Category Archives: Crip Comics

Fuzzy Edges

A review of Gareth Brookes’ A Thousand Coloured Castles (Graphic Medicine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille



A Thousand Coloured Castles is Gareth Brookes’ exploration of Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Featuring an older woman, Myriam, who is diagnosed first with macular degeneration, this graphic novel explores Myriam’s strange visions as she sees figures like soldiers with ladders on their heads, plants growing out of telephone wires, and people with dressers on their heads. Myriam questions her own sanity and isn’t certain she wants doctors to diagnose her condition. When she eventually discovers that she has Charles Bonnet Symdrome, a condition related to deteriorating vision that causes complex visual hallucinations, she still has to deal with her husband and daughter who don’t understand her condition and disregard her, calling her barmy. 

Not only does Gareth Brookes bring attention to Charles Bonnet Syndrome in his comic, he brings attention to the way that the medical conditions of women, and particularly older women, are ignored or treated as personality quirks. Myriam is constantly ignored by her family and perceived as being someone whose perspectives and insights aren’t worth paying attention to.

Gareth Brookes uses a medium of art that simulates visual deterioration, drawing his comics in crayon, covering them in black crayon and then scratching the top layer away to reveal the image underneath. The result is a darkened comic with fuzzy, black edges that the reader has to work to see, simulating the experience of visual disability. 

The comic uses faces without features to create universal images where anyone can project their experiences. These faces allow for the characters to be any person rather than fixing them to one identity.

A Thousand Coloured Castles is a powerful comic that tells a story of disability, ageing, and being ignored.

To find out more about A Thousand Coloured Castles and other Graphic Medicine publications, visit http://www.graphicmedicine.org 

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A Green Lantern with Anxiety

A review of Sam Humphries, Robson Rocha, Ethan Van Sciver, and Ed Benes’ Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet (DC Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

The Green Lantern rings are supposed to go to people who have an ability to conquer fear… so what happens when a ring goes to someone who has agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress? Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet explores Jessica Cruz, a woman with agoraphobia who did not leave her apartment in three years. She is open about her anxieties and throughout the comic she constantly questions whether the Green Lantern ring chose correctly when it chose her. The ring constantly assures her that she is the person that it was meant for, but she keeps believing that she does not deserve it. The Green Lantern that she is partnered with, Simon Baz, also keeps believing that she is not suited to be a Green Lantern, referring to her as a “nervous wreck”.

Her anxiety interferes with her ability to form green light into constructs, a power that all of the other Green Lanterns have. There is a danger in this inability to use her ring to its full extent that may illustrate that the comic is trying to suggest that people with disabilities cannot achieve what non-disabled people can. 

The Green Lantern rings choose people by saying “You have the ability to overcome great fear. Welcome to the Green Lantern Corps”. This opens up the notion of “overcoming” in disability narratives, particularly in the case of Jessica Cruz who we are introduced to in the middle of her work to overcome her fears. Most of the other Green Lanterns are introduced as people who have an abundance of self confidence, which is generally connected in Green Lantern comic to the power that the ring draws on: Will power. But Jessica complicates easy notions of fear and will power through her anxiety. Frequently in public discourse around disability, and particularly mental health disabilities, non-disabled people will tell disabled people that they can overcome their disability by working harder and putting in effort (namely, that they can overcome their disability through will-power). We see this image replicated through what we in Disability Studies call “Inspiration Porn”, those problematic inspirational messages like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “Before you quit, try” or “Excuses. Let’s hear yours again”. Statements like these are intensely problematic because they ignore the bodily reality of disabled people and our knowledge of our own bodily limits. So, creating a Green Lantern who has anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia invites critical questions about the way we define disability. There is a danger that this comic could become more inspiration porn because it could become another overcoming narrative, after all, the statement “you have the ability to OVERCOME great fear” is built into her induction into the Green Lanterns and this has a danger of being linked to the fact that the ring is powered by will-power, which is what inspiration porn messages try to suggest can overcome disability with their messages that “if you try hard enough, you can overcome your disability”. 

