Travis Dandro began talking about his traumatic childhood in detail for the first time when he saw a therapist in 2014. It did not go well.
Therapy heightened his anxiety, keeping Dandro awake with panic attacks. Valium helped, but its effect wore off. Soon again, Dandro found himself awake at 3 in the morning obsessing over the stress in his life.
That’s when he started drawing his memoir, the 464-page graphic novel “King of King Court,” that details with finely drawn illustrations Dandro’s unsettling youth in central Massachusetts with an abusive, heroin-addled and semi-present father, a distant stepdad and an overwhelmed mother who can’t pull her family from a downward spiral.
What Dandro couldn’t accomplish with therapy, he accomplished through art. Over hundreds of dense illustrations and sparse text, Dandro, an artist from Levant, makes sense of his story in hard-won, black-and-white truths. He tells his personal story in the form of a graphic memoir, recounting a cycle of poverty, addiction and crime, and how he coped by creating his own world through cartooning.
He compared drawing the book to exposure therapy, a clinical treatment in which a patient is exposed to the source of anxiety as a way to overcome it. Instead of spending nights fighting anxiety, he spent his nights drawing it. He woke at midnight and drew in his sketchbook through the night, until it was time to start his day and go to work.
“Sometimes images from my subconscious would appear, and although I didn’t fully understand them, they seemed to capture how I felt,” he wrote in an email. “The subject matter was difficult to deal with, but because the drawings required a lot of attention to detail, my mind would shift from anxious and out of control to one of intense concentration.”
It was through this process he began to heal mentally. Physically, though, he was exhausted because he was operating on little sleep. He completed the 464 pages in less than two years, “which is pretty quick for a graphic novel, especially when you have a family and a day job,” he said. The Montreal press Drawn & Quarterly published “King of King Court” this past summer. Drawn & Quarterly specializes in graphic novels and publishes books aimed for a literary audience. “King of King Court” has received widespread praise. The Guardian newspaper called it “a powerful debut, skillfully drawn, cleverly told and as raw as a wasp sting.” Publishers Weekly said, “Dandro’s art in ‘King of King Court’ is eye-catching in its exhaustiveness.”
His editor at Drawn & Quarterly, Tom Devlin, said Dandro represents a new kind of comic with a bold, personal voice and a dramatic narrative story that resonates with people who might not be readers of graphic novels or comics. There’s depth in Dandro’s characters and honesty in both his drawings and words, Devlin said.
“He sent me a pretty good number of pages while he was working on it, and I was amazed not only with the level of detail, but the sophistication of the storytelling and the emotional nature of the work. It wasn’t just funny little gag strips. This was serious autobiography,” Devlin said in a phone interview. “Voices like Travis’ are exactly what we have been hoping for, these individual voices that have something to say, that go deep and speak to an experience and can communicate that to an audience that isn’t just people in-the-know.”
He sees “King of King Court” becoming a perennial title about childhood trauma that young readers will return to, and predicts the book will become “one of the great pieces of art in its style.”
Dandro, 45, moved to Maine from Massachusetts in 1996 with his future wife, Amanda. They had met at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts. A Mainer, Amanda introduced him to the state by taking him to Gulf Hagas and Acadia National Park.
Dandro found calm in Maine’s natural beauty.
Married and with a young child, he and his family moved to a remote cabin in Burlington, a town in Penobscot County. They had no electricity or running water, but plenty of solitude and quietude. Being in the woods and tuning in with the rhythm of nature gave Dandro the chance to expand the scope of his art.
Inspired by Thoreau’s journals, he began keeping his own journal about experiencing nature, in the form of comics. Until then, he had drawn mostly three-panel gags. With time and space, Dandro explored his medium and began learning to represent time and place in a longer format.
Prior to “King of King Court,” Dandro was known mostly for “Mr. Gnu,” a comic strip that he began in high school and continued off and on through 2012. This strip reflected what Dandro called “my strange sense of humor with gags usually ending in some kind of ridiculous visual punch line.” The strip appeared in the Maine Campus, the University of Maine daily, and, at one time, ran in more than 20 college papers in the United States and Canada. Today, the only college paper he draws for is the Cornell Daily Sun, which has run his comics since 1998. He also offers his comics by subscription on his website, travisdandro.com.
His childhood is not an entirely new subject. He explored it in a mythological way in a self-published comic book, and his strip “Read It & Weep” was an image of a young boy, who looks like how Dandro draws himself as a kid in “King of King Court,” and a sad-looking squirrel. “The only thing which ever changed in the comic was their conversations, which could best be described as dark humor focused on depression and the boy’s somewhat-miserable life,” Dandro wrote.
His early influences were the newspaper comics he grew up with – Charles Schultz, Lynn Johnston, Bill Watterson and Jim Davis. More recently, he’s become interested in the Japanese artist Hokusai. Chris Ware, an American cartoonist, is another inspiration.
Of “King of King Court,” one reviewer wrote, “Dandro’s personification of himself is blank-eyed, messy-haired, Calvin-esque; and the illustrations shift between evocative abstraction, classic cartoon, and rich, realistic detail.”
Dandro’s style is unusual. He uses tiny, squiggly lines to fill space, and can change the shading by varying the squiggles. The tighter they are, the darker they become. It’s time consuming, and effective. He does not use borders on the edges of his pages or between the panels. It’s intense, but not overwhelming.
He fills swaths of pages with finely tuned lines that betray the midnight hour he made them. He shows his dreams, his memories growing up on King Court and moving from town to town, school to school and house to house, from one relative to another. He tells nightmare tales of drugs, alcohol and physical abuse, along with happy moments amid the chaos.
Love is not lost in these pages, and the yo-yo of emotions are reflected in the narrator’s confusion, anger, distrust and retreat.
Dandro put his sketchbook away with the sunrise each morning and welcomed members of his family to the waking world, helping with breakfast and getting the kids – now 19, 16 and 9 – ready for school. Comics don’t pay the bills. For the past 20 years, he’s worked with people with intellectual disabilities, and now is a case manager advocating for adults.
He says it’s gratifying to help people who sometimes have trouble advocating for themselves. He’s always been empathetic to those who need a little help coping in a challenging, unsympathetic world. Dandro dedicated the book to his mother.