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CR Sunday Interview: Darryl Cunningham
posted June 7, 2011
 

imageNothing has been more fun in comics the last few years than to bear witness to the skyrocketing profile of artist Darryl Cunningham. His Psychiatric Tales, now out in North America from Bloomsbury, grew both artistically and audience-wise out of Internet culture in thrilling fashion, as Cunningham posted and discussed significant chunks of work as he completed it. As he talks about below, it's the on-line exposure that lead directly to publishing contracts.

Straight-forward, engaging, and possessed with both great clarity and a world of sympathy for its subject matter, Cunningham's series of essays about those suffering from mental illness and the way they're treated by modern society should sit comfortably on shelves next to works like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis in terms of its easy accessibility to a wide range of readers and the humane voice that emanates from its pages. Its final chapter, in which Cunningham details his personal troubles in the course of making the work, is as affecting as any comics short story in recent memory. One imagines Psychiatric Tales defining, at least in significant fashion, the Yorkshire, England-based artist's career for years to come.

Psychiatric Tales is hardly the only Cunningham project out there. Cunningham's also one of the truly fun fantasy artists working -- his anything-goes, oddball superhero work has appeared on the FPI blog and through the Act-I-Vate collective -- a kids cartoonist and a prolific critic of pseudo-science in its most pernicious forms. I would want to interview Cunningham if all he were up to was making his stand-alone, still-moment city scenes, and am thrilled that he chose to talk to me the weekend after the wider release of his well-received book. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: This may seem like an odd question with which to open things up, but I'm curious about how your book was released first in the UK and now in a North American edition? Did you like that bifurcated release? Is there an advantage to being able to focus on UK press and then moving along to a similar routine with the U.S. material?

DARRYL CUNNINGHAM: Psychiatric Tales was picked up first by Blank Slate in the UK. My work online had come to the attention of Kenny Penman of Blank Slate. I'd been posting chapters of PT on my blog and the work was getting a huge and positive response from readers. Not long after this, an inquiry came from Bloomsbury in the US. So Blank Slate published first, and Bloomsbury fitted it into their schedule for early 2011.

Much is said about the way the Internet and technology is destroying publishing. But here's something positive that has appeared because of the Internet. Gone are the days of sending material off in the post in the vague hope that some intern might pick it out of the slush pile, three months down the line. If your work is good, and you have something to say, you can build an audience and publishers will come to you.

Since then, Coconino Press have approached me to do an Italian edition of PT in the summer 2011. Again, I made no effort to contact them. An e-mail arrived from Coconino out of the blue. This is quite amazing to me. I've spent decades trying to get publishers to look at my work to no avail. I'd given up, quite frankly, which is one of the reasons I began posting everything online. I craved an audience that otherwise I wouldn't have been able to reach.

As for whether I like the bifurcated release or not. Well I've never done this before, so I've nothing to compare it to, but it seems to be working well. I'm taking it in my stride.

imageSPURGEON: Darryl, I was actually afraid at one point to wait until the US iteration of this book to interview you, because I worried that you might find the promotional aspects so unpleasant that you might not continue them into a second round. You mention that you don't like being the center of attention in your lovely concluding chapter to the book. Has this specific experience been helpful to you in negotiating that aspect of your personality? Are you different now for having put this work out there?

CUNNINGHAM: The experience I've had with Psychiatric Tales has completely changed me. I've developed a confidence I've never had before. I've always suffered somewhat from shyness, but I have no problem anymore speaking in front of groups of people. I've done a number of talks now about PT, both for the comics crowd and for the medical profession. It's all gone down very well. Also, I'm not quite the emotional wreck that the last chapter of Psychiatric Tales might suggest I am. That chapter relates a particular experience I had when I was at my very worst, health-wise, when all the issues I had about shyness, social isolation, and poor self-image, seemed catastrophically worse.

Psychiatric Tales has brought me a lot of positive attention. What I thought was an experience particular to me, has turned out to be more universal than I supposed. It's a book that targets the heart. I've had people tell me that PT had reduced them to tears. I would be a particularly stubborn individual not to develop a better view of myself when people have praised the work so highly.

