Thursday, July 23, 2015

John Porcellino's Back Pages

Throughout the course of its 25-year existence, John Porcellino's King-Cat series has mostly been autobiographical in the sense that it captures thoughts, feelings, moods, anecdotes and observations from his daily life. It has rarely been a straightforward, diary-style narrative. There have been exceptions, like the stories that made up Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man and Perfect Example. For the most part, however, Porcellino's writing circumambulated a number of huge, life-altering events. Porcellino noted that there were certain stories and events that he'd get to eventually, and "eventually" finally happened in the form of The Hospital Suite (published by Drawn & Quarterly), a book with three overlapping sections detailing Porcellino's battle with a mysterious, life-threatening illness and later depression, anxiety and debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This book accounts for a lot of things that were implied or elided in King-Cat. The first section, "The Hospital Suite", sets up the rest of the book. As a straightforward narrative about an abdominal tumor that required surgery, Porcellino also tells a story about love, fear, faith and coming to terms with the possibility of his death. There is the terror of being sick and dealing with doctors who needed a number of attempts to find out exactly what was wrong with him, but there was also the palpable comfort he received from his then-wife Kera as well as from his Buddhist faith. There are moments of humor, like when Porcellino is pissed that Harvey Pekar had beaten him to the punch in depicting a scene where his wedding ring fell off his finger because he had become so skinny. At 113 pages, this could have been its own graphic novella, However, the story deepens and becomes more resonant when paired with the next two sections.

The second section, "1998", talks about his journey back to his hometown of Chicago with his wife and the ways in which his life started to break down. Plagued by allergies that even made him hypersensitive to the ink he used for his comics, Porcellino once again had to come to terms with the idea that he might have to accept that he would lose everything that was important to him. When a specialist was finally able to help him with his allergies, he faced a new challenge in his persistent, alienating OCD. It was enough to cause his wife to walk out on him in a truly devastating scene, one that was precipitated by the nagging sense that she was on the verge of leaving him for months on end. This section mostly acts as a link between the first section and the last, detailing the ways in which physical and mental woes can wear away at relationships.

The third section, "True Anxiety" is by far the most harrowing. It's about his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and OCD. "Battle" is an overused term with regard to illness, but in Porcellino's case it accurately describes his many attempts at treating it. Meditation, yoga, diet, supplements, aversion therapy and talk therapy all helped for a period of time, but a stressful life event would simply make it come back, stronger than ever. Porcellino does a remarkable job in relating how one of the worst things about OCD was a rational awareness that the things the disease demanded were absolutely crazy and even absurd. Because the disorder works on one's lizard-brain, fight-or-flight responses, no amount of rational thought can assuage it. Porcellino even laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of some of his OCD fears, like how renting a Godzilla movie might cause monsters to appear and attack his town. Eventually, he gives in to the idea of medication, and there's a remarkable panel where he realizes that it's actually starting to help. Porcellino's work has always been simultaneously powerful and understated, and the ending of this book is typical of that quality. In talking about how he still has issues that he's dealing with, he notes that his life is now so much better, and in the past panel says, "When we meet, let's shake hands." That's a powerful affirmation for someone who was so germ-phobic, as well as an expression of openness and wanting to live.

The Hospital Suite is direct and blunt in a way that most of his work simply isn't. It still bears his trademark spare and understated line, conveying a maximum of emotion and information with a minimum of fussiness. It is brutally honest without being whiny or self-serving; if anything, this book shows just how humbled Porcellino was by his life experiences. There's an underlying sense of gratitude in how he came out the other side. The plain, stark and straightforward nature of the narrative takes on a greater power when paired with the rest of his life's work; The book certainly works on its own (as does King-Cat), but read in conjunction (and especially if one is a long-time reader of Porcellino's comics), each work illuminates and informs the other in interesting ways. The Hospital Suite provides context and resonance for the King-Cat stories, while King-Cat is in many ways a shadow autobiography that has illustrated Porcellino's life in a poetic manner.

While there are some interesting appendices in the book, the true companion piece to The Hospital Suite is actually the recently published King-Cat #75, the 25th anniversary issue. This is the tribute to Porcellino's beloved and deceased cat, Maisie Kukoc. Like the first and third sections of The Hospital Suite, this issue rewinds back to the early 1990's and tells the story of his life and his struggles with illness through the eyes of his relationship with his cat. There's lots of details about how life with a cat is a weird experience, but Porcellino genuinely drew comfort from this constant companion during his lowest moments. This relationship essentially framed one overriding aspect of Porcellino's form of self-expression: that he was not afraid to love, to acknowledge and express his emotions and to display constant wonder and awe at the natural world. That's especially brought him in the final, wrenching sequence when Maisie is dying and he takes her outside, explaining to her how hard it is to let go but it has to be done. This two page spread is masterful, as Porcellino only actually uses images in a handful of the twelve panels; some panels have only text, same panels don't have any borders, and some panels have just a handful of lines. The final panel of the second page has a drawing of his house, breaking up this moment of emotional intimacy and returning them both to the material world. Porcellino cleanses the reader's palate after she dies with a few pages depicting her favorite games, in packed pages featuring playful and kinetic art. Porcellino has an uncanny ability to draw animals in such a way that provides a fully-developed sense of their personality with just a handful of lines.

Ultimately, both The Hospital Suite and King-Cat #75 are about accepting loss without numbing oneself to the emotional reality of the situation. It's about the process of grief, as Porcellino had to grieve the loss of his health, his wife, his pet and even his own sanity and still found a way to make it through to the other side. Accepting loss while never giving up on life, the capacity for love, the willingness to take emotional risks and the energy to create and express oneself are depicted by Porcellino as part of what makes us human. There's no escaping loss and tragedy, and Porcellino's study of Zen Buddhism helped him to accept that the only way out is through--or as he says in his many books, "Forge".

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