25 January 2010

VON ALLAN: the road to god knows...

I don't often get excited about things any more. Maybe it is my ongoing depression, maybe it is being tired from the sad things of the world, but whatever the reason, it always surprises me when my heart skips a beat. When I got the opportunity to interview a new voice, Von Allan, about his work "the road to god knows" I got excited. Maybe because he speaks in his work about something I am moved by, the plight of others, and my own plight with mental illness. I should say, I have great hopes for this work, and look forward to everyone reading it, especially those who need it. -- Alex Ness

Alex Ness: Your story, "the road to god knows" involves mental illness from a very personal perspective. How did you decide to do it, and why?

Von Allan: When I had gotten my writing and art to a point that I thought I was ready to take a stab at a graphic novel, I knew I needed to tell a story that I could remain passionate about through the entire process. Mainly because I knew that process would be bloody challenging; I was setting out to do something I've never come close to trying before and the personal challenges would be pretty high. Since I came to art late, there would be a steep learning curve in rendering the entire story in pencil and ink. And comics, despite how they've been dismissed historically in North America, are a remarkably challenging medium. There's a lot you need to be able to do – and you need to be able to do it in such a way that it not only doesn't distract the reader from the story but tells the story in a readable way. That latter element, “storytelling,” is something that I find endlessly fascinating.

Anyway, when I was musing about what story to do I explored a lot of different thing. Everything from doing a riff on super heroes to fantasy, but I ruled them out pretty quickly for a variety of reasons. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the old saw “write what you know” was probably not a bad idea for a first book. Mental illness and schizophrenia is something that's surrounded me for most of my life and it also wasn't a topic that was covered in comics all that much. I figured those two points would serve me well and I think, in hindsight, it was a good choice to make.

Is mental illness more of personal issue to deal with in that it is family, or do you see the need to deal with it as a community more? The reason I ask is that many people who advocate for a cause have a family member who is affected, but to some it is just who they are to reach out.

Oh, I definitely see a need to deal with mental illness on a community (and societal) level. But the most important thing is for someone who is mentally ill to get the help they need and get healthier. While I think “normal” is open to interpretation, being a functioning member of society is one of the the goals of being healthy, I think.. Maybe being one of the results of being healthy, too. Now, getting healthy can certainly be accomplished in-house with family members without involving the community at large, at least in the early goings. I don't know if I'd say it's a prerequisite for getting healthy in the first place and it probably depends on both the individual and the illness.

The problem, though, if it's kept to a more personal and private basis is that the community at large may not be educated that mentally ill people are, for the most part, simply troubled human beings that deserve our compassion and support. Fear, misunderstandings and stereotypes can easily result and that obviously can create feelings of isolation in the mentally ill that doesn't help anyone. The mentally ill person's goal is still to get healthy, but when they eventually start to interact with other members of their community it would be nice if they weren't confronted by fear or hostility, y'know?

In my mom's case, she had an anxiety disorder that went along with the diagnosis of schizophrenia and that only got worse as time went on. She retreated a lot from people around her and that eventually became close to a paralyzing fear of the world. I've never experienced anything like that, but I could see her battling and it was devastating to watch. I often wonder if perhaps there had been more people looking out for her, welcoming her in various community events and the like, things wouldn't have gone that far. I'm speculating, of course, but I do know there really wasn't any type of community outreach in the neighborhood we lived in. And, to be fair, it's a bit of a chicken and the egg argument; it's possible that no amount of outreach would have been able to combat the anxiety disorder at all. Her health was also pretty bad at times and that certainly didn't help the situation, either.

To put it another way, we're better together. Communities are stronger when all its members feel that they're a part of it. People can't be forced to join in (nor should they be), but stronger community ties would probably go a long way.

My mom has Alzheimer’s and thought in her earlier stages she could hide it, as if there were shame attached to it. By portraying your mother, does it not expose her to others in a way she might be saddened? I am not saying it is bad for you to do, but, did she have a sense about her challenges that would make what you are doing uncomfortable?

Well, this is tricky. My mom died in 1994, long before I set out to do this story, so I really have no idea what she'd think about it. I don't think I'm telling tales out of school so to speak, but I'm so close to the work that I could be easily mistaken on that front. If she was still alive I suspect I would have made sure she was OK with some of the depictions in the story. But that said, it's also a fictional work and not pure autobiography. While I drew a lot on my own experiences to tell the story, I certainly played with time to a large extent. That meant that certain events were more compressed than what actually occurred in real life. But the events did happen – it's just a matter of when they happened. Which, of course, kicks the whole thing around again!

So yeah, my suspicion is that I'd have given the final draft of the script to my mom to see what she thought. And then possibly tinkered with it based on her feedback. I certainly don't think she would have hated it, but I could be wrong about that. Would I have chosen not to proceed if she was? Dunno. Possibly, but I believe pretty strongly in this story and even if my mom wouldn't have supported it I suspect I might have gone forward anyway. That said, I think she would have believed in the sincerity of it even if she disagreed with a few things here and there.

In your experience does the health system in Canada respond well to mental illness? You may not know, but if you do, how would it compare to the US?

