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John Porcellino on The Hospital Suite

John Porcellino on The Hospital Suite

The comics artist discusses his latest work and his relocation to the Beloit area.

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If you've read John Porcellino's King-Cat Comics & Stories and his related books over the years, you start to feel like you know the guy pretty well. His comics are primarily autobiographical, charting his moves around the country, relationships and breakups, a number of eccentric obsessions (see King-Cat 74 for an exhaustive guide to the bridges of South Beloit, Illinois, or King-Cat 73 for "In Search Of The Cuckoo Bird"), and his deep affection for nature and pets. Porcellino's humble, vulnerable style and gentle sense of humor—along with the fact that you can mail-order the comics from Porcellino himself, or buy things from him in person at events like this past weekend's Madison Print & Resist—just engender a feeling of intimacy. 

But Porcellino goes one further in his new book The Hospital Suite, which he'll be reading from this Friday at A Room Of One's Own. The book follows a years-long arc through Porcellino's various mental and physical health struggles, from an excruciating digestive ailment to  debilitating spells of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Along the way he moves several times, endures the dissolution of his first marriage, and seeks solace in alternative medicine and zen philosophy. 

Porcellino has lived in Beloit for the past few years, and recently marked the 25th anniversary of King-Cat. The release of The Hospital Suite coincides with a new documentary about Porcellino, Root Hog Or Die. After finishing up his book tour, Porcellino plans to get to work on King-Cat 75, which he says will be a double issue about his late cat Maisie. Porcellino spoke with me last week about the research and emotional struggle behind The Hospital Suite.

Tone Madison: The Hospital Suite centers on things you've mentioned in passing in previous comics, but what made you want to take on all these health issues in one cohesive book?

John Porcellino: A couple of things. The main thing was just, personally, it was kind of hard for me to write about this stuff when it was all happening, because I didn't really know where everything was going. I would kind of refer to it obliquely in the comics or anecdotally, with passing references to what was going on to the physical health stuff. And then the OCD stuff, it just made it hard to write about just about anything when it was going on, let alone to talk in a direct manner about OCD itself. It was pretty difficult. I think I had to kind of get through it to the other side a little bit so that I could have some perspective and a little bit of time, and get to a place where I could actually tackle this kind of stuff. It was just really hard creatively to talk about that stuff directly at the time. And when I did my previous big book tour for Map Of My Heart, talking to audiences and stuff, I had to explain what was going on in my life at the time, the background of these comics, and that was when I first started talking more openly about what had gone on with me. The response from people in the audience was very positive. Almost every event that I did, somebody would come up to me afterwards and be grateful that I had talked about these health problems, but specifically about the OCD and anxiety issues, because it was something they dealt with themselves, or someone in their family or a loved one. Having that experience of just starting to talk about it more openly kind of inspired me. It's no headline news that we have a hard time talking about illness and mental illness in our culture. So for me personally, when I started talking about it openly, it was a big relief, and to get the response from people who were appreciative of hearing this stuff a talked about in a more straightforward manner, that kind of inspired me to want to do The Hospital Suite in a way that was more direct and just the nitty-gritty and as honest as I could be about my experiences on a very personal level, whereas the stuff in Map Of My Heart dealt with this stuff in a very oblique, behind-the-scenes kind of way, to the point where I think that unless you knew me, it would be hard to understand exactly what I was talking about. 

Tone Madison: You mentioned last year that you went through a bunch of your old medical records and other archival materials to research this. What was that process like for you?

John Porcellino: It definitely brought up a lot of old stuff. Right after the hospitalization happened in 1997, and I got out the other side of it, I immediately wrote down as much stuff in my notebooks as I could remember, and I made a little calendar where I wrote down the dates of what happened and when, so that somewhere down the line where I was finally hopefully able to tackle this, I would have that material to refer back to. And so I had that, and just the notes that I'd taken. The other two stories in the book I worked on over the course of 10 years or so, so it was the kind of thing I'd pull out every couple of years and work on. I did get copies of my actual medical records from the hospitalization, so that was just a wealth of information, and it brought up a lot of stuff that I had forgotten, and it helped me figure out the details of the timeline. It was really interesting to see, because I was getting that story from the point of view of the healthcare workers, the doctors and nurses and things like that, who were on the other side of my experience. It was really interesting to read their notes and it was kind of helpful. It definitely brought up a lot of stuff for me that was kind of emotional. It took time for me, not only the physical stuff and the mental stuff, but delving into my first marriage ending and stuff like that. 