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SPURGEON: One thing I don't have a sense of is your influences, how you viewed comics and art and how maybe some individual artists or works informed what you're doing now. Were there cartoonists that inspired you to do your own art, or artists that you may have paid a lot of attention to in some way? You have such a distinct style; do you still process others' work in a way that has an influence on your own. Is there someone you see in your work that others might not?

CUNNINGHAM: When I was at Leeds College of Art in the '80s, the big influence on myself and some of my peers were early 20th century European painters like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz. I was particularly struck by the Belgian woodcut artist, Frans Masereel, who was a kind of proto-graphic novelist. He'd do entire wordless woodcut novels, such as The City, and Passionate Journey, and completed over 20 other wordless novels in his career. His style is astonishingly vibrant and pulsating with life. These weren't comic books in the accepted sense. The images aren't broken up into panels. They're books of splash pages, if you like. Stark black and white images, leaping off the page, which illustrate an often turbulent and primal narrative. In the introduction to Psychiatric Tales, I cite Marjane Satrapi and Persepolis as an inspiration, but Masereel was the earlier and stronger influence.

I came into the UK small press comics movement in the '80s, just after the first wave artists, such as Eddie Campbell, Woodrow Phoenix, Phil Elliott, and Rian Hughes had made an impact. Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's Escape Magazine was still around. This scene was another influence on me. I'd seen Eddie Campbell's work and thought, "Well, I can do that." It looked so effortless and was about the everyday world I knew. I soon found I couldn't do it. Campbell's work is deceivingly simple. It took me an age to develop my own style. But that early scene, with it's approach that the everyday humdrum world could be the subject of drama, has stayed with me, and is written into my comic book DNA.

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SPURGEON: Why do you think it took you so long to develop your style? What was the last stage like between how you were doing comics before and how you're doing comics now? Because you strike me as someone who had a fully developed style by the time I encountered your work. For that matter, do you think your work continues to evolve; are you still open to outside influences?

CUNNINGHAM: Well the style was always there from the very beginning. The problem wasn't the style, but the fact that my drawing was so poor. When I was at art college I didn't do much drawing. I concentrated on sculpture and collage instead. I had little confidence in my drawing ability and so tended to compound the problem by avoiding it. I partly got around this difficulty by developing a simple style. Later, when I became involved in the small press, I was very aware that my peers and friends, such as Jonathan Edwards, Simon Gane, and Phil Elliott, were all much better than me. I thought of myself as a writer first and an artist second. These days the two things have nicely synthesized into one. I've spend the thousands of hours you need to do in order to gain some mastery of the craft of drawing. Am I still open to outside influences? I think so, but it's hard for me to tell, because I'm not someone who assimilates influences in an obvious way.

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SPURGEON: The woodcut artists like Masereel are well known for the social activist thrust in their work. Do you share those sympathies at all, this notion of using art for that purpose? Do you think of Psychiatric Tales in those general terms?

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, absolutely. The comic strip format is particularly good at presenting information in a concise and entertaining way. A comic strip is so easy to read, that you can often find that by the time you've decided not to read it, you've read half of it. It's a very immediate format that engages straight away and can deliver a lot of information quickly. It's the perfect medium for presenting complex information. I'm surprised it's not done more often. I've never thought of myself as part of any social activist tradition. These social and political subjects have naturally evolved out of my own interests, and to some extent, my frustration and anger with the status quo.

SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about two stylistic flourishes that I find intriguing when they crop up in your work. One is that sometimes when you present a character, they're not just stylized but they're stylized in two or three different ways rather than one, recurring way. Is that a conscious decision on your part? What is important to you to get across through character design?

CUNNINGHAM: A lot of these decisions are made without me thinking about it. As long as people can see which character is which from panel to panel, I don't worry too much about style. I've a natural tendency to draw minimally and get rid of extraneous detail. I don't want to confuse the eye or over-complicate the artwork, because I don't want people to have to spend any time working out what's going on in a panel. I design the images to be clear, so that information is presented as concisely as possible. Sometimes this might lead to me making apparently odd visual choices. The stripping away of detail might, for example, mean that a character standing in the middle-distance lacks a face. But I trust that the reader will add a face, because of the context of the story and the information already presented. You don't have to draw every line.

