Cartoonist Travis Dandro lives in Maine these days, but his memories of Leicester are vivid enough to fill a book with them. He did exactly that with his recently published graphic novel, “King of King Court.” Recounting his childhood and teen years in Leicester, it’s a comics autobiography delving into his life in a dysfunctional, sometimes dangerous, family.
Dandro grew up under the care of a number of adults who, overwhelmed by their own problems, routinely failed to put the safety of their children at the forefront of their concern. Filled with scary incidents brought on by various forms of adult self-destruction and violence, including drugs, alcohol, crime and domestic abuse, Dandro’s childhood was defined by grown-ups acting out their despair while he tried to make some sense of it.
Dandro’s treatment of such dark, harrowing subject matter has earned him rave reviews from outlets such as The Boston Globe. For Dandro, that’s just part of the reward of telling his story. Dandro says that the best thing the graphic novel has given him is real healing from his trauma. Dandro’s childhood weighed on him and pushed down harder through the years. He chose to revisit that period of his life in comics form following a nervous breakdown and therapy that allowed him to speak openly about his childhood for the first time, but also added to his emotional stress.
“Therapy just made my anxiety worse,” Dandro said. “I was waking up with panic attacks and became dependent on Valium in order to get back to sleep. Eventually, the medication lost its effectiveness so I just stayed awake. That’s when I started drawing the book.”
“The King of King Court” opens with 6-year-old Travis out for the day with his grown-up buddy Dave, but there’s more to Dave than Travis understands. Shortly after, Travis’ mom reveals that Dave is actually Travis’ real father. That’s when the real trouble begins for Travis.
“When I was 6 Dave was one of my favorite people in the world and we were really close,” Dandro said. “That ended after he got deeper into drugs and started becoming more violent. After Dave went to prison, I felt greatly relieved and I didn’t think about him again after that.”
Dandro portrays that tumultuous period through the eyes of a little kid. But even though Dave went to prison, he didn’t disappear, and Dandro’s book chronicles that too. His father made fumbling attempts to reconnect, but Dandro, protecting himself emotionally, rebuffed these efforts.
“Working on the book brought about a feeling of guilt regarding Dave that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Dandro.
But Dandro says that creating “The King of King Court” helped him in ways that counseling and medication never did. It allowed him to analyze his life from a safe place, and draw strength from that experience.
Dandro fills the book with dream sequences, some terrifying, that were developed from sessions where he daydreamed about being a kid and put whatever came to his mind on the page. This let his subconscious have a voice in the narrative. None of the sequences are based on any real dreams he had as a kid — except for one incident in the book involving the “Mona Lisa.” That was real. Sort of.
“That was an actual experience, although she didn’t actually reach out and grab me,” Dandro said. “My very first memory is of being terrified of the copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ my aunt had hanging in her living room. I remember my mom carrying me into the room while I was kicking and screaming. Once she put me down I ran and hid under the kitchen table. It was that creepy smile and the way her eyes seemed to follow me. The Mona Lisa still freaks me out a little.”
One of the most crucial truths presented in the book is the impact that comics have had on Dandro’s life. He depicts himself retreating into drawing comics as a defense against his childhood terrors and also as a healing action that allows him to have some control over his life. That’s a lesson he hasn’t forgotten.
“Comics have made all the difference in my life,” he said. “I have been making comics since I was 10. Whenever I would struggle with things or get frustrated with life, I always had comics to save me.”
Comics has been at the center of his pursuits as an adult. He’s been drawing them for college newspapers across the country since 1996, when the University of Maine picked up his “Mr. Gnu” comic strip. On his Patreon, a platform for artists, he regularly provides backers with new comics, and his work has appeared in two editions of “The Best American Comics.”
“When I’m not drawing comics I’m usually thinking about comics,” Dandro said. “I haven’t had a lot of time to draw this past year but I’ve been planning out my next book in my head the whole time. It’s like a rubber band being pulled back and when I finally sit down to draw, the ideas will fly out.”