Halfway: Graphic memoir update

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HALFWAY! Through the artwork stage of my graphic memoir The Facts of Life. What? Only half way? I know – I’ve been on with the thing since 2010. Most comics creators are well aware of what a gargantuan labour-intensive task writing and drawing a long-form comic can be, many taking a good ten years to complete one alongside other work.

My personal reason for derailment has been health issues this year. When I signed the contract with Myriad Editions, and got my grant from Arts Council England, I was relatively well and thought that I could get the deed done in a couple of years. But this year has seen a relapse in my ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia symptoms. I was first diagnosed with this in 2008, and when I started working on this project in earnest, in 2011, it felt like I was comfortably in recovery. I started out working for six days each week to get the artwork stage of the project done by my original deadline, but it wasn’t to be. The illness raised its ugly head again around March/ April of this year after a particularly rapacious bout of blood-spitting bronchitis. (Never come near me if you have anything vaguely viral or snively.) Many describe it as a ‘fluctuating illness,’ and, well, it fluctuated the wrong way.

I’ve had to cut back on how much work I can do each day, and in summer I had to stop work completely for a few weeks due to chronic muscle pain/ soreness and clobbering fatigue. I’m back to work again now, but doing only four pages a week and that mostly seems manageable – although not every week. I’m grateful to Myriad Editions for their patience, support and understanding. The book is now due to come out in 2017 but no specific date has been decided yet. Here is the latest cover design: COVER_Couple_ChartBlueBG_redcrosses_darkerchart

In other news, my book was mentioned in The Bookseller recently, and in last week’s Sunday Times online, alongside some of my talented comics contemporaries – Nicola Streeten, Ian Williams, Rachael Ball, and Henny Beaumont. It was an article about the growing popularity of graphic novels with a medical theme (aka Graphic Medicine). There are some amazing books coming out, and already published, by those folks, so do look them up. Also look out for Una’s new book from Myriad Editions – Becoming Unbecoming.

Also, I occasionally post snippets from the work in progress, and ‘deskies’ at my work Instagram account: @paulajkstudio

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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.

Laydeez do Comics Bristol

I’m not partial to defining my activity by genderAlthough technically I’m a ‘female’ illustrator, proofreader, comics creator and writer; I don’t feel I should need the adjective to help describe my involvement in those jobs. However, when the gender scales have historically been weighted on one side in any given arena (comics in this case), perhaps, for a while, you can heap it on with spades on the other to help redress the balance.

I first went to a comics convention in Bristol in the mid-00s because Jeffery Brown was speaking – I’d read all of his books. I’d also read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and thought wow, a woman the same age as me writing autobiographical comics – maybe that means I can too! So I tripped along to the comics con all fluffy-tailed and excited…

But I felt so out of place. I felt old for a start (I was 36ish) – and starkly female. The overarching feeling was that I didn’t belong there. It’s hard to pinpoint why – the proliferation of young men, the daleks and stormtroopers – I’m not sure. Nothing wrong with young men, daleks and stormtroopers, (I was a Doctor Who and Star Wars fan as a child), but it wasn’t what I was searching for at the time. It was probably something tribal – about recognising oneself in others to foster a sense of belonging. Despite my own lack of costume, I felt like an interloper from another planet.

Although I enjoyed Jeffrey Brown’s talk (I even asked him a question) I still left feeling somewhat disheartened thinking that even if I did get round to writing my graphic novel, who would want to read a comic with themes of fertility and miscarriage? That dalek wouldn’t be interested, would he? I was yet to discover Graphic Medicine where there are plenty of comics dealing with stuff going wrong with bodies. And I was also largely unaware of  the female creators from the 60s/70s who were certainly not shy of drawing the personal and intimate details of their lives. As it happens, the first two people to buy my first comic, Spooky Womb, were men (though still no daleks).

Laydeez do Comics 

So, imagine my joy when I stumbled over Laydeez do Comics! I think I googled ‘female graphic novelists’ sometime in 2009, found LDC and thought I really must go to that thing one day. It was a graphic novels forum run by women (Nicola Streeten and Sarah Lightman) but open to all. They had guest speakers, including men, talking about their comics work – with a ‘focus on the autobiographical, domestic and everyday’.