While there are dangers in the portrayal of Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, it is fascinating to see a superhero with anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia, particularly since the superhero genre is frequently about big adventures outside of the home (and for the Green Lanterns, frequently off planet), engaging in activities that could cause PTSD while not having emotional or psychological repercussions for any of the events that happen to them. Jessica Cruz represents a potential destabilizing of these superhero narratives of the person who is impervious to trauma (or who can get over trauma in the space of a single issue comic book). This could be helpful in critiquing the overall portrayal of heroism as something that resists trauma or psychological repercussions at a time when it is important that we examine the toxic culture that ignores traumas visited on people who are put into dangerous situations and the culture that makes people with trauma frequently hide it in order to fit with the image of the “hero” who overcomes everything. 

To find out more about Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet , visit the DC comics website at http://www.dccomics.com .

Knitting Narratives Together

A review of Embroidered Cancer Comic by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Singing Dragon, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Sima Elizabeth Shefrin takes a fascinating approach to comics, creating a comic out of textiles, embroidering her narrative onto fabric. There is a sense of intimacy about using textiles to talk about cancer that links the artworks produced to the history of textile work in the home. The use of embroidery, for me, evokes memories of embroidery samplers on the walls of the home, and transforming this textile basis into a comic allows a sliding of forms between the usually stagnant stitched image and the dynamism and mobility of the comic book. 

Shefrin’s Embroidered Cancer Comic deals with the complexity of cancer and its presence in the home, exploring the disease not through its pathology, but through the effects it has on the family. Shefrin openly shares her experiences of her husband’s cancer and the intermingling of their feelings from his diagnosis through to his surgery. She examines the way that people try to take control over their cancer narratives either by changing their diet, or by avoiding the doctor, instead using alternative health practices to try to avoid medical intervention. 

This is not a typical tragedy narrative of cancer, and Shefrin brings humour into her narrative, evoking the complex feelings of her readers, who are brought along through her emotional journey. Shefrin doesn’t shy from the personal either, bringing us into spaces of intimacy like the bedroom where readers can engage with questions about relationships where sex isn’t always possible, or isn’t possible in the same way as it was before. 

Shefrin evokes the idea of change and transformation, using stitches to bring narratives of adaptation to life, exploring the way that bodies and their interactions shift when cancer is introduced into them. 

To discover more about Embroidered Cancer Comic, visit http://www.singingdragon.com

To discover more about Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, visit http://www.stitchingforsocialchange.ca/home.htm

A Graphic History of Deaf Schools and Audism

A review of Carlisle Robinson’s The Case of Victor Gray By Derek Newman-Stille

Deaf history is wrought with oppression at the hands of hearing people, and the Deaf residential schools frequently prevented access to sign language, forcing students to instead use spoken English and rely on speech reading. Often Deaf students taught each other sign language in secret on the playground or in the hallways of schools, and, when caught, could receive punishment for learning their own language. 

In The Case of Victor Gray, Carlisle Robinson creates a historical fiction narrative based on the lives of actual Deaf students and teachers. He explores a Deaf teacher who has to fight against a system that prevents students and teachers from using their own language. Robinson portrays Victor Gray as a beloved teacher of Deaf students who taught in a combination of English and sign language, often using ASL (American Sign Language) storytelling as a reward for learning. Robinson draws Gray as a character with an animated body, hands, and face, illustrating the whole body experience of sign language. Gray is a character whose emotions and expressions exude from his body. 

Yet, Gray has to come up against a system that wants to force conformity on the Deaf population rather than allowing Deaf Culture to provide a space for Deaf expression. Robinson examines the history of Deaf schools being run by hearing people and the attempt to force the conformity of teachers and students into a hearing-only system. Gray attempts to resist this oppression of Deaf Culture, pointing out the usefulness of sign language for the education of Deaf students, and even resisting hearing culture by signing to the administrators who are attempting to erase ASL from his school. Gray eventually finds himself unemployed for trying to teach his students in the way that is most effective for them.

Gray is pathologized for his resistance and his attempts to ensure that his students can learn effectively, and, like many Deaf people in the 1930s, is treated as though he is mentally ill for resisting the hegemonic power of a hearing-only system. 

