Tuesday 4 November 2014

Notes from the Small Press 18: John Porcellino's Autobiographical Comics: The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014); Graphic Novel Review

I've been following the work of American small and not-so-small press autobiographical comics creator John Porcellino for around ten years now, and trying to for longer than that. I think the first thing of his I heard about was the graphic novel Perfect Example, published by Highwater in 2000. Back then, however, for a Brit, even one living in London (at the time), getting hold of US indie comics and graphic novels wasn't always easy, and so Perfect Example sat on my wants list until 2005, when it was reissued by Drawn and Quarterly. That same year La Mano published Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, and also around that mid-2000s period, at one of my two visits to San Diego Comic-Con across consecutive years, I scored a few issues of Porcellino's self-published King-Cat Comics and Stories (issues #62–64); and then in 2007 Drawn and Quarterly published the King-Cat Classics collection... Basically, I have a fair few of Porcellino's comics, and I like them a lot, so when I spotted a single copy of his latest graphic novel:

The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014; excerpt here), in Dave's Comics in Brighton the other week (having been made aware of it via Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter) I snapped it up. At well over 200 pages I guess you could call it his longest sustained narrative... except, in common with his other comics and collections and graphic novels, it's episodic in nature, comprising three overlapping stories: "The Hospital Suite", "1998" and "True Anxiety", with a small selection of additional related minicomix under "Appendices" in the back. As the graphic novel's overarching title implies, though, what links all these bits, aside from that they, er, interlink a bit (hence "suite"), is the medical theme, namely the various ailments which have plagued Porcellino throughout his life, but especially around the late 1990s.

And it's quite the list of complaints, including, but not limited to: mysterious stomach pains; repeated bouts of anxiety and depression; obsessive-compulsive behaviour; self-harming; allergies; and lower back problems. By the time I got to the end of "True Anxiety" I felt exhausted by it all, which in a way is apt: as draining as the experience is for the reader, it must have been a hundred times so for Porcellino himself, something he frequently expresses in the narrative. And to compound his despair, half the time the medical professionals he meets haven't a clue what's wrong with him, which makes me wonder whether the American healthcare system and the British NHS are really so different.

The honesty and candidness of Porcellino's account will, I think, speak to anyone who, like me, has had repeated encounters with the healthcare systems of their respective countries. In my case the early part of The Hospital Suite – "The Hospital Suite" itself – brought to mind one memorable stay in hospital in 2010, and even though the outcomes were different – surgery in Porcellino's case, a permanent prescription for Lansoprazole in mine – and I don't share Porcellino's spirituality, the direct, sincere manner by which which he communicates his experiences – his maladies, the treatments for those maladies and how he deals with it all – lends the work a veracity, a universality which can only engender empathy.

Part of why it works, I suspect, is down to how Porcellino's comics look. The naivety of his linework and guilelessness of his storytelling make his comics feel unfiltered, as if he drew them immediately after the events depicted. Which is a method he's deployed for his comics in the past – see the True Anxiety zines at the back of The Hospital Suite – but not, I don't believe, how he drew most of The Hospital Suite; this is new work documenting historical events. Still, that's the illusion he maintains – and anyway I think you can overthink Porcellino's drawing style, which is why I've tried not to dwell on it too much here: his comics look the way they look – uncluttered, sparse, barely delineated – because that's how he draws them.

Which is not to say that they're somehow dashed off, despite initial appearances to the contrary. Porcellino spends a lot of time getting his comics right. It's no easy thing to communicate an idea, convey information or evoke a feeling in so few lines. The simplicity of his style belies the depth of The Hospital Suite. There's an art to Porcellino's artlessness.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7 by Martin Eden

Notes from the Small Press 16: Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou 

Notes from the Small Press 17: The Battle of Lewes by Peter Cole


  1. Thanks for the review, Nick. It took me a while to catch onto Porcellino's work but thanks to Impossible Books stocking issues of King Cat I'm now a big admirer. Will be ordering Hospital Suite too. Hope all is well with you! John

  2. Ooh, I'd not come across Impossible Books before. Thanks for that, John. I shall be having a proper look around their site.