I don't think our health care system does a particularly good job, but I'm looking at this from the hindsight of my own childhood experiences combined with the media coverage of what the current situation is now. My mom didn't seem to be particularly well consulted with what was happening to her – or if she was, she couldn't communicate details all that well to me. I do know that none of her doctors ever pulled me aside and really explained what was happening with her to me. I also vividly remember my sudden awareness that her own doctors weren't really talking with each other, either. A few issues came up with drug conflicts because her prescriptions weren't being communicated adequately within her network of doctors. I think this is something that's being handled much better now, but is kinda scary in hindsight.

I don't have any experience with the American health care system, so I can't comment on that one.

Do the various systems failures that every health system experiences show through in your work, the layers of mistakes, missed chances to fix something, more?

No, this was something I deliberately avoided, mainly for two reasons. The first is that the story is from the point of view of Marie, so she wouldn't have (just like I didn't) a lot of knowledge of what her mom's care was like. Secondly, I didn't want the story to be commentary on the Canadian health care system without a great deal more research on my part. I was far more comfortable telling the story from the point of view of one family than anything else.

Also, the story is set in the late 1980s, so it would have taken a degree of historical research that would have taken some doing and perhaps not been quite as relevant to the health care system as it currently stands. While I think improvements could (and arguably) should be made, I don't think it would have been fair to make that argument through the prism of the past.

What is your goal for this work?

To tell a compassionate story with believable characters. If it gets people talking about schizophrenia and mental health, then great! If it helps someone in a similar situation to Marie feel less alone and trapped, then that's great, too!

On a personal level, I wanted to do a story that would help me grow as both a writer and artist and hopefully set the stage for future work. From that point of view, I think it succeeded in spades.

What would you say beyond your mother’s experiences were your main motivators to enter into the field of comics with such a work?

Well, I think when you're a new voice and you're trying to break into a new field, you face a number of creative choices. The big one is do you do what the mainstream is doing and try to follow along, or do you set out on a more individual path, knowing that there's more risk and probably fewer sales? In the case of comics, it's pretty simple: do you try your hand at genre work, knowing that more established and seasoned creators have already mined that ground pretty extensively and probably better than you can? Or do you go a more independent route, risking sales potential but doing something very individual and distinctive? I chose the latter, mainly because I knew that sales would be a challenge no matter which path I followed so I might as well do a story that means a great deal to me and one I could be enthusiastic about for the duration of the project. I also knew there would be a lot of bumps and hiccups along the way (whew, boy, was it ever bumpy!), so that enthusiasm was pretty important.

I love comics. I just never thought I could make comics. That I've learned to do it is amazing to me. The learning will never stop, but I'm doing things now that I never dreamed I could do when I was teenager.

What artists or writers or what the hell, just creative people are your inspirations and who would form the most powerful of influences upon the work you do? ...

Well, no single artist or writer made me think, “I gotta do that stuff.” I came to art very late and it was only my growing awareness that most artists are made and not born that made me set out on this journey in the first place. That said, there are many creative people I like: Shane MacGowan, Harry Harrison, George MacDonald Fraser, Matt Wagner, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Shooter, Aaron Sorkin, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Lambert, John Byrne, Mac Raboy, Robert Holdstock, Andrew Loomis, and on and on! Again, not one of them made me think I had to do this, but collectively they all helped shaped a lot of my thinking on art, writing and storytelling.

I'm also going to quote Walter “Killer” Kowalski here: “I credit my success to the practice of ‘Kowalski-ism’: What I thought, I became; What I felt, I became; What I said, I became; I am my inspiration.” Yup, that's it right there. It probably sounds arrogant, but meh – it's true.

Where do you live, are you married, cats, dogs, ...?

Ottawa, Ontario. And yup, married to the very lovely Moggy and we have two cats (a tabby named Reilly and a calico named Bonny) and a husky dog named Rowen.

Does being Canadian help or hurt your ability to reach an audience in the US?

I don't think it matters, though there are pesky details when it comes to currency that can be tricky. The exchange rate makes thing a bit tricky. I'm actually printing the book in the United States for a variety of reasons, but that makes getting it to US-based comic shops very, very easy. Interestingly, I've had a lot more luck getting the book into US stores than I have in Canadian ones (though perhaps counter-intuitively, the Canadian stores are doing extremely well with it). Getting the word out is always the challenge – if enough people are interested in the book, then the customer demand will help build retail support.

The internet, though, also helps a great deal on this front. If someone wants a copy of the book but lives in a city that doesn't have a store carrying it, then there's always Amazon and whatnot to turn to. That's a major change to what retailing used to be like prior to the early 90s.

Von Allan

Quote: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Beckett)

My original graphic novel, the road to god knows... (ISBN: 978-0-9781237-0-3) is now available at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Barnes & Noble, and other notable retailers.

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Blogger barbkaus said...

Such a powerful interview. A privilege to read it. Barbara (MySpace)

January 24, 2010 11:47 PM  
Blogger alex-ness said...

thank you Barbara!

January 24, 2010 11:53 PM  
Blogger nilskidoo said...

Great interview, Ness!

Von is one of the gentlest creators I have ever traded words with. A truly awesome cat.

January 25, 2010 3:38 PM  
Blogger alex-ness said...

thank you skidoo!

January 25, 2010 3:40 PM  
Blogger marion said...

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January 29, 2010 3:50 AM  

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