Anthologizing Illness in Shammas’s CORPUS

A figure with a red face walks to the right, towards red text that reads, CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments.

CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments

Nadia Shammas (editor)
September 2018

Nadia Shammas’s illness-and-healthcare anthology, CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments, came out late last year, and I’ve been meaning to write about it since I got the gorgeous physical copy in the mail. A full-color, close to 300-page volume, CORPUS delivers a lot of visual punch and an amazing variety of comics from both experienced comics creators and some newer names.

Some of the stories it collects are fairly straightforward explanatory comics essays about “what it’s like” to experience a certain illness. They address a reader unfamiliar with their condition and attempt to communicate the different rhythms, considerations, and obstacles of their life, often through a captioned voice-over. The best of these, including Mady G’s “Mind and Body” and Vita Ayala and David Stoll’s “With a Bang Not a Whimper,” have the visuals doing double duty, conveying both visceral experience and narrative information.

Ayala and Stoll’s piece uses splash pages and creepy silhouettes to great, gnawing effect: the fanged spider-creature of back pain is both terrifying and recognizable. Meanwhile, Mady G’s comic explodes with candied colors, and with variously stylized (or violently abstracted) avatars, to deal in inarticulate bodily experiences like dissociation and dysphoria.

Perhaps the best use of visual style goes to “There is a Monster in My Studio” by Ryan Cady, Phil Sevy, and Micah Myers, which is about the accumulated and acute pains that accompany the labor of drawing comics. Its pinched, intentionally overworked inks, which draw attention to the tightness of each drawing, echo the damage being described narratively in the visual form itself.

A series of three panels. In the first, a text-box reads, "There's a monster in my studio" over a man at his drawing table. In the second panel, the text-box reads "I feed it parts of me," and a shadowy figure appears in the background. In the third panel, the man continues to work.
“There Is a Monster in My Studio.” (Cady & Sevy & Myers)

In the less worked-out pieces in CORPUS, the art sometimes acts as redundant explanations or stock image accompaniments to the writing, making the whole unit feel less like a comic than an illustrated essay. Unimaginative visuals––those that never risk abstraction, expressive ugliness, or stylistic experimentation––also tended to mark the comics that did the least introspective work overall.

By contrast, some of the collection’s most memorable pieces veered away from direct explanation completely, taking an indirect or non-realist approach to their subjects. These comics managed to integrate the narrative and the essayistic more fluidly, bypassing that documentary voiceover effect of the borderline-“illustrated essay.” Some of my favorites in this non-realist mode included “Velvet at the Door” (Matthew Erman and Renee Kliewer), “Out of Pocket” (Alison and Libby Vande Bunte), and “A Recurring Interruption” (Brian Level).

A horned black creature sits in an armchair, with a speech bubble above its head saying, "My eyes are heavy. I inflict myself on you..."
“Velvet at the Door.” (Erman & Kliewer)

The first, “Velvet at the Door,” ended up becoming one of my favorites. In it, an exhausted narrator reluctantly invites her dreaded, hulking shadow into her home. But what begins as a horror story becomes one of mutual comfort and apology, as both the creature and narrator grieve their shared aches and come to terms with their co-existence. While many of the comics in this collection developed fantastic creatures as allegorical shorthand, “Velvet at the Door” is a Babadook-esque standout. Its brushy, textured style foregoes explicit panels entirely, creating a slower, more fluid and creeping experience of time.

Other notable comics in this anthology include “Flensed” (Alex Paknadel, Kelly Williams, Micah Myers) and “The Milk” (Morgan Renner & Brogan Luke Bouwhuis), both of which were exceptional at establishing the story’s voice and specificity. In “Flensed,” a man named Alex sheds his problematic skin, but then ends up incapable of being rid of it. In the comic’s reduced, watery-grey colorscape, his bare, pink-red flesh is extra conspicuous, extra uncanny and meaty. He walks around with the skin-suit tied scarf-like on his back––like Hellboy in “The Corpse”––amongst an uncomfortably approving public, who celebrate the radical act with signs that read, “CLEAN AT LAST!” (The skin, meanwhile, reminds Alex that actually, “I’m not where you’re broken.”)

Renner and Bouwhuis’s “Milk” chronicles the ordinary rhythms of life with schizophrenia. The comic’s gnarly, gestural penwork and dynamic layouts do extreme justice to the slice-of-life story, expertly using compositional noisiness and carefully chosen moments of clarity to narrate the main character’s struggle with overstimulating public spaces.

A shadowy person looks through the blinds at the character, who says "Yep."
“The Milk.” (Bouwhuls & Renner)

As a whole, Shammas’s anthology draws a nuanced and varied picture of how people experience illness and healthcare. To the extent that you can see an editor’s eye in the collection, Shammas seems to have done really well in both selection and direction, especially given the brevity and efficiency of the stories we see here. (The longest stories clock in at ten pages.)

Still, I ended up sort of puzzled by her organization of the book into “Physical,” “Mental,” and “Medical” sections. The first designates “physical illnesses,” the second “mental illnesses,” and the third “experiences with healthcare”––it makes some sense on a literal level, but I wonder what other interesting and more thoughtful ways this anthology could have sorted its stories, given the pre-existing conceptual divides between mental and physical illness. Often, the stories themselves seemed to contest their categorization under one of those three headings.

Nonetheless, CORPUS is obviously a beautiful and accomplished collection. (That cover illustration: whew. God job, Mark Wang.) A loosely-themed anthology turns out to be a great way to explore illness narratives, especially because it gives each story room to be more specific and personal, and less “representative” of The Experience of any given chronic illness. As an abled reader, I felt incredibly grateful to be reading such generous, delicate, and daring work from so many great creators.

Tony Wei Ling

Tony Wei Ling

Tony Wei Ling (they/he) studies contemporary literature, new media, and comics at UCLA, and is a fiction editor at Nat.Brut. They tweet @tonyweiling.