I finally went along to Laydeez in late 2010 when Posy Simmonds was speaking. It was rammed, I didn’t know a soul and I was horrified to discover that there was an introductory ice-breaker question (‘the question’) to answer in front of all the other attendees. Blind terror aside, I managed to splutter out something comprehensible enough for Nicola Streeten (co-founder of LDC and author of Billy, Me and You), to ask if I fancied coming along to speak about my work the following year. No, I thought, you have to be kidding. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t pursue it but Nicola did, thankfully. I once heard Grayson Perry say in an interview that his motto is ‘take the path of most resistance’ and this chimed with me at the time. I’d decided I wasn’t having children after some troublesome years, and that I must get out there, meet new people and do new stuff. This opportunity was all three.

I spoke at LDC for the first time in May 2011 along with Mary Talbot (Dotter of her Father’s Eyes) and Jo Tyler. Laydeez often places emerging practitioners alongside the more experienced. I showed the beginnings of my graphic memoir and some children’s illustration work to a supportive audience. It was like a big fuzzy comics cuddle, and I felt a glow of promise and excitement – a renewed interest in carrying on with my memoir. Both Mary and Bryan Talbot were encouraging about my work, too! It was also at that meeting that I found out about Myriad Editions’ First Fictions First Graphic Novel Competition, which I subsequently spent the summer working on, entered and reached the shortlist. So I have a lot to thank Laydeez do Comics for. A Brick Lane curry to fill the gap left by a nervous stomach rounded off the evening perfectly. And, I’ve met some ace people at meetings since.

Laydeez do Comics Bristol (and San Francisco, Leeds, Chicago…)

I wished there was something like LDC in Bristol and sat around waiting for someone else to provide this for me to attend. They didn’t, so I thought I’d better get something together myself. Nicola and Sarah were keen and we held the first Bristol event at Cafe Kino in August 2012. It was packed out – and I was happy to be spreading the Laydeez joy to Bristol. There is a healthy comics community in Bristol (Bearpit Zines, BLAM included) so I felt that there would be some interest. Speakers at the first event were Katie Green, Smoo Comics (Simon Moreton), Nicola Streeten, Sarah Lightman, Sicker Than Thou (Andrew Godfrey, Emma Mould) and yours truly. See some photos from that event and Nick Soucek’s blog:

Laydeez do Comics Bristol 2

LDC London now meet at Foyles Bookshop, so I wondered whether our branch of Foyles here in Bristol would be keen to extend that relationship – I knew they had an event space. They were very keen, enthusiastic and helpful! The next Bristol meeting is on Monday April 8th upstairs at Foyles Bookshop, Cabot Circus, Bristol, 6-7.45pm.

Click here for details – with guests Hannah Berry, Joff Winterhart and LOAf magazine‘s Rosie Faragher. It’s free but you must book a ticket here. Hope to see you there for some effervescent comics discussion, and cake c/o Sarah Lightman!

Facebook event page.

Biological clock-up

There’s no such thing as a biological clock; it’s just a metaphor for the finite amount of time a woman has in which to procreate using her own eggs. I’ve also heard words such as ‘fertility time-bomb‘ used in relation to this, but I don’t personally know of any women who have exploded as a result of their eggs running out. It’s part of the alarmist rhetoric used to browbeat women who, for whatever reason (and there are many), end up trying for children in later life. I can’t argue that it isn’t preferable/easier, biologically-speaking, to have children earlier in life, but societal, economical, political, personal and career circumstances simply don’t afford that opportunity for everyone. This topic is too gargantuan for me to address in a teensy blog post!

This page, intended as part of my graphic memoir, is my expression of that feeling. For me, it felt like a black or white, either/or situation. Whether this was the truth is irrelevant – that was my experience.

You might notice that the figure drawing of the ‘pregnant’ me is a little off. This is because the ref. I used was a photo of me with a cushion stuffed up my jumper.

This is included in Bristol-based Bearpit zine #4 along with work by Andrew Godfrey, Emma Mould, Simon (Smoo) Moreton, Nick Soucek (Miscomp), El Sub Star, Graham Johnson and Karl Whiteley. The theme for this zine is ‘other’. It’s the first time my work has appeared in a comic, unless you count Jackie magazine circa 1983! I have a handful for sale at £2.50.