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SPURGEON: Another thing I find really interesting is your intermittent use of realistic imagery, may most noticeably in the celebrity profiles like Nick Drake. What made you fold in that kind of imagery with this work, how do you think that works in a way that doing it the dominant style might not have achieved?

CUNNINGHAM: We're back here to the limitations of my drawing ability. I'm not particularly good at likenesses. In the first frame of the Psychiatric Tales chapter, called "People With Mental Illness Enhance Our Lives," I have a drawing of Winston Churchill. Well, it's a tracing from a photograph, actually. I tried to draw the great man in the way someone who can actually draw would do it, but found I couldn't. After this, I thought, why am I struggling with this? Why don't I just stick photos in the panels and then just heighten the contrast in Photoshop, bleaching out extraneous details? That way it'll fit in with the look of my artwork in the rest of the book. So that is what I did. Job done.

SPURGEON: I've been lucky to see some of your drawing and postcards over the years, and one thing that leapt out to me as a result in the first pages of Psychiatric Tales was that you open with a couple of your cityscapes. Can you talk a bit more explicitly about how you started doing them, what particular pleasures you may take out of elements of depicting that kind of landscape. Because I could stare them for a very long while.

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CUNNINGHAM: I grew up in the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire, in a small town surrounded by moorland. As a child I was always aware of the landscape around me. The buildings, streets, and fields on the opposing hills across the valley. Their details shrunken by distance. This scene impressed itself in my mind and is, I think, the origin of my fascination with cityscapes. I did a short strip called Stars, which is partly about this experience. I worked out quite early on that buildings were just squares with smaller squares inside them for windows, and I've been drawing them ever since. Masereel, of course, drew loads of cityscapes, which is another reason I was attracted to his work.

SPURGEON: I'm fascinated by the thought that you kept notebooks about your work in mental health institutions and that you initially thought there might be a prose work in what you were seeing. What was a typical page of notes like? How detailed were they, did they involve drawing at all? How different would a prose work from you on this same subject have been from the Psychiatric Tales we have?

CUNNINGHAM: If Psychiatric Tales was a prose work, then large amount of the text wouldn't be that different, as I took much of the text verbatim from the diary. That's the main reason I didn't think drawings were needed, as the text worked well enough on its own, or so I thought. However adding the drawings gave the work a whole another dimension and a new level of richness. I was stubborn not to see I could do this much earlier on. I just kept writing the diary, thinking that the diary entries themselves would stand up as a finished work. I'd not done much in the way of comic strip work for some years at this point. I'd thrown myself into care work/nursing and had lost touch with what was happening in the comic book world. So doing Psychiatric Tales as a graphic novel didn't occur to me until I happened to see a copy of Persepolis. Then it seemed obvious what my approach should be. I then started to research each mental health subject as it came up. Of course, I'd been working in mental health for years by this time, and had done two years of mental health nurse training, so I was already well versed in these subjects. That reads as if I did all this very logically, but it was happening at a time when I was struggling with my own mental health issues, and my life was disintegrating around me.

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SPURGEON: One thing I find remarkable about Psychiatric Tales is the consistency of its tone and how well that tone works. It's not an easy thing you've done. There's a great deal of clarity to the work, but you tell these stories in a way that somehow manages to avoid being over-simple or harshly direct. Was this a natural way of presenting the stories that you present, or is this something that you explicitly worked on, this very clear and straight-forward presentation? I have to think that one reason it's hit with so many people is that it's so accessible and speaks so plainly but assertively.

