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

Able-Bodied People Speaking ABOUT Disabled People

By Derek Newman-Stille

Far too frequently, able-bodied people feel that they have a place to talk about disabled people. They use different justifications for this act of narrating our bodies to us, but the bottom line is always the same. There is an assumption that our bodies are open to public debate, that we are resigned to expertiseism about our bodies not only by medical practitioners, but anyone who feels that they have a stake in narrating us. 
I see this most commonly when it comes to medical practitioners, whose power to narrate our bodies is so strong that we have to depend on their assessment of our bodies to get access to basic accommodations. Our own narration of our bodies is never considered enough to guarantee that we will acquire everything we need. In university I observed this with the accommodation letters that I was forced to bring to my professors. My own narration of my bodily needs was not enough to be considered appropriate, so I needed to bring a letter detailing my needs in order to get them. Catherine Duchastel de Montrouge brought up the need for accommodation letters during her recent talk at the Canadian Disability Studies Association and discussed the fetishization of the accommodation letter for our post-secondary education system. Duchastel de Montrouge talked about being told by professors that she shouldn’t need accommodations, that she would be denied accommodations because the “professor knows best”, and the suspicion of accommodation letters by most professors. When talking to her, I likened the accommodation letter to a passport, allowing us into a space that we are considered unwelcome in and a space where we can have our rights withdrawn at any time. We depend on these accommodation letters for access to education, but they are dependent on the physician writing them, a university office drafting their final copy, and a professor deciding to abide by these letters. 
This is, of course only one example of the need for physician letters, since disabled people also need the word of a physician to access disabled parking, be able to use accessible seats on aeroplanes, have access to disability accommodation, and in order to access government support funds for people with disabilities. 
I have frequently had people narrate my body to me after seeing me walking with a cane. I have been told “if you work hard enough, you won’t have to use that any more”, been asked “why do you think you need a cane?”, and been told that I “look normal enough”. These narrations happened by strangers, which frequently occurs for disabled people. Able-bodied people have been told through their media that they have a right to narrate disabled people’s bodies to them, to tell us how to live our lives, how to be disabled in this world, and how we should act to make them more comfortable with our presence on the landscape. 
A friend recently came back from a writers’ conference where she was the only disabled person on a panel about writing disability. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that disability is generally not written of well in our literature and popular culture, so I am amazed at how little people want to listen to disabled people give input on their bodies and how to write them well. She noted that all of the able-bodied people on the panel tried to tell her how disabled characters should be written, replicating tropes about disability. They even waved their hand at her to say “people like you” when talking about people with disabilities. 
I have experienced similar issues when able-bodied people have asked me to read their stories about people with disabilities because they generally respond to my reminders that the character is presented problematically by getting angry and saying things like “that is how I need the character to be for the novel to work” or “but it’s not really about their disability, its about what it means for their society” or “but I saw a meme on facebook that said this” or “I talked to someone who was disabled and they said it was okay to write people like them this way” or “but I read a book on it by a doctor and this is what they said” or “but I tried to make this character a nice person, isn’t that enough?” This is one of the reasons I have become more hesitant to read people’s manuscripts, especially when they portray disabled people. I know that little will shift when I ask them for more, ask them to do better, or ask them to listen, pay attention, and understand. 
Able bodied writers and media consumers seem resistant to hearing back from the people they write about. Our disabled voices only complicate the easy symbolism that they write onto our bodies, our three-dimensionality only complicates the simple one-dimensional characters they want to write.  We make it hard to write us when we speak up.
I think that bears repeating: We make it hard to write us when we speak up.
I think this could be a call to action. A call to able-bodied people to actually listen to us, a call for convention organizers to have disabled people speaking about disabled characters, and a reminder of the call “nothing about us without us”. 

