Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Social Creatures Who Crave Recognition: an Interview with Darryl Cunningham

Darryl Cunningham embodies the possibilities open to comics creators in today's digital cultural landscape. Self-publishing his Psychiatric Tales strips online, years after their initial creation, they took off like wildfire, receiving coverage from all manner of comic and non-comic sources.  Finding a complete  - and eager - audience for his attitude-debunking series of stories from his time as a healthcare assistant/ psychiatric nursing student, this exposure has now led him directly to independent and mainstream publishers.  

Collected and published by UK independent Blank Slate Books, the book has gone on to receive yet more positive coverage from the likes of the BBC and The Observer. With the book currently in the process of working its way to the US officially via Bloomsbury, we invited Darryl to talk a little about the book, his success, his upcoming work and how he's inspired by the "five decades of stuff" in his head.

Psychiatric Tales is receiving some very kind words from the mainstream press as well as bloggers outside of the comics field. What are your thoughts on this reaction? Has it surprised you?

This may sound ungrateful, but I've struggled to get recognition for so long that I have a general feeling of anticlimax about most of the coverage I've garnered. I'm still scraping a living working with elderly people who suffer from dementia, and this work grounds me in reality. There's not much chance of it going to my head. I've had very positive reviews in The Observer (Graphic Novel of the Month) and The Times Literary Supplement, but I tend to take a downbeat view of these things. The reality of it is that until I can get to a point when I'm financially secure enough to work exclusively on cartooning, then I'm not going to be impressed by anything I do. There's much work still to be done. What has has surprised me is the response to the work I've done since completing Psychiatric Tales. The science stories I've put online have generated enormous interest, both for for and against. I took on some very controversial issues, such as the MMR vaccination scandal, homeopathy, and the myth of NASA's Moon Hoax. The science blogging community have embraced this new work, but those invested in the anti-vaccination mythology, pseudo-medical science, and conspiracies, have really hated them. The emails I've received have reflected these two views.

The message of the book is one of education and acceptance. What was the impetus behind the decision to begin work on it? What do you hope the book will accomplish?

The dual motivation when I began this work was both creative and financial. I was working as a health care worker on an acute psychiatric ward. It was hard work, stressful, emotionally difficult, and very poorly paid. I both wanted to move away from such work and fulfill my creative needs. If you're very good at something, whether you be a story-teller, an artist, a musician or an athlete, then not to do that thing, whatever it is, can be very frustrating and even damaging to the self. There's nothing fancily psychological about this. People want to be recognised for their talents. We're all social creatures who crave recognition. No one wants to be seen as a rubbish loser. When I began Psychiatric Tales I felt I was at the bottom of the heap, now I at least have some status.

The book both reflects on what the experience of working in mental health is like and what it's like for sufferers. It's intended as a stigma-busting book, where I hope to generate a little more understanding in both the general public and the media, for those among us who struggle with such illnesses.

Psychiatric Tales

Is there anything you wish you’d expanded on more in the book?

The first chapter in the book is about dementia. It's a chapter full of stories about life working with this client group. What I didn't do, which I wish I'd done now, is also talk about the medical aspects of dementia. I should have discussed types of dementia, and the way sufferers can get more than one form of dementia at a time. I also wish I'd written something about the drugs used to treat dementia and their limitations. There are also other mental health subjects, like for example Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which I didn't get around to covering.

Congratulations on your US rights deal with Bloomsbury, you must be pretty excited. Can we expect to see you jetsetting around the world on a publicity tour soon?

No sign of this yet, but I live in hope.

As can be seen in Psychiatric Tales, as well as your other work, you’re very interested in debunking popular misconceptions and beliefs. What attracts you to these subjects?

I think the truth is what attracts me to these subjects. The universe runs on certain rules and you ignore these rules at your peril. No matter how often Young Earth Creationists claim that the world is only 6000 years old, it's never going to be true. Humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. Homeopathy, or large does of vitamin C, will not cure cancer. People have died thinking these cures will help. They don't. It's a matter of education.

Of course, a large part of the success of Psychiatric Tales is due to the internet. Also, you’re a contributor to ACT-I-VATE. Please tell us about your experiences with online publishing.

I made no real effort to contact publishers. They came to me. And this was because of the high profile the strips had achieved on the internet. Gone are the days, it seems, when you had to send material to publishers in the vague hope that someone would take it off the slush pile and read it. Get a big enough audience on the internet now, and publishers will come knocking. That's one of the ways in which the internet has changed publishing.