CUNNINGHAM: I can't say I've consciously striven to achieve this tone. It was an invisible thing that emerged naturally out of my attempts to fit the most information into as few panels as possible. It's the sort of thing you don't want the reader to be aware of. I don't want my strips to be in any way difficult to read. In the writing process I tend to hone the text down, much in the same way you might do with poetry, in order to get the most meaning out of as few words as possible. Space is a premium within a panel and the last thing you want to do is have more text than there is image. I know there are cartoonists who are happy to use huge blocks of text and many are talented enough to make it work. But I can't do that. Text in a comic strip should be like editing in a movie. Invisible and not something you should be conscious of.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned in an earlier answer that you received some speaking interest from groups on the healthcare/medical end of things. Can you talk a little bit more about the reaction you've received from professionals working with these kinds of mental illnesses? Have you been surprised by their reaction?

CUNNINGHAM: I've had many people who work in mental health write to me positively, including people I used to work with on the acute wards. Last year I was invited to attend the first Graphic Medicine conference, which took place in London. It was an academic conference which looked at the portrayal of illness in comic books, as well as the possible uses of comics, both in therapy for patients and as a teaching aid for professionals. It was an enjoyable experience and a real eye-opener. There were about seventy-five delegates there from all over the world. Sounds a bit dry, and surely there's only a tiny area to explore? Not so. In recent years there's been a small explosion of medical-themed graphic novels. A few of the creators of these books were at the event. Brian Fies, talking about his book Mom's Cancer, and Philippa Perry, author of Couch Fiction, a graphic novel about psychotherapy.

The medical fraternity seem more than willing to embrace the comic strip format. Things have really changed in society if this is happening. The British Medical Journal will be publishing my strip about the MMR vaccination/Andrew Wakefield scandal in the student version of their magazine in March. Again, as is often the case these days, they emailed me out of the blue, having seen the strip online. You can't get much more establishment than the BMJ.

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SPURGEON: Supposing that you might have some perspective on this, but the solicitousness of your work, the sympathy that you maintain throughout, is that a rare thing in the context of all the works about people with mental illness. Have you found that people react to the essential kindness and generosity of your book?

CUNNINGHAM: The media's portrayal of people suffering mental illness, especially schizophrenia, has been generally appalling. They can't get past the common myth that sufferers of this particular illness are prone to violence. It's an easy and lazy thing to portray in fiction. The truth is this, if you have violent tendencies before you develop symptoms of the illness, then yes, you will continue to be violent. But the majority of schizophrenia suffers are not violent, and in fact are more likely to be the victims of violence than the rest of the population. This last is because of their apparent oddness, and their vulnerability. You're much more likely to be attacked by a drunken individual or a drug user than someone with a mental illness. Murders by schizophrenia sufferers are rare, but they tend to get publicity all out of proportion to the event, because of the sensational aspect of the crime.

I get e-mails from people thanking me for throwing light into this area all the time. I got an e-mail from a young man, suffering from bipolar disorder, in which he told me he intended to buy two copies of the book: one for his mother, and the other for his step-dad. He wanted to show them that he suffered a real illness and that it wasn't just "bad behavior." It's not rocket science to be sympathetic to people suffering an illness, yet where mental health is concerned, people really struggle.

SPURGEON: I've seen you mentioned in terms of other cartoonists that are local or regional to where you are? Do you feel like a member of a comics-making community? What's that group of people like? Have your relationships with other cartoonists been important to you in re-establishing your career over the last several years?

CUNNINGHAM: Definitely. When I reemerged back into the small press comics scene in Britain, I found I was wholeheartedly taken back into the community, by not just the people I knew from the previous time around, but new people who had arrived on the scene since. For me, this was another step back to recovery from the depression I'd fallen into. I worked with many nice people while I was in health care, but I really didn't have much in common with them. I felt cut off and isolated. I needed to be creative, because that's the thing I'm best at, and this wasn't happening in health care. Coming back into the creative world of comics was like coming back to life.

imageSPURGEON: What drove you into the debunking/skeptical essays that you've done since this material? It seems a natural extension of Psychiatric Tales in terms of format and style and to a certain extent tone, but in terms of content, is this just you following natural interest and exploring certain issues, or have you kind of looked around for a way to continue doing essay-type comics with this general approach?

