Tyler Page’s ‘Raised on Ritalin’ Kickstarter Explores Life with ADHD [Back Pages]
The Kickstarter for Raised on Ritalin by Eisner-nominated cartoonist Tyler Page pulls from two sources. The first is the series of hard science journals that detail attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), how it is investigated, and what it means for those who have it. The second? His own life. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child, Page has been a "hard drug user" since before he was ten years old, prescribed the drug Ritalin by doctors and left to grow up with the medication. Both approaches have plenty of value, but it's the combination of the two very different perspectives that make the comic so memorable and important, as both a story and journal.
With the Kickstarter for Raised on Ritalin just reaching its target goal this week, ComicsAlliance spoke to Page about how the project works, why he started it, and what he hopes it will offer readers and other people with ADHD.
ComicsAlliance: As an elevator-pitch; what’s the basic premise of the project?
Tyler Page: A friend once said Raised on Ritalin was like an episode of This American Life in comic form. It’s a book about ADHD that looks at it from a bunch of different perspectives: personal, historical, sociological, biological, and clinically.
CA: When did you first start writing and drawing the comics that would become Raised on Ritalin, and what prompted you to first start writing them?
TP: In my early 20s I came across a box of old documents at my parents’ house that contained an envelope with copies of my childhood medical records. (My parents had obtained copies because at one point they’d thought about moving overseas and would have needed them.) Reading through them was very surreal, because I remembered a lot of what was recorded but it was from the perspective of my Doctor and parents. There were certain things I’d forgotten about completely --- primarily some of the medications they tried me on and also how me getting busted at school for some bad behavior ultimately led my family to counseling and me being diagnosed. It was kind of like the loose string that got tugged to unravel a sweater.
So finding that was super intriguing. I knew right away I had to do something with that information but I wasn’t sure what. So it kind of sat in the back of my mind and swirled around. Over the next few years I would jot down ideas in my sketchbook or make some jokey comic panels about Ritalin.
I focused in on the fact that I needed to do a comic/story that utilized the info in my medical records, but I wasn’t totally sure how to approach it. And then one day it just all came together in my head. It’s one of those things where you’re not sure what changed but something finally clicked and I started writing and drawing what became the first chapter of the book.
CA: What's your creative approach to the comic? Do you conceive of it as a loosely connected series of strips, or a single ongoing narrative? As artist, how do you address a project like this?
TP: I started by writing a narrative around my early medical records, of when I was initially diagnosed and put on Ritalin. I moved forward from there, but had a hard time figuring out just how and when to introduce some of the science and history I wanted to address. There was a point where I stopped drawing altogether and spent a few weeks just working really hard on the structure of the book. It still follows a narrative path, but one based on my own education about ADHD.
That felt the most natural to me, and it ended up dividing the book into thirds. The first part is mostly focused on me growing up and then getting re-diagnosed as an adult. That is the point where I started doing research and learning all of this stuff I’d never really known before. So the middle third is all of that. Then the final third kind of “brings it all home” as I take what I’ve learned and apply it to my life and how that has changed my perception of my past, and will go on to guide me in the future.
Once I was about 100 pages in was when I struggled with the structure and I spent a lot of time finessing that because I knew it was very important. I’m a big fan of narrative non-fiction and I feel like the best, whether it’s a book, radio show, podcast, or movie, leads you through all the elements in such a seamless manner that you don’t often realize you’ve transitioned from an individual’s personal story to some scientific or historical tid-bit. On that front I definitely also tried to break it down so that each chapter focused on one specific element or topic. I wanted to the book to read as a consistent whole, but I also wanted people to be able to read it a chapter at a time, or to just hop to a random chapter in the middle and get something out of it.
I feel like this was actually the most difficult part of the book. And it’s something I even address within the book itself --- one thing that is beneficial for ADHDers to learn is to break large projects down into many smaller ones so they are more manageable (it’s a good strategy for anyone really). Thanks to my day job it’s something I’ve gotten pretty good at, but this book was definitely a challenge. It’s also why I chose a nine-panel grid as the primary structure of the book. I knew I was probably going to be doing a lot of editing and by making most of the panels the same size it made that process a lot easier once I reached that point.
CA: What's the tone of the series? Is it more biography, or a history of ADHD and treatment, or is it a mixture of several different types of story at once?
TP: It runs the gamut. There are some very serious and difficult autobiographic moments, but also lots of silliness and dumb jokes to bring some levity to the subject. Part of that is just me entertaining myself while working on such a big project, but also just learning to be serious, but not to take oneself, or the subject too seriously. I don’t really like all the stupid ADHD jokes that play on the idea that we’re constantly distracted (i.e., “Squirrel!”), but I think it’s good to present difficult and complex material in a tone that isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself.
I found one thing I did a lot was to explain something very serious or boring in the text but then use the images to make a joke related to that point, or twist the meaning in a joking way. Hopefully it helps people pay attention throughout the book and actually learn something.
CA: You've talked about your research into ADHD, reading established journals on the subject. Do you view Raised on Ritalin as an expansion of the library on ADHD? Was part of the goal to approach the subject from a new, less dry/scientific perspective?
TP: There is definitely no shortage of books about ADHD. I was overwhelmed in doing research. It was the classic "down the rabbit hole" thing, where I’d look up one thing and learn two or three more things I realized were related or important and worth mentioning. So my goal was to do one better by trying to present as much material as I could in one place. I learned so many enlightening things that have been kind of common knowledge in the medical and psychiatric field for years, but hadn’t yet, or are only just now appearing in more popular coverage like trade books, magazine articles, websites, etc.
