Tuesday 30 November 2010

Kirkus Reviews

Bloomsbury sent me the review of Psychiatric Tales from Kirkus Reviews. My first US review.

An illustrated primer on mental illness that builds to personal revelation. Despite the title, most of these chapters are not traditional tales with narrative and characters. They are, instead, explorations of various psychiatric illnesses common in the wards where Cunningham worked as a health-care assistant. In his book-length debut, the author, who created the Web comics Super Sam and John-of-the-Night and The Streets of San Diablo draws on his experience with patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and other illnesses. Despite the darkness of much of the material—as reflected in the black-and-white drawings, polarities that the illustrator exploits to creative effect—the prevailing tone is one of compassion. As Cunningham explains in the introduction, this is “intended to be a stigma busting book…needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remains widespread in society.” Most of the text is similarly straightforward, but the art is more revelatory, as it illuminates brain patterns, brain disease and psychological conditions. Yet there are flashes of deadpan humor as well, particularly in the chapter titled “Anti-Social Personality Disorder,” in which the author relates how a condition that sometimes results in criminal behavior shares traits that society generally considers normal: “Selfishness, lack of empathy, superficiality, and manipulativeness…are highly valued in the worlds of business, politics, the law, and academia.” In the chapter titled “People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives,” the author focuses on a variety of luminaries—from Winston Churchill and Judy Garland to Nick Drake and Brian Wilson—who have struggled with mental conditions. “How I Lived Again” provides testimony on how the artist’s own mental illness led to his interest in the subject (as well as his employment in the field) and how his art proved crucial in his recovery. The illustrations are compelling throughout, but the narrative is more powerful when it is more personal and specific.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

My Talk at the London Print Studio

On Saturday I did a talk with the cartoonist known as Brick at the London Print Studio, Harrow Road, where the That's Novel exhibition is currently running. We were there to discuss the role comics can play in depicting mental illness. Brick has a graphic novel out from Knockabout called Depresso, which is about his long struggle with depression. The talk ended up being fractious and not a little tense. We were both coming from quite different ends of the mental health debate. I'm not saying the situation blew up into a row or anything. It didn't. But there was an underlying tension which made me uncomfortable. None of this made it any less enjoyable for the small audience who attended. They responded well. I got very good feedback from the event.

Apart from Paul Gravett , the Comika organiser, also in the audience was Knockabout publisher Tony Bennet and esteemed cartoonist Hunt Emerson.

I still haven't finished reading Depresso. Paul Gravett gave me a copy to read the night before (homework, he called it) and I was still reading it on the tube on the way there. Actually, just this afternoon I got a letter from Brick, saying how he enjoyed the talk and how lovely it was to meet me. He enclosed one of his Stamp Out Stigma comics, Once a Wino-Junky, which depicts the severe prejudice those with addictions often (mostly) suffer. It's extremely good with a nice blue tint over the artwork. Very direct and to the point.

I hung around after the talk for the next event, which was an interview with Charlie Adlard, who is the artist on the comic book The Walking Dead. This has become the most successful cable TV series ever after a mere two weeks, and has already been renewed for a further season. I hadn't read the comic book, but I'd enjoyed the first episode of the series. Charlie's stark black and white artwork really suits the subject. I can admire it, even though it's not my kind of thing.

Finally I helped Tony Bennet carry some boxes of Walking Dead back to his car, avoiding the busy traffic. I was careful. Being run over carrying a box of The Walking Dead would be just too ironic, I thought, and it would be all that people then remembered me for.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

The London Psychiatry Conference

Had a long, but enjoyable week in London. I went down for many events, first up was the London Psychiatry Conference, where I was on a panel with Phillipa Perry, author of Couch Fiction, and Ian Williams of the Graphic Medicine website. We'd done this before, of course, at the Graphic Medicine conference earlier in the year. The Psychiatry Conference is an event that takes place every year for psychiatry trainees in London. It's as much as a social event where trainees from all over the city can meet up, as it is anything else.

The Cumberland Hotel near Marble Arch was the venue. I suffered comedy buffoonery of the highest order in getting there. I wasn't sure where this hotel was in London, so I used my iphone map GPS system to tell me and this turned out to be something of a mistake. It kept pointing me towards an area where there was postal sorting office near Oxford St. After walking up and down side streets in a futile effort to find the place, I asked at a nearby hotel. They told me that the software had been directing me to a post office box used by the Cumberland Hotel. The staff at this hotel where I found myself, told me that they often had people walking in asking the whereabouts of the American Embassy, having made the same mistake. There are clearly a few bugs in the system still. I had then to take a taxi down to Marble Arch in order to get to the conference in time.

As it turned out everything had been delayed anyway, and the event hadn't even started yet, due to a bomb scare on the street outside the hotel. Plus, there was a tube strike that day, and because of this, Marble Arch tube station was shut.

There were hundreds of people milling about in the vastness of the hotel. Somehow I still managed to locate Phillipa and Ian (the only people I knew there). The event kicked off in the big conference hall where Ruby Wax was doing a show. The connection here is that Ruby Wax has a MSc in Psychotherapy. Her show was basically a comedy monologue, with musical accompaniment, detailing her spiral into depression and subsequent recovery. It was good, but I thought she was funnier in her intro to the performance, than in the performance itself. The improvised stuff was better than the practised performance of her show. I don't think the music added very much either.

It could be that I'd have found it much more enjoyable if I hadn't been suffering from a migraine that morning. I was shifting in my seat uncomfortably throughout Wax's show. Luckily, Ian Williams, who is a doctor, had in his bag some very effective painkillers, and this did the trick. It's nice to have your own personal physician with you. I felt like Elvis.

We did one talk in the morning and then a repeat performance in the afternoon. We talked about our books and how the comic strip form is so suited to relating personal experience and getting complex information across. This went down well with both audiences. I sold every copy of Psychiatric Tales I had with me. Thanks to Stephen Ginn for the invite.