CUNNINGHAM: I'd developed particular comic strip/essay writing skills during the creation of Psychiatric Tales, and it seemed to me quite natural to take these skills and use them to tackle other subjects. The science subjects I then started writing about were self-selecting, insomuch as they are all extremely contentious and generally misunderstood. There was quite a lot of anger fueling the creation of these strips. The universe runs on certain rules and you ignore these rules at your peril. Science is not a matter of opinion. If you're a parent and you don't vaccinate your children, then you are putting both them and other children at risk. Homeopathy will not cure cancer. People have died thinking these cures will help. They don't.

imageSPURGEON: I'm also a fan of your straight-up fantasy work, the humor-adventure comics you do. What's your creative process like on those comics? They seem much more loosely told than the work in Psychiatric Tales, but I understand that sometimes the feel of a comic can be very different from the way it's created. What part of your overall creative itch gets scratched when you work on something like The Streets Of San Diablo?

CUNNINGHAM: Super Sam and John of the Night started off as a series of one page gag strips, done for the Forbidden Planet blog. It gradually developed into an action/horror strip with mystical overtones. Ideas I took further when I ran its sequel, The Streets of San Diablo, on the Act-I-Vate webcomic collective site. Although these were super hero strips, they were much closer in tone to the work you'd see in the pages of the British comic 2000 AD. A collision of different genres in the same story. Unlike much of the other work I do, there was no message other than the urge to tell a good story and have blast. Well, something of my ideas about morality and existence inevitably crept in there, but I was mostly out to entertain. I was actually working blind for the most part with these strips, having only the vaguest idea where they were going, but trusting myself that I could work it all out. I could do this, because the strips only appeared in little sections over many months, so I had plenty of time to fine tune the story before committing it to page.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your future plans? I'm interested in what comes next, of course, but I'm also intrigued by the thought that you've made this very affecting book and I can imagine it sticking around for a while, that it's a book people will refer to no matter what you do next and how different it is or how much the same it is. What's your preferred future in terms of the kind of cartooning you'll do and when, and do you ever worry about this book casting a shadow?

CUNNINGHAM: Psychiatric Tales has been my breakthrough work and is probably the book people will now always know me by. I suspect this will be true, no matter what else I come up with. This is okay with me. It's really not a big deal. It has done Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi no harm to be constantly associated with just one work. It's not stopped them doing anything else. After decades of trying to get my cartooning career off the ground, I'd be an idiot to complain about success.

imageI'm currently working on Uncle Bob Adventures for Blank Slate, which is an all-ages adventure book. Uncle Bob relates tales from his 150-year life. The stories are in the Boy's Own adventure mold, set in different genres. There's a jungle story, a Western, a horror story, and so on. Bob battles Martians, gets into a gunfight in the old West, and journeys to the Earth's core. He meets Tarzan in West Africa, the Frankenstein monster in the Alps, and King Kong on Skull Island. It's another old project I've had knocking around for a over a decade. My artwork has changed so much since I drew the original chapters, that I've had to go back and redraw them.

Beyond this, I've got the science book project to finish off. I've been talking to a couple of publishers about this, but nothing has been settled yet. I'm also going to do a second Psychiatric Tales volume. I originally wanted the first book to be much bigger, but simply ran out of time. There's plenty of other subjects to cover that I didn't get around to. Somewhere down the line I also want to do a book on history, focusing on people who were famous in their time, but have been largely forgotten since.

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* Psychiatric Tales, Darryl Cunningham, Bloomsbury USA, hardcover, 9781608192786 (ISBN13), 1608192784 (ISBN10), 160 pages, February 2011, $15.

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* cover to the North American edition of Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales, out now wherever comics are sold
* panel from the work's final, personal chapter
* illustration
* panel from PT
* a couple of straight-forward, presentational panels from PT
* that Winston Churchill image
* panel from Stars
* three more images from PT, hopefully providing context
* from Cunningham's comic on climate change
* from Streets Of San Diablo
* from Uncle Bob Adventures
* a personal favorite: one of Cunningham's stand-alone cityscapes (below)

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