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.

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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.

Childless or child-free?

Click to view:

There are supportive communities online for those who are childless by circumstance and for those who are childless by choice. I’ve never felt that I can totally identify myself with either label.

I’m not keen on any term that defines you by what you are not. It seems rather negative. There has been much discussion about this topic on Gateway Women, a site conceived by Jody Day to bring together, and celebrate, women who don’t have children for whatever reason. She coined the term ‘nomo’ (not a mother). Again, the term certainly isn’t for me for the reasons stated above, but the site has some interesting articles and is a good place to go if you’re seeking solidarity with others in a similar situation.

In short, people who didn’t procreate shouldn’t have to be defined by that very fact. However, and all too often, women of my age are.

My first comic

This was the first (and only so far) comic I made. It was a 40th birthday ‘card’ for John Austin, which I drew back in 2008. I just ripped some pages out of a sketch book, drew on them and then tried to sew them together, but it didn’t work so I stapled them instead (hence holes in spine). I didn’t ever get round to inking it all.

There’s not much of a narrative – it’s based on memories told to me by his family and friends. It features a certain notorious incident about crossing the Canadian Border on tour with the band Beatnik Filmstars when they were supporting Superchunk sometime in the late ’90s.

I was reading all of Jeffery Brown‘s books at the time I drew it – you can probably tell in parts. I was on quite a learning curve wrt drawing comics, one which I took up again last year. I also overused the ellipsis, a thing I try not to do now.

Miscarriage platitudes

Following on from my earlier post ‘Words can be tricky, in panels’, I did a new comic page about one of the phrases used when people seek words to make a miscarriage-sufferer feel better. I understand that it’s hard to find the right thing to say at times. Below is my response to “It wasn’t meant to be”.

I’m not religious and I tend not to believe in fate or karma; this phrase suggests that such ideas are somehow involved, the presumption being that this will make the situation easier to accept. Fine if it does help some people, of course. The way I see it, for better or worse, nature just does its stuff and may cause sadness, joy or neither. I should probably have put all that in the comic, but I hope to go into it in more detail in my graphic memoir.

Do click twice to view larger if it’s a bit fuzzy!  I’ve also made a little stamp of my initials, carved out of a rubber, with which to sign future work.

Words can be tricky, in panels

Before I got stuck into writing my graphic memoir, I did a few one-off pages exploring ideas from the story to help get me started. I’m interested in euphemisms and phrases regarding miscarriage and their possible impact.

The word ‘miscarriage’ is already a euphemism or sorts – a lay-term for the medical ‘spontaneous abortion’. I find the word ‘miscarriage’ fairly acceptable although it does have a ‘whoops’ quality to it, as if one had carried something carelessly and dropped it!

Words probably affect people in different ways depending on their personality, life experience and background. For someone who has high expectations of themselves, or who has been trying to conceive for a long time, the term ‘failed pregnancy’ might seem calculating or too reminiscent of exam results!

click to view larger

The term ‘lost a baby’ (verb) causes problems because it could seem blaming, although the idea of ‘loss’ (noun) as something one feels after a miscarriage is more fitting. Any suggestion of blame is best avoided when talking about miscarriage – it’s all too easy for a woman to search for reasons among things she has supposedly done wrong. It’s rarely the case (or so I was told) that it’s the woman’s fault.

I hope to do more work around this based on further inadvisable things to say to a woman who has had a miscarriage:

  • not meant to be (or any mention of fate)
  • just a cluster of cells
  • it was only early
  • maybe you subconsciously caused your miscarriage

Perhaps I’m just being pedantic or oversensitive here, but some seemingly benign words can sting if used in certain contexts; therefore they need to be chosen carefully. I found this quote on the internet:

“The language we use to communicate with one another is like a knife. In the hands of a careful and skilled surgeon, a knife can work to do great good. But in the hands of a careless or ignorant person, a knife can cause great harm. Exactly as it is with our words.”
Source Unknown

The images used here are collected in my self-published comic, X Utero, available here in my shop, or from Orbital Comics, London.

In hospital/ Inhospitable – graphic novel page about a patient/nurse exchange

I did this page early on before I’d started to plan my graphic memoir-in-progress The Facts of Life. I was experimenting with media and styles. I like the pencil and ink look but have since decided on acrylic paint and ink for this project. 

Pregnancy loss as subject matter is taboo and will make some people feel uncomfortable, but it can be rewarding, and possibly useful to others, to communicate such experiences. Call it catharsis if you want; I hope that it ‘speaks’ to someone as well. I’ve chosen comics as a medium because I feel that visual communication has more to offer than prose alone. This probably comes from my involvement as an illustrator of children’s books where images are as important as the written word in storytelling, if not more so.

This page deals with being in hospital during a suspected ectopic pregnancy. I’ve since come to realise that the nurse in my strip was probably overworked and over-tired on a long night shift.

I imagined what she might be thinking, but I can’t be sure what was going on in her head – it could have been totally unrelated to my calling her. Nevertheless, her response affected me in a negative way. I’m using ‘author’s truth’ in place of not being in a position to ask her. Sometimes you just have to make it up.

I think this is one of my images that Paul Gravett used in his keynote speech last year at Comics and Medicine: The Sequential Art of Illness.