Chronicling John Porcellino’s ongoing physical and mental ailments, The Hospital Suite is the cartoonist’s most ambitious work to date. Known for his long-running, self-published King-Cat Comics, Porcellino’s style is of the minimalist, autobiographical variety that has come to dominate alternative comics for the last three decades. His drawings are so simple that any child with a pen and paper could recreate them, and his writing is Hemingway sparse but without a hint of the Papa’s power. Indeed, the lack of technical skill Porcellino displays, and in fact embraces, throughout The Hospital Suite might turn the unprepared reader off.
But if the unprepared reader gives the man and his book a chance, that reader will learn to appreciate, and possibly even love, Porcellino’s storytelling. After the first dozen pages of The Hospital Suite, his drawings disappear and only their messages remain. Like an artistic caveman, Porcellino is able to tell us what he intends to with only a few lines. There’s never any confusion. To convey the amount of pain his character is experiencing, he draws little lightening-bolt shaped lines vibrating out of his stickman stomach in various sizes. And if there’s a chance that readers might misinterpret one of his drawings, he doesn’t hesitate to label it—as he does on a panel that shows himself frying “fish”.
Because of his meager drawing ability, Porcellino has developed a unique and affective style of necessity. His drawings are a means to an end. The story that he tells with The Hospital Suite is what matters. Each panel is pointless and underwhelming when taken alone, but they build upon each other until a beautifully honest story takes shape. And unlike the King-Cat mini-comics he made throughout the ‘90s, The Hospital Suite‘s graphic novel length, 250 pages, gives Porcellino the freedom to tell a personal story that has some depth.
It’s a story of illness and it’s divided into two sections: the details of Porcellino’s physical afflictions are followed by those of his mental problems. Allergies, Hyperacusis (a sensitivity to noise), Crohn’s disease, an intestinal tumor, and zinc deficiency lead to hypochondria, anxiety, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), and depression.
Health-wise Porcellino is a mess, and he uses The Hospital Suite to tell the world, in detail, just how sickly he is. Panel after panel and page after page, Porcellino lays out the facts. He tells us exactly what sensations he feels, what the doctors tell him, and what thoughts he has. While reading The Hospital Suite, I felt like I was sitting in a nearly empty theater watching a play adapted from the dairies of a dying man. Because of the emotionless way in which Porcellino tells his story, I couldn’t help but lose confidence in my own health status. Seeing Porcellino, who is not so different from you or me, experience the insignificant details that make up his daily life quickly become overshadowed by sickness, pain, hospitals, divorce, madness, medication, and depression is unsettling, to say the least.
Maybe by expressing here the fear of his circumstances, Porcellino is better able to cope with it. Perhaps like Harvey Pekar and his book, Our Cancer Years (1994), Porcellino started this graphic novel as a form of therapy. There is, in fact, a sort of Eastern philosophy motif to The Hospital Suite that is inherent to Porcellino’s minimalist line-work, which also acts as a courage-giving crutch for the author. “I felt a strange peace,” he writes in the midsts of battling his health ailments. “In a weird way, I looked forward with curiosity to what would come next. If it was my time to die, then I was okay with it.” He tells himself that because he wasn’t afraid to be born, he isn’t afraid to die. “If I died it was just the next thing,” he writes with conviction.
Some readers may find the Buddhist bravery Porcellino maintains throughout The Hospital Suite inspiring, but it is inspiration tainted with a dose of hypochondria. For me, Porcellino’s greatest accomplishment is how he, in the last section of the book, manages to accurately illustrate the torment that individuals with OCD go through. “One of the worst things about OCD is that you’re only partially crazy,” he writes. “At the same time one half of your brain is making you do all this nutty, the other half is telling you how ridiculous you are for doing it.” He then takes advantage of the sequential nature of his chosen medium to mirror the repetitive, frustrating mental state of an individual with OCD who tries to perfect his every move, and second-guesses his every thought, while living in a perpetual state of fear and paranoia.
About half way through the book, during the transition from his health ailments to his mental problems, Porcellino takes a detour that may ring true for many 20-somethings. He and his wife move back to their hometown in Illinois after several years of living in Colorado. Not only does he have to cope with new living arrangements and family obligations, but he also has to re-join the workforce after several years of freelancing and illness. Childhood memories come back and, for a short while, he gets to enjoy a period of good health. It doesn’t last, of course, but as a reader, too, it’s a needed break from the doctor’s office.
Reading The Hospital Suite was an interesting experience. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it, but I certainly won’t forget it. Porcellino’s work is an acquired taste. Readers with similar physical and mental ailments could probably find in Porcellino a comrade—someone to keep them company on their journey through ill health—but for me The Hospital Suite was a little too depressing.
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