Although a tale of historical fiction, The Case of Victor Gray highlights issues inherent in the history of Deaf education, and, particularly, the stigmatization of ASL. Carlisle Robinson expresses the constant pain of a history of cultural erasure and oppression in The Case of Victor Gray, giving voice to the continued legacy of oppression and the impact that this continues to have on Deaf lives. Using a graphic medium, Robinson allows the reader to look into history, to see the richness of Deaf culture and the pain of oppression, making eye contact with figures from historical contexts. 

To discover more about The Case of Victor Gray, visit http://www.carlisle-robinson.com/the-case-of-victor-gray/ 
To support Carlisle Robinson’s work, visit their patreon account at https://www.patreon.com/carodoodles

Signs of a Powerful Graphic Narrative

A review of Carlisle Robinson’s What QQ Vol 2 
By Derek Newman-Stille

Carlisle Robinson begins What QQ Vol 2 with a lesson for hearing readers in how to address Deaf people. Carlisle points out that the vast majority of hearing people assume that everyone else is hearing and when people don’t answer, they assume this is an act of rudeness, rather than Deafness. 

Carlisle reminds readers that English is their second language and ASL (American Sign Language) is their first language, noting that the comic is an act of translation, an act of storytelling in a foreign language. This is something incredibly significant to bring attention to. Most hearing people assume that ASL is simply a gestural form of English, when, in fact, it has a different grammatical structure, different idioms, and is a different modality of language. This means that translations into English can have grammatical differences. 

Carlisle shares a nightmare as part of the What QQ Vol 2 comic, a post-Trump election nightmare where racist, homophobic, ableist people are given a place to attack those of us who are queer, disabled, or non-white. Carlisle has a character encounter someone who is wearing a “Make American Great Again” shirt who begins calling Deaf people “retarded” and queer people “faggots”. Carlisle observes that this nightmare didn’t come out of nowhere, but is based on events that are occurring in the United States, and now also in Canada, where Carlisle has made their home. 

Not everything in the comic is political, nor does it all reflect depressive realities of being in an ableist, homophobic world, some of Carlisle’s geek humour comes through in this comic as well. Carlisle points out that Spiderman’s web-shooting hand looks like the ASL sign for “I love you” and that, therefore “He fights with Love”. 

Carlisle’s comics pages often combine signs, with the character actually carrying out the signing. This is unlike signing depictions in other comics, which frequently use ASL figure graphics. However, because of the static medium of the comic image, Carlisle often depicts a large amount of text on the page, and freezes the frame with only one sign (and often only one part of the sign) visible. 

Since Deaf populations rely heavily on body and facial expressions, Carlisle’s use of expressive character faces is important for conveying essential meanings to the reader, providing emotional and situational context that complements the text. 

Carlisle combines information for hearing people about Deaf populations with tales meant for the Deaf population to enjoy, linking these together into a collection of stories about their experience as a Deaf person. 

You can find out more about Carlisle Robinson’s work at http://www.carlisle-robinson.com or check out their tapastic account at tapastic.com/carodoodles .
You can support them at https://www.patreon.com/carodoodles

Obsessively Complex

A review of “The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James” by Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

“The Bad Doctor” by Ian Williams is a tale of the entwined experience of a doctor and his patients. Unlike most medical narratives that tend to reinforce the hierarchical position of doctors as the arbiters of knowledge and patients (particularly those with disabilities) as receivers of knowledge, “The Bad Doctor” complicates narratives of disability and medical authority. Williams’ exploration situates Dr. Iwan James as someone who learns from his patients, changing with each medical encounter. He is a figure who combines narratives of disability with narratives of medical experience. 

Dr. Iwan James is portrayed as a doctor who has experienced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) his entire life, generally fixating on ideas of the occult as a threat and prayer as a method of averting disasters. Interweaving with narratives of encounters with patients, including one patient with OCD who helps Dr. James re-assess his own compulsive thoughts, Ian Williams also portrays elements from Dr. James’ childhood. Drawn with beautiful trees coming from his head that hold bubbles about all of the things that the young Iwan wants to protect, these pages about his obsessive thoughts illustrate the complexity of OCD. Young Iwan spends most nights going through a series of blessings of each family member, having to repeat these blessings if anyone or anything is missed. Even stuffed animals need a specific number of pats each night to ensure that they are protected. Williams draws circles of light around each of the things that young Iwan wants to protect, linking them together in a complex pattern of thought, and yet these images are also surrounded by caution signs depicting possible outcomes if he misses anyone. As Iwan grows up, he begins to obsess over the occult, believing that his dog died because he listened to occult music. After his wife becomes pregnant, Iwan sees occult imagery everywhere around him and seeks to try to protect his children from their influence. 

