There’s a panel in John Porcellino’s new graphic novel, The Hospital Suite, where the author draws himself during a day at work in an Illinois grocery store. He’s just dealt with months of prolonged illness and hospitalization for an acute intestinal disorder as well as an agonizing inner-ear ailment. His treatments have encompassed everything from surgery to holistic medicine. At one point, he loses so much weight that he can barely walk.
On that day in the grocery store, he sees his own eyelashes fall out. At that point, he says, “in the midst of all this, I felt a strange peace. In a weird way, I looked forward with curiosity to what would come next. If it was my time today, then I was okay with it.”
Porcellino isn’t the first graphic novelist to confront death in the pages of his or her work. Most famously, the late Harvey Pekar—the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2003 biopic American Splendor, in which Pekar was played by Paul Giamatti—wrote Our Cancer Year. Co-written with his wife Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Frank Stack, the 1994 graphic novel recounts Pekar’s bout with cancer in sometimes witty, often horrifying detail.
Many books, films, and plays have attempted to deal with similar topics—but there’s something about the directness, simplicity, and intimacy of comics that makes them a powerful vessel for asking the big questions, even when the answers aren’t easy or available in the first place. And even those of us who are used to seeing mature themes in comics can get sidelined—in the best possible way—by the quiet, haunting power of books like The Hospital Suite and Our Cancer Year.
Not all graphic novelists probe illness and death in the same way. In 2012, Anders Nilsen published Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow. The book focuses on the author’s fiancée, Cheryl, who was diagnosed with cancer and initially given a high probability of recovery by doctors,—only to die seven months later. Nilsen doesn’t offer a straightforward account of the events surrounding her illness, or even a straightforward graphic novel. Instead, he mixes sketches, postcards, copies of love letters, and photos of his trips with Cheryl with more conventional pages of comics. The result is utterly heartbreaking. Nilsen neither sugarcoats nor sensationalizes. Instead, he lets his collation of images speak for itself, and it does so more potently than a film or novel could—largely because of its humble, understated format.
Graphic novels don’t even need to deal with real life in order to examine the human fascination with mortality. Dash Shaw, one of the most promising young graphic novelists around, has devoted his upcoming book, Doctors, to poking at mankind’s never-ending quest to plumb the depths of both death and the afterlife.
In the book, a device called The Charon has just been invented. It gives users the ability to experience a heaven or hell, of sorts, by manipulating and amplifying the memories of those about to die. Shaw doesn’t shy away from ludicrous aspect of his premise—but he also adds plenty of pathos to his science-fiction satire, to the point where Doctors winds up being meditative, philosophical, and downright chilling. Death is a business, and Shaw doesn’t whitewash that sad fact. At the same time, he doesn’t waste his opportunity to use vivid, bold-lined cartooning to explore the mysteries of memory and eternity.
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of King-Cat Comics and Stories, Porcellino’s award-winning, self-published comic book. His life as an artist hasn’t been easy one, and he’s chronicled those travails in King-Cat with candor, humor, and grace.
The Hospital Suite is not only a profound memoir about Porcellino’s own battles with physical as well as mental illness. It was also released concurrently with a poignant documentary about his life by filmmaker Dan Stafford, titled Root Hog or Die. Death isn’t an obsession in Porcellino’s work; any given issue of King-Cat is more likely to dwell on the beauty of nature, the wisdom of Zen Buddhism, or funny memories about work, family, and friends. But The Hospital Suite is a reminder that the seemingly basic chemistry of words and picture can uniquely, compellingly address the deepest fears that face us—up to and including the ultimate one.