The Mind's Eye: Von Allan Talks "the road to god knows"

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In this age of technological wonder and medical progress, mankind has a lot to be proud of and a bright future of scientific advances to anticipate. But for all our progress, it seems that the greatest enemy can truly be within, as our own minds and "chemical imbalances" threaten to tear us apart at the very core of our being. Mental disorders, from depression to schizophrenia are still quite prevalent and affect many every day. Canadian writer/artist Von Allan has experienced those trials and tribulations firsthand, using those painful experiences to create "the road to god knows…," a graphic novel arriving in stores next year, likely as a self-published project. Allan spoke to CBR News about the project, which features a young girl named Marie, who is struggling with her mother's crippling mental disorder.

Stories about depression and family conflict don't sound upbeat, and Allan is cognizant of how much these stories can take the wind out of readers' sails. Allan's "the road to god knows…" isn't going to shy away from the darker aspects, and he says, "I don't think serious stories should necessarily to be depressing; there has to be humour and lightness or a story like this just won't work. So, with that in mind, there's also a major subplot that has a much lighter tone; professional wrestling, which hopefully acts as a good balancing point for the more serious aspects of the story. I won't get into it too much here, but two of the main characters (Marie and Kelly) are struggling to come up with enough money to get to a wrestling show. How they come up with the money and whether they actually make it to the show or not runs through the course of the book.

"If I just had the characters mope around bemoaning what happened to them, it would be a pretty boring read. Part of the fun of writing is having the characters pick themselves up, dust themselves off and deal with what's happened to them, and how they succeed or fail in that is part of the magic of fiction. And if the reader cares about the characters then the story is working."

Though he's a relatively new comic book creator, Allan is quite familiar with the industry, having run a bookstore and examined sales trends, especially when well-reviewed books didn't sell well. After embarking on the quest to publish "the road to god knows…," Allan found that even someone with his knowledge needed to slightly change his approach. " I did a little bit of shopping around last fall, but after a few rejections (Image and Drawn and Quarterly) I decided it was far better to focus on finishing the story first. In a way I regret submitting it when I did. I hadn't made the art changes and I think that hurt me and the story was weaker as a result. And I think asking anyone to give a 'yes' or 'no' to only 15% of a story is a tricky thing. So the obstacles were really personal ones. The plan right now is to finish the book and then start looking at submitting it once again.

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"With 'the road to god knows…/ I felt that I had a story that might resonate with readers. Only time will tell if that proves to be the case or not, but I think the subject matter allows the story to be different from a lot of what's out there. Part of the adventure, of course, is finding out if that's the case. We'll see!"

Another part of that story is the autobiographical aspect and Allan isn't shy about talking about how mental illness affected him, even as a young "Alpha Flight" loving lad. But don't worry about Allan preaching from his pulpit: this is graphic novel, not a university lecture. "My Mom was badly schizophrenic when I was growing up and much of the story is drawn from those experiences. Part of the reason I couch the story in terms of mental illness is that schizophrenia isn't really mentioned in the story itself. The reader is left (as is Marie) to their own conclusions of exactly what is happening and why. One of the things I actually struggled with when I was figuring out the story a few years ago was if I should make it truly autobiographical or not. There are brilliant cartoonists like Chester Brown and Joe Matt who've certainly done some amazing work on this front. When it came down to it, though, I felt it was a better approach for me to make it fictional. In some ways, 'the road to god knows…' is actually inspired by Matt Wagner's approach to his 'Mage' stories. While 'road' certainly does not have the element of the fantastic that Wagner put into 'Mage,' it does have the same sense of fictionalized autobiography. You still need to be disciplined in the craft of writing the story regardless of whether it's fiction or not. I'm just not sure 'road' would ever have happened if I had made it pure autobiography. And, aside from anything else, it would be just too close to home."

The core cast is also kept fairly small, as to really explore their situations and the nuances of their lives that have been affected by the mental illness in Marie's family. While Marie is your average teenager, the circumstances affecting her mom, Betty, force her to grow up a bit faster than they like. Fear not, for Betty will not be "blamed" or "responsible" for the events affecting Marie, as Allan explained. " A single mom, Betty is doing her best to cope with schizophrenia while raising her daughter at the same time. Circumstances are making the struggle that much harder and Betty is having a much more difficult time then ever before. A lot of this winds up being back story and I deliberately didn't want to explain too much it. Betty's struggle is primarily a solitary one, though, and through everything her love for Marie remains."

The book will also be about more than just a struggle for Marie, who has enough other issues to deal with in her own life, and is forced to put some of her relationships to the test." While I've mentioned that the story deals with mental illness, in many, many ways I could say that the story actually deals with friendship. Part of what I wanted to explore was how friends, even young friends, help one another when times are tough. Marie is going through some pretty rough times and her friendship with Kelly becomes a key part of her support network through it. Kelly is feisty, punky and into early Pogues music and is a fantastic distraction while Marie deals with what life's throwing at her.

Any comic book with "God" in the title is bound to raise the question of religion, but astute readers will notice that it's not "God" with a big G. Von, wanna clue us in? "Actually, the story doesn't deal with God at all," he admits. "The irony is that the title is actually inspired by "Sally MacLennane" by The Pogues and not by God . There's a line in that song that I'm actually hoping to use as a bit of a forward to the story (I need to get the permission from the rights holder) that goes in part, "…so sad to see the grieving of the people that he's leaving and he took the road to God knows in the morning."

"I could have actually titled the story the 'road to who knows…' and that may have captured the feeling a bit better. But I like the title for what it is. In a way, the question then becomes: am I worried if anyone will mistake the book for a religious work? Eh, not really. There may be a few people here and there who will come to a conclusion based purely on the title of the story, and there's a chance someone might put the book down (or, of course, pick the book up for the same reason) thinking it's some type of religious work, but I'm really not that concerned about it. I think it says a lot more about an individual who does that than it says about my story."

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The self-professed huge Alpha Flight fan ("Byrne just got it") is also illustrating "the road to god knows…," and while he could have hired someone else to illustrate the book, it's something he never considered seriously. Viewing the art as part of his "journey" to create the perfect final product, Allan has strived to become a better artist with each page. "Part of it is that I've always been enamored with creators who both write and draw," he says. "There's just "something" that a sole unique vision has that's different than collaboration. I certainly don't think one is better than the other (one look at Alan Moore's work would show how narrow-minded that would be) but there's something about writer/artists that has always captivated me. So I just never thought of doing it any other way than this. Besides, apart from anything else, it's fun to try and take a concept that I wrote and get it down on paper as a drawing. It can be a struggle, but the struggle is still fun."

If you're a Canucklehead or in Southern Ontario, you'll be able to meet Allan and get a sneak peak at "the road to god knows.…" "I've teamed up with a local café (Rasputin's Folk Café here in Ottawa) and I'll be showing early pages from the story throughout the month of July," he says "The pages will be presented at the size I originally drew them at (so 11 by 17 inches) and will be rotated on a weekly basis. So anyone viewing the artwork will be able to read the story sequentially (at least the early parts of it) exactly as I intended it. It's a good opportunity to get my work "out there" and get some feedback, to boot. I'm really looking forward to it!"

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