Dr. Iwan James develops coping mechanisms for his OCD, able to develop methods to control these obsessive thoughts, but they don’t disappear from the narrative. This is not a narrative of disability where there is an easy solution through a “cure”. Rather, Dr. James’ continued work on himself allows him to be a better doctor, to engage with patients from a place of knowledge, but not of arrogance. Instead, he is able to share his narrative with patients to help them to better understand themselves and their own compulsions. Dr. James still has persistent thoughts and continues to have suicidal ideation from time to time and these suicidal thoughts enter into the comic page in imagined scenes of shooting himself in the head or guillotining off his own head. Ian Williams illustrates the way that these thoughts can interrupt everyday narratives by inserting them between panels, at random, evoking the power of suicidal thoughts to seep into the mind during every day encounters.

Told through powerful snippets of encounters with patients and intense flashbacks of obsessive compulsive thoughts, “The Bad Doctor” creates a complex view of medicine and the relationship between an individual and the medical system. 

To discover more about “The Bad Doctor”, visit Graphic Medicine’s page at http://www.graphicmedicine.org/ 

An Act of Recovery

A review of M.K. Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Graphic Medicine, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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A graphic novel about a nurse’s experiences in an HIV/AIDS unit during the peak of the infection and when the infection didn’t have treatments that prolonged life as they do today seems as though it would be a depressing tale, and indeed it was. But, this was not just a tale of lives lost and the pain of losing friends and family, this tale was one of mutual support and community.

 

The history of AIDS is one that is enwrapped in Queer history, and like many parts of our history, it is erased. Unlike many other cultures, Queer culture isn’t passed down through family lines from one generation to the next. We often rely on members of our community to share the Queer history that they have uncovered.

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M.K. Czerwiec helps to bring the history of the Queer community’s interactions with AIDS to new generations, letting us connect to aspects of our history not through the distant medium of history books that often bleed all of the emotion out of a historical event, but rather through her own personal experience with AIDS as a nurse who worked with people who were infected. In “Taking Turns”, Czerwiec shares her own story and how it touched multiple parts of the Queer community and the medical community as they engaged in a shared experience of AIDS. This is not a distant, pathological story, but instead one that is intensely personal, real, and relatable.

 

The medium of comics is one that was intensely powerful for the story of a nurse in an AIDS care unit because it prevented the sort of cool standoffishness that often occurs when we talk about AIDS, a distancing technique that we frequently use to pull ourselves away from the memory of those lost to the virus. But, with a comic, the reader looks directly into the eyes of the patients. We see their transformations as the virus progresses. We see the medical equipment that surrounds them and shapes their existence.

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“Taking Turns” is an embodied experience where the story can’t be distanced from the bodies of the people involved. They are always present in the reader’s vision, preventing any pathologized readings or distancing. M.K. Czerwiec invites her readers into her world and her own history, making sure that we understand AIDS beyond the medical models we often receive.

 

When I was growing up, those of us in the gay community received constant warnings about AIDS. AIDS was constructed as the boogeyman haunting every sexual encounter. Posters were everywhere at gay clubs and in health units, warning us that we were one thin piece of latex away from certain death. These posters generally featured images of condoms or drops of blood or needles, but rarely let us see the human faces behind AIDS, the people who experienced the virus. This contributed to a lot of the fear around AIDS and the fear directed toward people with the virus. Czerwiec’ comic is one that I would have liked to have read as a young Queer person. It would have helped to humanize the people who had AIDS in our community instead of distancing us from them. It would have been a reminder that we, as a Queer community, need to pull together and protect and support our community.

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“Taking Turns” is a painful narrative, but, more than that, it is a hopeful one – a tale of community coming together in a culture of care. It is a body story, one that is fundamentally about embodiment and the experience of living. So many AIDS narratives are about death and this one is also about life.

 

You can discover more about Taking Turns from Graphic Medicine at http://www.graphicmedicine.org

You can explore Taking Turns further at http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07818-2.html