In comic books "bravery" is often a hollow word, interchangeable with "truth" and "justice," an excuse for eight pages of costumed character pummelings. But it's hard to conjure a better word to describe Chicago native John Porcellino's recent graphic memoir "The Hospital Suite." It chronicles an intense period where the artist faced a series of devastating health problems, resulting in lengthy hospital stays, years of physical debilitation, a subsequent attack of crippling obsessive compulsive disorder, and a humiliating dissolution of his marriage. The naked, humble honesty with which he reveals his most vulnerable weaknesses and mortifying lows makes this the bravest autobiographical comic I've ever read.
Because Porcellino's deceptively simple, spare drawings and dot-eyed, noodle-limbed figures reference the purity of childhood drawings, it's powerful to see severe adult situations depicted in this style. The book opens with the author living in Colorado with his wife and negotiating his way through a number of unusual, but manageable health issues, most notably, a hypersensitivity to sound that he treats with a special diet. When a slight dietary deviation leaves him rolling in pain on the floor, the artist enters a health-care wormhole, where a series of misdiagnoses, challenging treatments and surgeries debilitates his body and spirit. More mysterious maladies follow, the pressure of which sets off lengthy OCD attacks making his creative endeavors, day job and relationships nearly impossible.
Catholic guilt plays a large part in his anxiety — he experiences an epic shame spiral after referencing a Led Zeppelin song in an autobiographical comic because he fears the Lord's wrath for celebrating Satanic music — but Porcellino's relationship with Zen Buddhism has proven over the years to be a key to his survival. In his long-running, self-published King-Cat Comics series, the cartoonist frequently includes parables, philosophical offerings, and tales of historic Buddhist monks that have fascinated and balanced him over the years. At several junctures in "The Hospital Suite," these koans and sutras give him the strength to endure health-care agonies or provide revelations that guide him toward better treatments.
Eastern influence also can be credited for his blossoming as an artist. As seen in panels included in an appendix of his early anxiety-related comics, Porcellino's spare style originally referenced scratchy, chaotic, punk-rock artlessness. But by exploring Zen philosophy and aesthetics, the artist has embraced simplicity of design, making every panel a manifesto of minimalism, with even his use of corny comics shorthand (anxiety lines radiating from heads; visible hearts floating between characters) seeming profound.
At one point in "The Hospital Suite," Porcellino is reading "Our Cancer Year," Harvey Pekar's graphic memoir about the comic writer's health challenges written with his wife Joyce Brabner. Porcellino is bummed out that Pekar includes a panel where his wedding ring falls off his newly emaciated finger. This was something Porcellino experienced himself, had planned to illustrate for this project and ultimately decides to include anyway. I'm glad he made that decision, because "The Hospital Suite" is a far superior work to "Our Cancer Year." Not to denigrate Pekar, certainly the most important autobiographical comics creator ever and a writer whose early work chronicling the mundanity and profundity of a working man's existence was revolutionary. But Pekar's comics accurately portrayed him as a thrifty hustler trying to make a buck when he could, so after becoming a full-time cartoonist, his work often seemed to pad page counts for a paycheck, with even his most serious topics presented in an ill-paced and bulky manner. Porcellino makes every panel count, depicting a repetitive, unending series of disorders in ways that make the reader feel the author's pain and understand even his most irrational anxieties.
I need to disclose that I know Porcellino, but in the independent comics community that doesn't make me special. A generous advocate for the scene, Porcellino appears at every convention no matter how obscure, helps distribute self-published comics for scores of artists, and leads workshops and tutorials wherever he goes. That he has done all this for so many years without revealing the severity of his health issues is amazing. To survive these challenges and then have the strength to relive them on the page feels like a brave and bold example of heroism. No Avengers required.