, which wreck so many lives.

The Facts of Life news

After working on The Facts of Life over six or more years, if feels so good to say that it’s an actual book now and I’ve held it in my hands!

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I’ve also pleased to announce that, in a deal negotiated by Louisa Pritchard Associates, Myriad Editions have sold the N American rights for The Facts of Life to Penn State University Press, and I’m excited that it will be joining their Graphic Medicine series. I’ve long been a fan of Graphic Medicine and I’ve spoken about this work at three of their events and conferences since 2011. It feels like the right home for my book over the pond. It will be published there around the same time as MK Czerwiec’s (aka Comic Nurse) book Taking Turns. I met MK at a Graphic Medicine event that was part of 2011 Comics Forum in Leeds, and we’ve had a similar timeline to publication over the past few years. I’m very much looking forward to reading this book, which is a memoir about her time working as a nurse in a HIV/AIDS unit in the 1980s. Other excellent books that I’ve read from the series include The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams, Hole in the Heart by Henny Beaumont, and Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park by Aneurin Wright, all of which were first published by Myriad Editions in the UK, so PSUP already feels like home!

In other good news, I’m delighted that my book is currently Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller for Biography/ Memoir. I’ll keep you up to speed next year with news about events I’ll be attending and at which I’ll be speaking about the book. All the very best for the festive season and wishing you health and happiness in 2017!

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The Facts of Life will be published by Myriad Editions and Penn state University Press in March 2017.

Three Little Words / #MEawareness

It’s ME Awareness day. I’ve had ME/CFS for over twenty years to a mild-moderate degree, since I had Glandular Fever in 1993. I’ve had better years when I’ve almost felt normal, but it’s always been lurking. I’m only as well as I am because I’ve been lucky enough to be able (just) to pay for tests and treatments unavailable on the NHS (I have regular B12 and Magnesium injections from a private GMC-registered doctor of environmental medicine.) Others are not that lucky and the NHS still does not provide adequate treatment for this illness.

This blog is about attitudes and what to say – I’ve put up with some rancid comments over the years, not least when I wrote for Guardian Comment is free under the pseudonym Jayne Austin about ME and welfare benefits. Last night, I made a very quick and messy little comic to celebrate ME Awareness day, and to suggest how easy it can be to say the right thing (with a nod to Schulz, Peppermint Patty and possibly a few others – what can I say – it just came out!) TLW_web1_PaulaKnight TLW_web2

FFI: http://www.meassociation.org.uk/      http://www.actionforme.org.uk/

 

Graphic Medicine podcast

mytalk_Comicsmedicine4_brighton _UniSussex.

Photo by Ian Williams.

Last year, I presented my work at Ethics Under Cover: Comics, Medicine and Society (4th International Conference on Comics and Medicine). I spoke on a panel named ‘Who’s Story is it?’ alongside Peaco Todd, Linda Raphael and Mita Mahato. Here is a link to the podcast (mine is second on the recording): Graphic Medicine Podcast: Brighton Panel 4A

My talk was titled ‘In or Out: Considering the impact on others of writing and sharing graphic memoir’. I spoke about my work in progress in relation to the responsibility for secondary characters’ stories in memoir (those who have not asked to be in a book), especially where medical details are involved. I also spoke about my other comics about fertility, miscarriage and childlessness and the response to sharing that personal work on social networking sites between 2011 and 2013.

The conference provided a generous portion of brain food, and I heartily recommend creators with medical/ health themes to their work to attend, or propose a paper to, future conferences. Also, do check out the Graphic Medicine Podcast archive where you will find interviews and talks by many talented comics creators and academics whose work reflects the ‘interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.’ (Graphic Medicine website quote).

This panel took place first thing on a Sunday morning, so I’m sure those delegates who were still wisely tucked up in bed will welcome the chance to hear it. Although I’m still not sure how anyone ever sleeps in Brighton with those tireless over-enthusiastic seagulls.

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.

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/

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…