The Hospital Suite, written and drawn by John Porcellino and published by Canada-based Drawn + Quarterly, is the autobiographical story of a man’s struggles through crippling illness, both physical and mental. The comics medium is seemingly a perfect fit for autobiographical writing as it shows the intensity of a moment in time while seamlessly hopping to another moment whether minutes later or months. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, The Hospital Suite gives a poignant tale that gives readers the chance to experience a fellow human’s life.
John Porcellino is no stranger at all to comics. Twenty-five years ago as still something of a kid, he began publishing his own zines, a champion to indie creators as the movement boomed in the early 1990s. His collected work King-Cat and Stories runs for hundreds of pages giving snippets of life as the basis for thought-provoking and emotionally-inspiring tales through the years. Each comes in the form of “Mini-Comics,” a subgenre not often seen outside the pages of MAD and a few anthologies. These entire stories play out over just a few pages, quickly paced and made all the more powerful through brevity.
The mini-comics work well into the longer form style of autobiographical years. The Hospital Suite actually includes three stories, with the titular introduction joined with 1998, a year of emotional and social turmoil from the fallout of illness, and True Anxiety, exploring Porcellino’s struggles with depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For an extra bonus, the appendices give examples of Porcellino’s earlier works referenced in The Hospital Suite from the perspective of the creator, including original “True Anxiety” tales from 1992.
Through each of its pieces, The Hospital Suite paints the powerful picture of major and mysterious illness. One panel shows a doctor examining Porcellino and letting out a string of surprised swears with an editor’s note: “*actual quote.” The Hospital Suite discusses physical illness that knocked Porcellino off his feet (literally at times) and devastated his body. In 1998, he shows the weight that the struggles with his health put on his own sanity and his marriage. True Anxiety goes back to Porcellino’s childhood, tracing anxious feelings back to his earliest memory when, as a child, he worries that playing with a toy might only break it.
Just as in real life, the pages of events are a rollercoaster of emotions. There is terror as he blacks out and wakes up in a hospital, compassion from loved ones, laughter with observations that his hospital bed is surrounded with machines like in Star Trek, and wasting depression, leading him to the accepting mantra to live life, “If I die, I die.” Throughout the book, Porcellino references his spiritual growth and its impact on his life, from his Catholic upbringing to his discovery and dedication to Zen Buddhism, complete with Zen illustrations and mantras.
Contributing to the impact of Porcellino’s story is his style of art. At first glance, one might take the minimalistic drawings as doodles, but the words and events that accompany the lines of icons give the reader all the more engagement through closure. Porcellino traces the pain through his body as jagged bundles of nerves with his heart standing out, cartoonish and vivid. When he hugs his cat, Maisie bears a tiny question mark, giving the reader a laugh.
With its welcoming simplicity, The Hospital Suite is an effective and genuinely literary discussion of struggle with which every reader can identify.