Cunningham Tells "Psychiatric Tales"

Darryl Cunningham has been involved in the British independent comics scene dating back to the eighties. Like many working on indie titles, making comics doesn't quite pay the bills, so Cunningham spent his evenings perfecting his art, holding down a position as a health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward during the day. While there, Cunningham kept copious notes about the job and the experiences he had, thinking that one day it may make for a good prose story.

Bills needed to be paid, and Cunningham realized that if he wanted to pull himself out of a near minimum-wage job, he'd have to get additional training in order to become a trained psychiatric nurse. It was during this training that things changed for Cunningham in a dramatically personal way.

After a few years of schooling, Cunningham realized that he had bitten off more than he could chew and began to struggle with feelings anxiety and depression. As he began putting his life back together, Cunningham started to look at his comics differently, sharing stories of his years on the psychiatric ward in sequential form. The strips quickly gained a following online.

With a collection out now from Blank Slate Books, CBR News spoke with Cunningham about "Psychiatric Tales," battling depression and how, despite now being a critically acclaimed cartoonist, he's managed to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.

CBR News: Prior to the "Psychiatric Tales" collection, you had been published, but have you ever made your living full-time from comics?

Daryl Cunningham: I've never managed make a living from comics publishing. It's always been a side-project which has occasionally made me a little money. I first got involved in the comics small press back in the eighties, self-publishing as well as appearing in other people's zines. I dropped out of the scene for years, somewhat disillusioned because I just didn't seem to be getting anywhere. Drawing and writing comics involves a lot of effort, and if you're making no money and you only have a small audience of readers, you do begin to wonder if it's all worth it. This was before the internet, so getting people to see any of your work was extremely difficult. Printing up small runs of little magazines, and selling at comic marts to other people who were doing the same, seemed a bit futile after a while. I was always waiting for the next step up, but it never happened, so I gave up for awhile.

In terms of "Psychiatric Tales," when and why did you decide to start making strips about mental illness?

I worked for many years as a health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward. Throughout this time I kept a diary, in which I gradually amassed a huge amount of material about the day-to-day workings of a psychiatric hospital. People kept saying to me that I ought to turn these stories into comic strips. I was, at that time, trying to knock the material into a prose book and didn't think that adding drawings would enhance the work in any way. Surely, all the information you need is already there in the writing as it is, I thought.

But eventually, I did start drawing it all up into narrative strips. By this time, I'd seen Marjane Satrapi's "Persopolis," a simply drawn autobiographical strip about the writer's childhood and young adulthood in Iran. This book was a big international success. I thought, "Well, I can do something like that." "Persopolis" was a big inspiration to me in terms of what you can do with the comics medium. It was not so much that Satrapi was a particularly good artist, more that she had a dynamite subject that she told well and clearly. She threw light into an area that the Western world was quite ignorant about, revealing Iran to be a more subtle and conflicted place than we imagined. So, very simply in black and white, I began drawing up various tales of my experiences working on the wards. I wrote about what I knew and what I felt most strongly about. The subjects in the book include dementia, depression, self-harming, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

You've had both personal and professional experience with mental illness - how did that inform the comic?

After a few years as a health care assistant, I decided that if I was going to drag myself out of the minimum wage trap and have any kind of a life, then I should become a trained psychiatric nurse. I had to do a year's night course at a local college just to get the qualifications that would get me onto the nursing course in the first place. This I did alongside my health care job. I bit off far more than I could chew. Two years into the nursing course, and with only one year to go, I found that I could not continue. I began to struggle with terrible anxiety and depression. I had always suffered a certain amount of anxiety in the job, but I'd managed to deal with it. As the last year of the course began, I became completely overwhelmed with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Thoughts of death and suicide haunted me. I ran up huge debts, not caring whether I could pay them off or not. I had to leave the course. I'd invested so much time and effort into becoming a psychiatric nurse, but in the end it had all come to nothing. I was devastated.

In the aftermath of all this, and while I was putting myself back together, I began to look again at much of the old comic strip work I'd done in the years prior to the nursing course. The internet had arrived by then, and this gave me a direct line to a new and bigger audience. The story strips that had the largest impact were the ones written about my psychiatric ward experiences. These strips developed a life of their own, being picked up all over the internet, on sites such as Digg, Boing Boing, The Comics Reporter and many others. This led to Blank Slate offering to publish the stories. Well, I didn't have many strips done at the time (I hadn't even looked at them for four years) and so I began drawing more in order to have enough for a book. This process helped dig me out of depression and gave me a new direction and a future.

I started the diary in 2001 and I had my experience of anxiety and depression in 2006. I first posted the first chapters of "Psychiatric Tales" online in 2005, then there was a gap, and I restarted the work in 2008.

What do you want readers to take away from the experience of reading "Psychiatric Tales?" Presumably there's an educative, awareness-raising aspect...

"Psychiatric Tales" is first and foremost a book that attempts to demythologise mental illness. Forget what you've seen in movies or on TV, this book shows what the experience of mental illness actually is for both patients and the staff who treat them. Media representations of people who suffer mental illness tend to be appalling. We live in an age where racism and sexism is considered unacceptable, yet the mentally ill are still considered fair game for ridicule and are subject to the worst kind of prejudice. I had an email recently from a young man who intended to buy two copies of the book when it came out, one for his mother and one for his stepfather. He wanted to show his family that the bipolar disorder he'd been diagnosed with was a real illness, and that he needed their understanding not hostility. We still live in a world, sadly, where depression is seen as weakness of character, and psychosis (such as hearing voices) is considered proof of dangerousness. Even the psychiatric nursing profession itself suffers prejudice. I've worked with many general nurses who considered psychiatric nurses not to be real nurses at all. This is a surprisingly common view among general nurses. I'm hoping that "Psychiatric Tales" will be a real stigma-busting book.

You've drawn on some of your own experiences for the comic, particularly from your time as a professional. Are the events you portray based on real occurrences, or are they fictional but realistic portrayals of mental health situations?

The events depicted are quite real, but I've changed many the details for reasons of client confidentiality. I've not named the hospital concerned, and I've changed some aspects of the people portrayed in order to help hide their identity. The character used in the bipolar disorder chapter is more of a blend of people I've known that have suffered this illness.

How do you feel about selling "Psychiatric Tales" to Bloomsbury in the U.S., and what does it mean for you professionally?

This Bloomsbury thing came about in a strange way. I didn't contact them. They contacted me. An editor in the publishing firm had seen chapters of the work online after it had featured heavily on sites such as Boing Boing and Digg. This is another way that the internet has changed publishing. Forget sending your stuff to be buried in a slush pile of hopeful manuscripts on someone's desk. Do good, interesting work, build up a readership online and the interest will follow.

How this will change me, I've no idea, but I fully expect my life to be turned upside down in the coming year. My long-term plans involve giving up the care work I'm obliged to do to support myself and doing this creative stuff full time. Tomorrow, I'll be trudging through the January snow to the local hospital, where I'll be working in an orthopaedic ward, feeding people and wiping bums, though, so that should keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, for now at least!

Do you have any other projects you're working on at the moment?

I'm part of the Act-i-vate webcomic collective, where I'm running a weekly serial strip called The Streets Of San Diablo. It's a fantastical mash-up of the western, horror, and superhero genres set in a small town on the edge of Hell (act-i-vate.com). I'm also in the planning stages of a second volume of "Psychiatric Tales." There are plenty of subjects I didn't get around to covering in the first volume. There's still an enormous amount to be said.

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