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/ 

Dis Arts

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dis Art work by Derek Newman-Stille

Frequently, when people see the words “disability” and “art” in the same sentence, they assume that this means “art therapy”. This is partially because of the way we frame “disability” as something that always means “working toward being fixed” or “working toward a cure”. This idea is fundamentally ableist and assumes that disabled people only live in the context of medicalized lenses and that disabled people are only interested in being “fixed” – i.e. made into able-bodied people.

Art Therapy can be a worthwhile venture for people who are interested in therapeutic qualities of art and expression, but it is important to recognize that Dis Arts (art work by people with disabilities) is not the same as art therapy. Dis Arts is an expressive art form that may or may not stem from bodily experience. It is an art that expresses a disabled world view. It does not always have to be art that is specifically and noticeably about disability, but, rather, can be the expressions of a disabled person about other aspects of their lives, wider political commentaries, or expressions of beauty (art for art’s sake). 

I used to separate my disabled identity from my artistic identity, believing that I was creating fantasy art that had nothing to do with my disabled identity until people started to refer to me as a disabled artist. I had to pause and reconsider how my art reflects disability. I noticed that my art did show an interest in representing the body, and an interest in representing alterity (Otherness). As I was thinking about disability and art, I started to think about early diagnoses that I got from doctors about my learning disabilities. I was told early on that I would not be able to do art work because I have a fine motor disability. In fact, my early art work was described as consisting of “just scribbles” and early assessments told me that my “fine motor control is still quite immature”. These statements were repeated in later assessments even though I felt a compulsion to create art, to give context to the ideas in my imagination. In that way, art became a mechanism for me to resist hegemonic descriptions of my body. I refused to let my body be limited by the narratives that were imposed on it, so I devoted time to my art work. 

As I reflected on the idea of my art work being a resistance to narratives imposed on it, I realized that the act of making art itself was linked to my disability. It became something that stemmed from a resistant Crip empowered perspective. Even when I wasn’t creating art that specifically referenced my disability, my art was still a Dis Art, a work of counter-narrative to the medicalization of my body. 

After encountering the work of other Dis Arts performers and creators, I decided to venture into my own Dis Art and created several pieces that stemmed from my body itself, using the canvas as an extension of ideas about my body. I quickly found that the best medium for these art pieces was mixed media since mixed media, like my own body, is a conglomeration of objects, texts, and styles of art. It fit with my ideas of my own body as a composite of multiple different views and texts. I combined objects that seemed to resonate with my body into new images, focussing on my spine (for my spinal disability), my brain (for my learning disabilities), and ideas of the viewer, because people often stare at the disabled body. I assembled a series of mixed media works of art into a show titled Identity Masquerade: The Queer Crip Art of Derek Newman-Stille that I displayed as part of the Queer Coll(i/u)sions Conference, allowing the work to speak to people without my providing context for these pieces. I wanted people to reflect on the way that they saw these works of art, and to think about the way that the act of staring at art could reflect the way that people stare at the non-normate body. I emphasised this focus on staring by including mirrors in images that forced the watcher to stare at themselves as they tried to stare at the work of art. I included images of spines mixed with images of nude bodies to represent ideas of our bodied being rendered nude before the Gaze. 

Coming to Dis Arts was an act of self-discovery for me, an act of empowerment, and an act of vocalizing things that extended beyond words. 

Dis Arts are complicated because our disabled identities are complicated and are never fixed as one thing. Disabled bodies are fluid, and they intersect with our other identities as well as connecting to a community of artists who identify as disabled. There is a different kind of viewing in Dis Arts works, and it is one that involves the body, that implicates the body, and that invites the body into the art work being produced. Dis Arts can be an intensely political art – one that speaks to inaccessibility, a history of being Othered, the power of community, and the possibility of change.

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

978-0-271-07818-2md_294 

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.

 Czerwiec_10

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.

 Czerwiec_8

“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.

 Czerwiec_9

“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

 

Disability, Deafness, Ageing, Queerness, and Other Complicated Embodiments