I’ll be talking about this, and other work, at Laydeez do Comics Bristol on August 8th, along with Nicola Streeten, Sarah Lightman, Katie Green, Andrew Godfrey and Emma Mould, and Simon Moreton. Do come along!

Other news: My work In Hospita(l)able was used in Amerisa Waters’ paper at the Comics and Medicine conference in Toronto. I would have loved to attend this conference but was unable, so it was a nice surprise to discover that some of my work appeared there! Sounds like it was fantastic event.

Virginiagate

I thought it timely to post these couple of pages from the memoir I’m working on. It’s mainly for the benefit of vagina-shy Mike Callton, Michigan Republican, who took offense to the word’s use by Lisa Brown when she was opposing a new anti-choice law. Full story here.

If he were to read this little story, he would see that it offers two or three alternatives to the heinous ‘vagina’ that he might find more suitable in adult company. Not sure that ‘virginia’ or ‘front bottom’ would have seen him through his biology degree though.

I must stress that these pages are about children wanting to learn the correct anatomical terms in a bid to feel more grown-up and mature. So, on second thoughts, perhaps not quite right for fully-grown males with inordinate amounts of responsibility, control and power to legislate over women’s bodies – and minds.

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!

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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.

A finalist’s front-row view – Judging a Graphic Novel

Last weekend I attended the First Fictions Festival in Brighton for the ‘Judging a Graphic Novel’ event in which I was a finalist. The judging panel consisted of Ian Rankin, Hannah Berry, Bryan Talbot, Corinne Pearlman (Myriad Editions), Ed Hillyer and Steve Bell (Guardian cartoonist), who was away on holiday. Gareth Brookes’ The Black Project won – a deserving winner. I love the look of embroidery used in such an innovative way, and the story is original too.

The week or so before the event, Corinne Pearlman asked if we would be willing to read some pages from our entries, and a couple of days beforehand we discovered that we would also take questions from the panel of judges… in front of a paying audience. The pressure was on!

Paul Gravett, who was sporting a rather fetching yellow comic-themed shirt, chaired the event. Us finalists had to sit on the front row of the lecture theatre within spitting distance of the judges. We didn’t spit on them, nor they on us, but I could see the very whites of their eyes and they could probably smell our fear. It was quite nerve-wracking but exciting.

It was good to meet the other finalists and to hear more about their book proposals: Tom Eglington, Hannah Eaton, Dylan Shipley & Adam Blackman, and Con Chrysoulis. My friend, Thom Ferrier, was also a finalist so I was already acquainted with his work. It was a shame that Gareth Brookes couldn’t make it, being on a different hemisphere, but he’d sent a representative to read his entry. I sat between the two T/homs and introduced myself to Tom Eglington by asking if he’d drawn his plane crash page from life… ah well.

The judges suggested that all of the shortlisted entries were publishable and they stressed what a gargantuan task they had in whittling things down to a longlist, let alone a shortlist or winner. Each judge had slightly different concerns: Ed Hillyer was interested in whether the text was physically readable; Ian Rankin was searching for a satisfactory narrative; Corinne Pearlman didn’t want anything too set in stone; and Steve Bell was checking if artists could draw – hands in particular.

My presentation seemed to garner a good response – the audience laughed in all the right places and it was rewarding to experience that. It was a chance for me to show that I intend part of my book to include elements of humour despite tackling a tricky subject matter. I was happy to discover that my attempts at humour so far (apart from what I said to Tom) aren’t in vain. So, it was a worthwhile exercise in that respect – thank you, kind audience!

I took along How a Baby is Made, the book I cite in my story, The Facts of Life, and the one that taught me all the mechanics! It was great to find that one of the event’s sponsors used to be a bookseller who stocked that very title. Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) might call this ‘synchronicity’.

We enjoyed a much welcome post-event glass of fizz, and apple tart served on First Fictions flyers in absence of plates – novel! Later, I also attended Bryan and Mary Talbot’s talk about their soon-to-be-launched collaboration, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

All in all, the whole experience has been positive: I came away from the weekend with greater confidence in my work, feeling galvanized to further develop it. I’m sure the other finalists will agree that writing and drawing a graphic novel is a task which requires much time and dedication; I hope they all feel that it’s worth it because I can’t wait to read their books when they come to fruition.