When I was sixteen I was hospitalized for anorexia. For almost twenty years I never spoke to my brother John about it, never spoke about the bulimia that succeeded it, or the grief and depression following the death of our father that ultimately became the catalyst for change. It was only once I saw myself beginning to build the life I’d wanted for so long, and when I believed the life I had been ashamed of and kept hidden was behind me, that I felt free to pick up on a tangential comment John made in an email, a comment that lead to a conversation, which ultimately evolved into a collaborative graphic memoir, currently a work-in-progress we hope to publish as a book.
So why create a graphic memoir? Creatively, what is it that this particular genre achieves that prose cannot? By their nature, graphics provide a way into the story that is different from prose. As Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, in their most simple form, drawings are icons of what we see everyday in the physical world. As a simplified form, an icon requires the reader to use their imagination to complete the picture. In this way, the reader becomes an active participant in the storytelling.
In graphic narratives that explore our interior worlds, such as this one, that imagery becomes even more powerful as it is charged with making the invisible visible. The graphic representation of emotions asks the reader to participate not just in visually completing the picture, but in emotionally completing the picture as well by “inviting the reader to empathize with a subject by entering its world and seeing through its eyes.”¹ For these reasons, graphic memoir seems a particularly adept medium not only for telling my story, but for highlighting universal themes such as fear and grief, and for questioning where experience ends and mental illness begins.
Graphics and text together do an excellent job of conveying multiple layers of meaning simultaneously. But within that framework we still had to decide how to structure the narrative vehicle that would carry the reader through the story. This project arose out of a series of conversations with my brother. Conversation is, by nature, anything but a smooth, linear story arc. We wanted to preserve the original text of our conversations because their fragmented nature reflected the disjointed and disorienting nature of the experiences I described.
But you can’t tell a story in a way that’s so fragmented and disorienting that the reader can’t follow the narrative. At twenty-eight years old, I was simply a person living in the world responding to life in all it’s messiness and variety when, confronted with my father’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, I stumbled and fell. In trying to regain my footing, I found myself in a net labeled mental illness and pushed down a path of treatment from which it was extremely difficult to extricate myself. In all honesty, when I look back on those years, it was a surreal nightmare from which I feel unbelievably lucky to have escaped.
But that story will never be told if the vehicle for telling the story leaves the reader too disorientated to follow. This left us with a creative problem to solve: if we wanted to preserve the unedited conversations, how else could we create continuity for the reader?
One of the benefits of collaborating with someone whose creative strengths are so different from my own is that they look for creative solutions in different places. John is a professional archeological illustrator with a background in scientific and technical illustration, but the story I told him seemed to call for more than a literal illustration of the facts. My brother discovered poetry comics, specifically the poetry comics of Bianca Stone who describes using the illustrations for her poems as another line in the poem. In an interview describing her approach Stone says, “I want to imagine it [the poem]; more importantly, I want the reader to imagine it. So I draw something that lies beside it, so to speak, like another line of the poem.”² This approach gave John the creative freedom to not simply illustrate the facts of what I was saying, but also to add his voice, to write another line in the poem responding to what I was saying and to add a narrative thread for the reader.
The illustrations, as a response to the text, serve as a way of John and I continuing our conversations within the creative framework, which in turn has created it’s own narrative. What began as my story has become three stories: my story, my brother’s illustrations in response to hearing about my experiences for the first time, and our joint story of collaborating and creating this project together.
When telling my story to John, I found myself relying on metaphors and children’s stories, such as Alice in Wonderland, trying to convey the surreal and nightmarish situations in which I had found myself. Moving away from literal illustration and into the world of archetypes not only gave John more of a voice in the text, but achieved the additional aim of broadening the point of view beyond my experiences to create a more universal story.
It was very important to me that the story be about more than my specific circumstances and that the reader find the common human threads that bind us. We all have our dragons that lurk in the darkness; the specific make-up of those fears is less important than the empathy engendered when we realize that such fears are universal, as is the courage to overcome them.
 Czerwiec, MK, and Ian Williams. “Comics and the Iconography of Illness.” Graphic Medicine Manifesto. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2015. 127. Print.
 Van Winckel, Nance. “It’s Like There is a House in my Skull: Art & Interview with Bianca Stone.” Numero Cinq Online-Only Journal 5.3 (2014): n. pag. Web. 3 June 2015.