How I got involved with ACT-I-VATE is through simply knowing someone who was already involved in the site. Simon Fraser, an artist I'd known for some years, was already doing a long science fiction strip online for ACT-I-VATE. I read on Simon's Facebook, or somewhere, that ACT-I-VATE were looking for more contributors. I wrote to Simon and asked if I could do a strip for the site. The group looked at my work and decided that I was good enough to be in. So I then started a long serialised strip which took over a year to complete.

Your ACT-I-VATE comic, The Streets of San Diablo, pretty much has it all - wormholes, breast-fanged demons, an ersatz Superman and a hellacious dinosaur. What influenced you to create it?

I now realise, having finished San Diablo, that its main influence was the British weekly science fiction comic 2000AD (home of Judge Dredd). San Diablo takes a very Alan Grant/Pat Mills approach to storytelling, in that it mashes up various genres (in this case Western, Horror, and Superhero) and then proceeds to throw in whatever crazy idea comes to mind, with plenty of black humour as topping.

Kick demon in the face, check. Spiked mace flying out of face, check. Just a regular day on The Streets of San Diablo
Who/ what are your general influences as a creator?

I'm fifty this year, which means that I've five decades of stuff in my head. When you're young, let's say in your twenties, you'll only be influenced by a handful of things. But by the time your middle-aged, it becomes really hard to pin down what is influencing you from the great, swirling sea of stuff you've read, watched, and lived. I've no idea any more where a lot of my ideas are coming from.

As a former mini-comics creator, what are your thoughts on the idea that the humble xeroxed pamphlet is irrelevant in light of the internet’s new role in self publishing?

When TV came along in the Fifties, it was said that movies were dead. When synthesisers came along in the early Eighties, I can remember a media panic over the imminent death of real instruments. Video didn't kill the radio star after all. None of these things came to pass. The movie industry still exists and thrives. The relationship between a particular media and its consumers may change, but few actually pass away. Books still exist despite film, radio, and TV. Who would have thought radio would still be a force in the early 21st century? Yet it is. Look at the row the threatened closure of [BBC] 6 Music caused. People are still going to like the mini-comic because, they're fun to make, read, and collect. They won't sell in large numbers, but that's okay, because they never have.
Tell us more about your upcoming Uncle Bob's Adventures, which will be published by Blank Slate next year. What motivated you to write an all-ages book?

On and off for years, I've been writing and drawing the occasional Uncle Bob story. Tall stories told by the aged Bob to his two nieces. They're in the Ripping Yarns, Boy's Own Adventure mold, set in different genres. There's a jungle story, a Western, a horror story, and so on. I tried a few years ago to get Bob in the DFC [British children's anthology], but they weren't interested. I have to admit to be struggling with this book. It's around half finished, but the hoopla concerning my other work has seriously distracted me.

The upcoming Uncle Bob's Adventures
You have a contribution in the upcoming children's comics edition of Solipsistic Pop. Spill the beans!

I've done four pages of short gag strips. I don't know at the moment if all of them will be used. The whole book is being done in red and black spot colours. So it'll look a little like the Brit children's comics of old, before they went full colour.

You’ve been part (on and off) of the British comic scene since the 90s. How do you think it’s evolved over time?

It was a strong scene in the 80s and early 90s, then it seemed to fade a little. A lot of people dropped away. New people arrived, but their work was hardly up to the standard of early small press pioneers like Eddie Campbell, Woodrow Phoenix, or Phil Elliott. The stuff Pete Pavement or Ed Pinsent used to sell on their stalls at various marts and conventions in that period, were of a far higher quality that much of the material that came later. However, in recent years, there's been a new surge of quality. Smart new anthologies like Solopsistic Pop and Birdsong/Songbird have arrived. Paul Rainey has just finished his hugely ambitious There's No Time Like The Present graphic novel. The tradition of small press English whimsy continues with Lizz Lunney and Phillipa Rice's work. There's a lot of very interesting comic book work being done in the small press again.

Much gratitude to Darryl for providing such a detailled insight into his work. With glowing reviews from all over, we're sure that you don't need us to tell you to get this book, but get this book. Giving unique insight into the world of mental illness from a man who has worked first hand with patients, it's reccomended not just to comic readers, but to every reader. Head over to the Blank Slate Books website now for more information on the book, along with a  rapidly-growing, incredibly varied selection of British/ European titles. Get to it!


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