Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Secret Acres: Gabby Schulz's Sick

Gabby Schulz's Sick is body horror in the most relevant and realistic sense of the word. In many ways, it's a recapitulation of his entire career to date, and it's the most brutal and nihilistic take on both humanity and (especially) himself since the first couple of issues of Ivan Brunetti's Schizo. The story is simple: it's an account of fifteen days spent with a serious illness, one that debilitated him to the point where he could no longer even get up to drink water or use the bathroom. From the description, it sounded like an extreme form of the flu. Influenza is no joke, and it can kill people who don't have strong constitutions, are very young or very old, or have no support or care. The latter case describes Schulz, and that's the heart of the comic.

Living alone with roommates he doesn't know all that well and without being in contact with any friends, Schulz also didn't have the money to go to a doctor and wasn't willing to risk a hospital ER that would likely turn him away for lack of insurance. The sheer misery of that experience, where one's skin feels like it's on fire, where your entire body is wracked with pain, your stomach is doubled over with cramps, you lose control of your bowels, you are unable to eat, where sleep barely seems to help--it's no wonder why it led to such a brutal dark night of the soul for him. That said, Schulz has never been one to mince words with regard to the horrors of our society and to the ways in which we fool ourselves into buying into a system that is essentially meaningless and hollow at its core. Even trying to enjoy the little things is next to impossible because it's all part of a doomed, poisoned world. Schulz is well aware of how much worse most people in the world have it than him, as a cis white straight male; indeed, he knows that he is complicit in what he has been given as a result of his privilege.

What's interesting is that despite all of this and frequent wishes that he would just die, Schulz simply wasn't wired for suicide. He had no way of answering the question: "Why bother living?" other than to say that we're hard-wired to do so and equally hard-wired to have hope in the face of calamity. There's no ray of sunshine to be had here, making this an even grimmer read than Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (its nearest literary equivalent), which at least held out experiencing aesthetic beauty as a meaningful activity. For an artist like Schulz, even that activity is spoiled by the reality of the world. And yet, he does it anyway, walking out to a park and drawing in his sketchbook. If the problem of existentialism is how we relate to the sheer existence of other people (think the final line of No Exit: "Hell is other people."), then what Schulz does is hint at that connections are the only way we can successfully fool ourselves into continuing to have meaningful hope.

He suggests that the moments of happiness in his life consisted of finding ways to return to the womb, and that included his relationships. The problem with that point of view is another central problem of existentialism: that we can never truly know the point of view of another person and thus can never make a real connection with them. That said, there are also thinkers who have demonstrated that empathetic understanding, when given and received freely, is a real phenomenon. The understanding at a deep level of each other's "otherness" (often through an understanding of looking at the other person and you knowing that they know they're looking back) is another form of connection, upon which entire societies can be built. What can really be drawn from Schulz's work is that a lack of empathy, a lack of connection and a willingness to be totally isolated is not just what literally led to his physical sickness, it also led to his emotional sickness. That biological drive for hope is also a biological drive for togetherness, and despite his despair in this book, what becomes clear that is that it takes the courage of authentic action, of a willingness to reach out, is in many ways the only thing that separates humanity as a species from total barbarism. A lack of empathy makes it easy to commodify others as well as commodifying oneself.

The power of this book is in Schulz's agonizing but frequently hilarious drawings. He wrings coal-black humor out of the bleakest situations in the manner of a Ralph Steadman, and the original webcomics downward scroll effect is maintained in the page design and oversized pages. Schulz has always been an impeccable pen-and-ink artist, but his secret weapon here is his use of color, especially a kind of bruise-colored and nauseating yellow. He alternates between an open grid on some pages and full-page splashes on pages where he really wants to drive a point home, like about religion, belief systems in general and his central metaphor of humanity being the real disease. To say that he lays it on thick is an understatement; there's not a single page that goes by without grotesque and over-the-top imagery. Connecting a childhood nightmare with his current state felt almost cathartic in the context of the story thanks to its visceral qualities, and it's that total commitment to the image that makes its exaggerated qualities so powerful. Schulz wasn't simply out to shock the reader in this book, but rather to draw a reaction as real and powerful as the one that he experienced himself. I still believe his conclusion was something of a cop-out that allows him to get through life without actually doing the hard and brave work of making connections, but there's no doubt that his deconstruction of society, politics, culture and religion were all devastatingly on-point.

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