Illness is something that all of us experience at some time in our life. Sometimes it’s temporary, or sometimes it ends up defining the way we live our lives. But for such a universal experience, it’s one that’s often explored in arts and culture by people who have a reductive view of what it means to be ill. CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments is here to change that, as “an anthology about illness, both mental and physical, in any form as well as healthcare experiences.”
Curated and edited by Nadia Shammas, it was inspired by her experiences with type 1 diabetes. “I was diagnosed when I was six years old. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, but in that time I only discovered one book that had a diabetic main character that accurately depicted the experience of living with the disease,” Shammas told me as I chatted to some of the creators to celebrate the launch of the Kickstarter.
The roster of creators features some of the most exciting names in comics, and each came to the anthology for different reasons. For Stephanie Cannon, there was something about the universality of the topic that drew her to submitting to the anthology. “The subject matter piqued my interest because I felt as though it was offering to give a voice to so many who have suffered from any type of illness, in any form. Most of us have either suffered from an illness ourselves or have had a loved one who has experienced some type of illness, whether that be a physical or mental illness,” Cannon explained. For Matthew Erman, there was a pressing intimacy with the topic. “My family has a history of mental illness. Some of my extended family have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I was recently diagnosed with depression. Not that that gives me the right to tell a story in Nadia’s book, but I’ve always been interested in exploring these things,” Erman told me.
Vita Ayala was immediately interested, saying, “Nadia initially told me about the project, and it sounded intense and important. I think Nadia’s passion, coupled with the opportunity to explore such a personal topic, really made me excited to take part.” For Elaine Will, CORPUS was a chance to create the kind of story that they enjoyed. “I’m very interested in reading and telling ‘graphic medicine’ stories. I think they’re all deeply important stories that need to be heard, in order to bring readers towards a greater understanding of various types of illness, and to connect with others who’ve experienced illness,” Will said passionately.
It was clear to all four of the creators I spoke to that there was a need and demand for a book that focused on the often taboo subject of illness, and many wrote about their own personal experiences with long-term illness or disability, Ayala included. “The story I am writing, which will be illustrated by David Stoll, is about my experiences with my herniated back. It is about pain, and relearning how to move in my body, and coming to terms with new limitations,” they said, adding, “David has some great ideas on how to materialize the metaphors. I am very excited to work with him!” Cannon’s story is an exploration of grief, and the strength of human adversity. “My story is kind of intimate in that it centers on just two people. It focuses on a young woman who has had a congenital heart disease her entire life, how she has coped with it, and ultimately how it affected not just her life, but several other lives as well,” Cannon shared.
It’s clear the collaborating writers are all giant fans of their artists, and joyously share their enthusiasm for their creative partners. “The story I’m writing is called ‘VELVET AT THE DOOR,’ and will be illustrated by the incredibly talented Renee Kliewer,” said Erman. “Our story is really about my experience with being diagnosed, understanding that my depression is an aspect of myself that is as much a part of me as my love for Taco Bell or something. Learning to cope and manage and heal yourself, despite the situation being unknown and terrifying. Renee wants me to put in a disclaimer that she hates Taco Bell and she does not share my endorsement.”
Many of the stories center around depression and mental illness, a topic some of the creators have dealt with before. For Elaine Will, it was a chance to return to a topic she was desperate to revisit. “I’ve been itching to tell another mental health story since finishing Look Straight Ahead, and so my story is about my anxiety and depression, and the often exhausting experience of dealing with both of these on a day-to-day basis,” Will explained.
For editor Shammas, CORPUS was a chance to right the lack of representation and conversation around illness and disability. “I realized what a huge gap there was in narratives for people with chronic illness, especially invisible chronic illnesses and disabilities like diabetes. Anyone who meets me would never know the everyday maintenance, struggle, and anxiety that goes into my day-to-day life. My anxiety has been even worse when I see the current discourse around healthcare under the current administration. It hit me all at once that I had the power to open the narrative and create the content I wish I had seen when I was younger, what I’m sure so many people would wish to see,” Shammas told me.
Anthologies are an entirely different way of reading, creating, and participating in comics. It’s a form that strays from the usual twenty-to-thirty page ongoing comic, and, in the case of crowd-funded anthologies like CORPUS, something that takes a radical step away from the Direct Market model. For each creator, making a story for CORPUS meant adapting their work in their own unique way. Cannon sees it as a personal challenge to create an engaging tale with a constrained page count. “Comics for anthologies are typically limited to a certain number of pages, so as a writer you have to be pretty concise in your storytelling. I enjoy the process because it challenges me as a writer. I need to make sure I can tell my story within the parameters of the page count while also ensuring that I’m engaging my readers so that they feel invested in the story,” he explained.
Erman shared a similar viewpoint, seeing the process as a chance to hone your narrative and get right to the core of your story. “You really have to determine what is necessary, to get your point across. I think you also have to have a point. In single issues or just writing, sometimes you can get away with not having an explicit narrative point, whether that’s like character building or scene setting. There isn’t a ton of room in a four or five page comic, so you have to be more explicit in what you’re doing. It reminds me of the difference between like writing a haiku versus prose,” Erman expanded. Ayala, whose Black Mask series The Wilds with Emily Pearson and Marissa Louise drops in February, agreed, saying that “the biggest difference is that anthologies tend to be VERY short stories. So there is no time for a slow roll. I have to figure out how to tell my story, and have the impact/have it resonate with people in a SUPER limited amount of space.”
Though the shorter comics have been a challenge for three of the writers, for Will it was easy, as most of her recent work fit the parameters of the anthology structure, which has been a healing experience as a creator. “Actually, the most recent stories I’ve been doing have been fairly short—it’s nice to sort of slow down and relax with a shorter story rather than committing to a years-long graphic novel project. Look Straight Ahead took a pretty long time to do and was a highly personal story that really took a lot out of me. But I’m finally feeling like I’m ready to tackle a longer mental health story again soon,” Will told me.
All of the creators I spoke to have chosen to tell intimately personal stories for CORPUS. As the curator and editor, Shammas led the way with an autobiographical story about her experience with diabetes. “I’m writing a story for CORPUS about the difficulties of my first year of diagnoses, and the closest I ever came to dying in my sleep from low blood sugar. Oftentimes diabetes is portrayed as joke, like something that people get from eating too much sugar. These jokes make seem as though everyone who has diabetes got it from their own negligence, like they deserved it, like it’s not serious. I want people to understand how much mental work goes into maintaining yourself as a type 1 and that it really can be a tightrope walk,” Shammas shared.
Not all of the stories are focused simply on the creator’s own illnesses though, and for Cannon it was a chance to explore grief. “I have lost loved ones from various illnesses, so this story is very personal in that I have experienced grief and all the different emotions that go with it. There definitely are stages to the grieving process, and it is easy to feel very overwhelmed by it all,” Cannon stated. Erman’s story shines a light on depression, an experience that both he and his collaborator share. He was candid about his story, saying, “Mine is pretty personal. Renee and I both have depression so I think this is one of the more personal things I’ve written because it is a literal depiction of my diagnosis experience which itself was a bit abstract. We’ve got a weird story but one that depicts how my therapist helped me find that painful part of myself that I had neglected.”
Both Ayala and Will saw the anthology as a way to share intimately personal stories. “I don’t think it gets more intimate than sharing struggles with injuries or illness, whether physical, mental, or both. That is what drew me to this project—the opportunity to connect with other people on that level. Because EVERYONE has experience with illness or injury, on some level,” Ayala shared.
“[My story is] even more personal than [my last book], Look Straight Ahead, I guess—since this one is actually autobiographical and LSA was only semi-autobiographical. Personal stories, to me, always have the potential to be the most powerful stories and I think this anthology is definitely going to achieve that,” Will stated. Shammas agreed with her contributors, saying that “this is definitely one of my most personal stories. It really affected my relationship with sleep, with my body, and with the idea of death.”
I asked each of the creators to share some of their personal journeys that informed their stories in CORPUS. Cannon’s own brushes with death were one of the biggest influences on her life and narrative. “I’m an asthmatic who has had several life-threatening attacks, which is a terrifying experience to go through. I’m always thinking ahead to ensure that I don’t get to the point of a severe attack again, both with medications and my daily lifestyle. I also have lost several loved ones to different forms of illnesses. Losing my Dad in 2007 was one of the most difficult things I have ever gone through. Both of these experiences have made me much more self-aware as to how precious life really is,” Cannon said thoughtfully.
Reaching out to get help is one of the hardest things that we can do when it comes to our health, and for Erman it was one of the defining factors in his personal journey with depression. “Dealing with impermanence is unfathomably hard for me and it was what drove me to look into therapy. I’ve discovered that the world is a beautiful place and that there exists a constant pulse of joy and movement and life. I get to experience some of that while I’m here, to participate in all of this. We get this moment to enjoy the ride, and therapy is helping me appreciate it without worry.”
“It was really hard to talk about this a few years ago. I thought everyone struggled with this. Truly struggled with it to a point of inaction. That everyone lays in bed and wonders what the void feels like, of what not existing feels like—being plagued with impermanence,” Erman shared. “I found out that it is a symptom of something I can’t control, though, and knowing that I have depression—that these thoughts feed into that feeling of hopelessness—helps put things in perspective and helps me climb back into being present. I think that my ability to write and create is molded by my depression, as it often stands as the keeper to my will to do anything. Part of this is learning that treatment is not a boxing match and that fighting your depression will end with you losing, so I have to work with it and sometimes that can be frustrating.”
Will shared a story about the way that creativity can be stunted by illness, especially when it comes to our mental health. “Although depression and anxiety can give me inspiration for stories, they can also be absolutely debilitating. The self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness I experience have stolen so many hours of productivity from me. I think it’s VERY important to realize that not every creative person can work long hours and pull all-nighters, and it doesn’t make us lesser creators if we physically can’t. The culture of ‘overworking’ in creative fields has gotten so toxic,” Will told me.
We create art for a lot of reasons, and often for ourselves, but also in the hopes that it reaches other people too. With CORPUS, Shammas was hoping to create visibility, something for people who’ve suffered from illnesses to relate to and find themselves in. “I have a lot of hopes for CORPUS as a project. I hope that anyone who suffers with an invisible or visible illness can see something they relate to in this book. I hope that people can see exactly how prominent sickness is in our lives, even if they aren’t sick themselves; everyone has been affected by illness at least tangentially. I want people to see that health is constantly in flux, and that even if you are healthy and able-bodied, you could one day not be, and so you should have compassion for everyone. Most of all, I want people to realize that when we discuss accessible healthcare, we aren’t talking about a minority of people trying to get free stuff. Healthcare discussion often dehumanizes those it discusses, and a lot of people seem to think, ‘Why should I care?’ I strongly believe in art’s ability to create empathy, and I hope that by opening the dialogue about illness, we can open a flood of understanding,” Shammas told me.
Each of the creators I spoke to were excited for readers to discover their stories and hopefully find something in them. “My hope is that readers will understand just how OK it is to feel a certain way about an experience with an illness. Emotions can be tricky things, but we should never feel ashamed about how we feel. Sometimes those emotions can change daily, or even by the hour,” Cannon explained. “I hope that people will connect with the honesty,” Ayala stated simply. “Hopefully it makes at least one person feel less alone,” Will said.
I’ve been excited to pick up CORPUS since I first heard about it; as a disabled woman I rarely see myself in the media I love so much. It seems like the creatives I spoke to are equally as excited. “My story is a different genre than I’m used to writing in, which ended up being a lot of fun. I was happy to be able to stretch my writing abilities a bit with this story. I’m most excited for people to be able to see my range and read something different from me. I’m so honored to be a part of this anthology with so many other incredibly talented writers and artists, and I can’t wait for everyone to read these stories,” Cannon told me.
It’s not just their own stories that the team are stoked about, but also the other talent in the anthology. “There are so many incredibly talented people involved with this anthology and I’m so excited to read the stories from everyone involved. I’m also excited to get to work with Renee and have her showcase her talent. I’ve known Renee for nearly fifteen years now and it’s an absolute joy to work with someone you know and care about, that you trust to make your story come to life, and that’s her,” Erman shared.
Ayala is also hyped for the world to see Stoll’s art, saying, “I am a big fan of his work, and he was excited to do the visual metaphor stuff. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I can’t wait.” Will was most excited for the process of creating her story. “I think I’ve done some pretty dynamite thumbnails for it and I’m excited to see what they look like in a completed state,” Will said happily.
For curator and editor Shammas, though, it’s all about the audience. “I hope that even just one person will find something they needed,” Shammas stated.