I had to read dozens of books and hundreds of articles to find this information when it is stuff I felt was all very importantly related to ADHD and ought to be in one place --- almost like a one-stop primer.
CA: You write about your first-hand experiences with ADHD as well. How difficult is it to write about a subject that is, firstly, so personal, but also one for which your thoughts and stance must change every day?
TP: A very good question. Writing about personal stuff isn’t a problem for me. My first series of graphic novels were autobiographical and I did a lot of research and writing about that sort of thing in graduate school. I’ve also seen over the years the power of personal testimony is to issues like this --- to de-stigmatize them, to get people to take them seriously.
And then there’s also just my personal artistic need to use the material to work through my own issues and problems. The main driver in me sticking this out to the end was my kids --- was arming myself with as much info as I could to be a better parent, and to be there to help them if or when they experience similar problems in life as they grow up.
And I’m glad you brought up the issue of my mind changing, because it totally did. This kind of goes back to where I talked about struggling with the structure of the book. In order for me to figure that out I had to straighten out a lot of my thoughts, so that helped to nail some things down. But also, my goal here was to present as much information, facts, statistics, etc., in plain language so people could make up their own minds. One big thing I learned here was how much uncertainty, and grey areas there are in medicine.
The science on ADHD is very “squishy” so to speak. Even what we consider regular, everyday stuff that we think our Doctor ought to know with 100% certainty isn’t always a certainty. There is a lot of stuff you could ask five doctors about, and three might say the same thing with the other two having their own individual ideas. I am just one person, and it’s not really my place to say with too much certainty, “you should do this,” or, “you should never do that.” A lot about ADHD pertains to a person’s circumstances and place in life so what is true, or works, for one person, might not for another.
CA: Do you think people and society in general still label those with ADHD? That they judge it, or have preconceived notions about what it is?
TP: I think most people think it’s kind of a joke. Someone once said it’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of mental health, in that it gets no respect. I do think that has changed a little in the last decade or so, but only because people are more aware of it. People are still quick to joke that they feel “so ADHD” if they have trouble focusing on things, or joke about a spazzy kid needing their Ritalin. Part of the problem is the public just not being better educated about the depth of ADHD.
The biggest thing, like most life challenges, is talking about it. I’m the sort of person, as an adult, who you would probably never expect being ADHD because I seem so "normal." But that’s just because I’ve had a lot of practice and worked really hard at a lot of the mundane everyday things that most folks do without a second thought. So that’s another reason why talking about it openly is helpful and not difficult.
(Though I will admit that I didn’t really start talking about the project openly with people until I was about halfway done. There was a small part of me that worried how people would perceive me from then on. The nice thing is that it’s been nothing but helpful, and led so many other people to open up about their struggles as well.)
CA: Why take this to Kickstarter?
TP: This book has been on a long journey. So, many years ago I self-published several books. I won a Xeric Grant to publish the first volume of Nothing Better. After that I decided I wasn’t going to spend any more of my own money getting my work published. Partially that was a push to get my work in front of more editors and publishers, and partially because I started a family and couldn’t really afford the financial gamble. I worked on a bunch of story concepts and book proposals that didn’t go anywhere before I finally figured out how to write my Ritalin book.
Once that concept was solved I felt like it was a strong enough concept that somebody would pick it up. (And more importantly I felt like I had to do it for my kids.) So I start publishing it online and making it known that I would soon start soliciting publishers and agents. Out of nowhere I get contacted by an agent interested in Raised on Ritalin and I sign on with them. Initially this was really helpful. We worked up a formal book proposal that forced me to flesh out and outline the book fully. We got some nibbles but nothing concrete.
The primary feedback we got was that editors were confused about why it was in comic form at all. So we decided to push on to a full rough draft. My agent was very helpful from an editorial perspective and helped shape the book’s current form. But again, no one bit on this. It was at this point my agent and I parted ways. They felt the book was a lot different than when they had first been interested in it. And, looking at the roster of other creators they’d taken on, them representing me made no sense. Firstly, my book stood apart in terms of style and content, and secondly, I wasn’t looking to necessarily build an entire fulltime career.
I pushed on working on the "final" form of the book and began soliciting agents, editors, and publishers on my own. I got a lot of good, positive feedback, but no one would seal the deal. The feedback was always, “This is great, I love this, but I don’t know how to sell it --- or who to sell it to.” So even though I felt like I’d come up with something that had a good “hook,” no one in the traditional publishing business knew what to do with it.
Well, one of the things my research taught me was just how many ADHD people are out there --- and not just the ADHDers themselves, but the family, friends, and support circles. Every convention I went to with the minicomic versions of Raised on Ritalin, one of my table neighbors would either have had ADHD themselves, or someone in their family, or one of their friends did. I knew the audience was out there. (And secondarily I knew this because of the folks following and supporting me online.)
And so far the response has been tremendous. ... I felt confident that putting this up to the folks who wanted it would prove the demand was really there.
CA: What’s your estimated delivery on the final comic?
TP: Looks like September. The campaign ends toward the end of June. I’ve got July to get the book design and so forth finalized and sent off the to the printer (I’ve also got some family vacation time planned that month so that might push things back a week or two). So it’s possible backers could start getting rewards as early as August.
Raised on Ritalin will run on Kickstarter until Thursday, 23 June 2016. It has already hit its funding goal of $6,000. If you would like to know more, you can find the Kickstarter here!