Tone Madison: In the process of writing and researching this, did you find yourself seeing a lot of the story with fresh eyes, or having things jump out at you in a way they hadn't before?

John Porcellino: Well, sure, and that's what I mean with, I think it took time to have the perspective to kind of look at what happened. It's stuff that happened to me, but through the lens of all this time passing, you're able to take a little bit more of an objective viewpoint of things, and you start to see the threads and stuff. You can see where this thing is going. When you're in the middle of it, you're kind of just immersed. I literally didn't know where the story was going. Map Of My Heart was stuff that I did that was very responsive to what was happening to me in a day-to-day, kind of personal way, whereas The Hospital Suite is talking about that same time period, but from a different point of view. I didn't really think about it at the time, but going on tour and talking about the new book, I began to see that these two books are two sides of the same coin. That was interesting to me too, just as an artist, to see the way they interplay.

Tone Madison: In a lot of your previous work, you let people in on your life on a pretty personal level. Did that mentally prepare to you dig a little deeper in The Hospital Suite?

John Porcellino: I don't know that it's difficult for me emotionally to express these things. It was difficult for me at the time. I had OCD that made it hard to express just about anything, let alone this really crippling illness that made me feel crazy and ashamed and embarrassed. I spent a lot of time and energy in those days trying to hide the fact that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. There was just no way that I was going to be able to deal with it at the time in any kind of straightforward fashion. Once I started talking about it, even just a little, in a more open fashion, which was one-on-one with people, or when I do book readings and I'd say, "this comic I'm about to read was written during this period where I had this crippling OCD," it freed me up. Every time I started talking about it more openly, it was like the spell was broken a little bit more and more every time. I don't know that doing the previous comics helped me open up any more so than I think just opening up on a personal, human level in regards to what had happened. That motivated me to want to throw it all out there, warts and all as they say. In The Hospital Suite, there were a number of passages where just coming out and admitting it, despite all that work I had done and preparation to try to get to that point, I was just ashamed, I was like, "I can't believe that I acted this way. I can't believe that I did this stuff." There's still a little bit of embarrassment about it. But the big thing for me was, a big realization for me, was realizing that my mental illness, there's such a huge stigma against it of course, but if I had diabetes, I wouldn't be ashamed of it. I wouldn't be like, "I can't let anybody know I have diabetes because it's such an awful, embarrassing thing, it's such a personal failure." But that's how we view mental illness, right? It's like, "You should be strong enough to overcome this." But really it's a physical illness, just like any other illness. It's just that the physical organ being hurt by the illness is the brain, and so it results in these weird behaviors, weird thoughts, and of course we feel like we should be able to control our thoughts. We have this willpower and we're individuals, but it's really not that way. So when I got to those passages in the book, I kind of was dreading talking about this stuff. I just kept those kind of ideas in mind that in the hope that talking openly about this stuff would help other people break the spell that this kind of illness has. I don't want to sound like a goody-two-shoes about it, but a big part of my motivation for this book was the hope that just talking about this in a straightforward, human fashion could somehow help other people as well.

Tone Madison: One thing that sticks out in this book is the occasional use of these close-ups of your face, and they're used to depict this weariness and the toll that things are taking on you. How did you come to use that?

John Porcellino: The close-up on the eyes is something that I've used many times in my comics, and it is just a device for portraying the internalizing of that moment. The eyes are kind of a gateway between the outside world and our inner experience, so that's where that kind of imagery comes from and what I'm trying to accomplish with it, but it's something I've used for many, many years in a lot of different comics and a lot of different situations. I've never really articulated it before, I don't think, but I would say that's probably the rationale behind the use of that motif.

Tone Madison: Are you still liking Beloit?

John Porcellino: I love being back in the Midwest. It's a comfortable place and it's pretty affordable. I don't have to stress out too much about rent and the peripheral stuff that I've spent a lot of time worrying about. It feels good to have a home base after many years of temporary living situations. I feel like I'm finally at a place again where that kind of outside stuff, like my living situation, is pretty stable, and I'm able to focus on getting work done. That's what I'm really excited about after I get back from this tour, is hunkering down and getting a lot of comics drawn.

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