Drawn to the End
Publishing my comic memoirs about illness and death online is a project I’ve had on my back burner to-do list for a long time. I created this website during the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems like an appropriate time to consider death and dying.
Posey’s Plan is a memoir of my neighbor’s death. It tells the true story of a woman I came to know as she planned her own demise. She was a strange semi-recluse who chose me and a few other neighbors to confide in.
After she died—in her own time, in her own way—I spent a year writing and drawing her story. It was a compulsion to tell what had happened.
Death and dying were often on my mind already. Comics were the medium because, well, I just like cartoons as a way to tell a story.
Dying at Home
What got me started witnessing death unafraid was my father’s passing in the early 1970s. Though it was hard, I found I wanted to sit with my Dad as he got sicker.
It was a time of momentous change in the way Americans thought about death. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross started that change with her book, On Death and Dying. The author/psychiatrist visited my dad and family. She arranged for something unusual at that time—the end to hopeless treatment and a return home to die.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I drew a comic about the experience. It is published in the online magazine, The Intima, a Journal of Narrative Medicine. Here is the link to the story of my Dad: A Death in Chicago, 1972.
The Intima comes from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. It’s part of a movement that uses storytelling as a way for caregivers and patients to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and each other. People involved in the field include those who provide health care, those who need it, and families and friends.
Columbia University offers a Masters Degree in Narrative Medicine. It was there I joined an informal Graphic Medicine reading group, the comic subset of Narrative Medicine, where we discussed comics about illness. From that group I learned about the Comics and Medicine conferences.
Here is where I believed I belonged, with my comics that always seemed to be about how people cope with illness and death.
I printed some copies and did a presentation about Posey’s Plan at a Comics and Medicine conference in Vermont in 2018.
I was then invited to exhibit illustrations from the memoir and spoke on a comics panel at Reimagine End of Life event in New York—a death panel!
Reimagine is a group that puts on events around the country about the end of life. Reimagine https://letsreimagine.org
Before I started making graphic memoirs, I had admired and drawn comics on and off for years. It was a method that pestered me, but I didn’t know how to get past pencil drawings.
A course at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2015 showed me how. In the class, our assignment was to produce a multi-page comic.
A memoir about an old friend emerged during the semester. Brian was an especially beautiful young man. He and I were each other’s sidekicks, spurring each other to more and more outrageous behavior. We were Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe without ambition, drive, or extraordinary talent.
Just as the class began, I saw Brian for the first time in years. He was ravaged by illness. I wanted to write and draw hat emotional and revealing visit.
My classmates were much younger than I, wonderfully accomplished, mostly drawing thrillers and monsters. We interested each other. They were especially curious about the LSD trip drawn in one panel. Their 20s in the 21st century were different from my 20s in the 1970s. I had run around the country looking for adventures rather than finishing college and finding a decent job. They were using the course to add skills to make them more employable.
Our SVA teacher, Keith Mayerson, had us ink our comics by hand. I will never do that again. Unlike my classmates, I’m an untrained artist, and my inking was a mess.
As a photographer in my daily life (working for city labor unions), Photoshop was my friend. As with my writing, nothing I do is satisfactory until I redo it and redo it and redo it. Photoshop allows me to change my lines and move things around endlessly. I don’t drip blotches of ink either. Photoshop and I are still besties.
The comic memoir that emerged from that course is called Beautiful Brian. The link is to my travel blog where I published it awhile ago.
I made a few copies, shared it with my classmates and a few friends including Brian, who said he liked it though it revealed flaws in both our characters.
Soon after, I became part of another emotional experience that inspired me to write and draw. The husband of a good friend in North Carolina was sick and dying. I was there as she chose hospice care for Robert. It was a terrible time. Robert was angry and accusatory toward his wife as he lay dying at the veterans hospital. Margaret had her own health problems.
Writing and drawing the story was a way to think it over. I didn’t share it for a few years. It felt like a diary at the time, and it was a hard story.
Now, from a distance, I can see it might be meaningful to those who care for difficult loved ones at the end of life. I plan to publish it here soon.
Choices in How to Die
Then came Posey’s Plan, the story of my neighbor, but this time, I wanted to get the story out to people. I wanted to further the discussion about choices in dying, and my neighbor had provided a thoughtful perspective. That is why I shared it with the Graphic Medicine folks and why I created a website to feature it.
The Future in Death
In this time of a deadly virus, I hope it offers perspective and I would like to offer best wishes for health, well-being. May we all be able to look clear eyed at the end of life. Fat chance.
But perhaps these stories will show some of what we have in us. Our characters don’t change as we go or help others to go. Can we live with that? How can we die with that?
More to Death and Comics
There’s also a review of my comic, Death in Chicago in The Intima by Jonathan Garfinkel, “On Compassionate Storytelling in Graphic Memoir: Pat Arnow’s A Death in Chicago, 1972: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and My Family.”
Here’s a comic being published serially that I’ve been admiring, How Mom Died.
Here’s a link to Graphic Medicine, the website for all things comic and medical.
Here’s a link to The Intima, the journal of narrative medicine.
Here’s a link to Columbia University’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program, “Transforming healthcare one story at a time.”
Here’s the person who got me started as a fan of comics, Alfred E. Neuman: