Sam Sharpe Announces ‘Mom: A Story of Love and Mental Illness’ From First Second [Interview]
2016 marks the tenth anniversary of FirstSecond, the graphic novel publisher that has been home to work from talents including Faith Erin Hicks, Gene Luen Yang, Sonny Liew, Scott McCloud, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki --- a huge range of writers and artists, telling stories from the subtlest biography to the most outlandish adventure. Eisner and Ignatz-nominated cartoonist Sam Sharpe will join the FirstSecond family with the graphic novel Mom: A Story of Love and Mental Illness, in 2018.
The book is a retelling of a key moment in Sharpe's life: the moment he first met his mother as an adult, following a childhood where she was absent due to her schizophrenia. The story details their reconnection, as Sharpe looks at how their relationship both before, during and after their meeting shaped who he is today as an artist and person. Told in black and white, the book sharply depicts mental illness, and family ties. ComicsAlliance spoke to Sharpe to learn how the story came together.
ComicsAlliance: Before we get to the comic itself, can you tell us a little about that first meeting with your mother, which forms the backbone of the narrative. How did it come about, and what were your thoughts ahead of that day?
Sam Sharpe: Before I reconnected with her, I didn't know what to expect. I was both excited and really terrified. At that time nearly every thought I had about my mom was bound up in her illness, and wasn't really about her at all. My hope was that when we met up, I could find out who she really was. Turns out with mental illness that is a very complicated question.
CA: Mental illness is a difficult topic to discuss, especially when you’re watching someone else experience it. Has meeting your mother, and adapting your experience into a comic, changed the way you think about mental illness yourself?
SS: I can't say that I learned anything about mental illness from making the book, or that it changed my thoughts about it --- but interviewing family members for this book, and asking them questions I'd never asked before, did. Those stories changed the way that I think about her.
Writing the book made me understand her better. I hope that readers of the book will have a similar experience as they read it. My hope is that someone who reads this book will see my mother as complex as themselves; and not just a series of symptoms; and that they might see everyone suffering from mental illness a little bit differently.
CA: What made you want to tell this very personal story as a comic, and publish it?
SS: Initially I made a very short eight-page version of this story for an anthology way back in 2008... there was more I wanted to say so I redrew that as a 40-page comic in 2013... and there was still more to say, so now it's a whole book. My mom, and my relationship with her, fraught as it is, is a huge part of who I am.
I made the short story and 40 page comic as a way of explaining that relationship to the people closest to me. Now the book is a way of sharing that very personal story with a larger audience, and I'm hoping they can connect with it as well.
CA: Your artistic and structural choices seem very carefully designed, chosen after a lot of thought and effort. How did you begin to develop the work, and adapt this real-life story, creatively, as an artist and storyteller?
SS: I write the pages and panels out of order. I tape them to the wall, one section of the book at a time. My walls are covered in pages --- slightly above eye height all the way to the floor, with blank spaces left for the pages that aren't figured out yet. I read it over and over and over again as I work. I read it hundreds of times, maybe even a thousand times, trying to iron out any bumps, trying to figure out exactly what is needed to bridge the gaps or condense information to fit in the space of a single blank page.
Autobiography is a great medium to work in because the raw material is all there. You just have to be willing to sit with it and work with it until it takes the shape of a story.
CA: Was it difficult to get this all out on a page; cathartic; or is it hard to describe your reaction to the ongoing and now completed work?
SS: Making work like this is hard --- going to a place in your mind that would rather not be and living there for months at a time is difficult. When you make comics you have to be every character, you have to speak in their voice, inhabit their body, and think their thoughts when you draw them. If you don't do that work the reader will know. So in the end it you see the story from all angles.
When you are working on a book like this it's like watching a super-slow motion replay of your own life. You can work for 10 hours and cover less than a minute of spoken conversation and the pace is excruciating, but then the book is done and you forget all about that work, and when you read it you have this memory that you can return to whenever you want.
You forget that you even made it - you're just another reader. It's kind of a magical experience.
Mom: A Story of Love and Mental Illness will be published by First Second in 2018.