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John Porcellino's 'The Hospital Suite' peels back the layers of a life

John Porcellino's 'The Hospital Suite' peels back the layers of a life
An art panel from the graphic novel "The Hospital Suite" from John Porcellino. (John Porcellino / Drawn & Quarterly)

Here's the thing about John Porcellino's "The Hospital Suite" (Drawn & Quarterly: 262 pp., $22.95 paper): It shouldn't work the way it does. The drawing style is nothing much to speak of -- childlike almost, broad shapes and lines, no color -- and the stories -- three long sagas about physical and psychological ailments -- are so inward-looking as to seem self-indulgent ... except they are not.

Rather, the rawness of Porcellino's work, its unfiltered directness, is the essence of its charm. In these pages, the artist bares everything, or appears to, making narrative out of the most basic materials of his life. He is treated for a stomach ailment; he recovers, but not quite. He is beset by OCD and allergies; his marriage falls apart.

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For Porcellino (best known, perhaps, as the creator of "King-Cat"), it is in the willingness to show us everything that he finds the freedom to show us anything, a transcendence that is almost spiritual. It's a point he makes explicit by peppering the book with Zen aphorisms: "Cicadas burst forth," reads one, "and I run from the sound. / Seventeen years they waited — / and so I wait, too."

That's a telling statement, coming as it does almost exactly at the halfway point of "The Hospital Suite," and accompanied by no image, just a block of text in the middle of the page. It signals Porcellino's intentions, aesthetic and otherwise, the need to be in the present, to respond to the conditions of the moment, rather than to project.

This has been his issue all along, the tendency to read events as signs or symbols, to feel as if he were at the mercy of the universe. In one particularly moving scene, he can't watch a video of the 1968 movie "Destroy All Monsters" -- a favorite from childhood -- because he is convinced this will "cause giant monsters to come to Elgin [the Illinois town where he lives] ... and destroy it."

Here, we see Porcellino's obsessive behavior from the inside; he knows this is impossible, but he can't bring himself to break the cycle of his thinking anyway. Eventually, he returns the video unseen, telling us, "I've still never watched it since that childhood viewing."

On the one hand, Porcellino's drawing style highlights the divide between what he believes and what he knows; it is so unrefined, so basic, that we never mistake it for representational. On the other, it reminds us that everything is a construction, all the ideas and perceptions we hold dear.

Even when the book ends, Porcellino is no closer to wrestling fully with his demons: He is in a better place, but as he acknowledges, "I'm still nuts ... and I still have a lot of old habits to learn to undo."

In that sense, "The Hospital Suite" is very much a work in progress, scenes from the middle of a life. That this is all any narrative can offer goes without saying, but in these stories, Porcellino effectively ups the ante by lowering it, never letting us forget that we are have no choice but to make it up as we go along.

Twitter: @davidulin

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