Book Review by Kevin Wolf
John Porcellino, in his memoir The Hospital Suite, is medically troubled. His difficulties are primarily physical, though when the physical problems ease mental health comes to the fore. And I’m sure many argue that mental health often has physical roots, especially when treated with medications. The Hospital Suite is a non-standard case study of the ailments and treatments of one person. Why do I use the word “non-standard?” Unlike The Hospital Suite, standard case studies are not written by the person under treatment, but usually written by the treating professional. John provides amazing insights into himself, his health problems, and their attempted resolution. This is a hard book to review; because so many health issues arise, I can’t discuss only one type of medical problem here. John is anxious about his health, while there are plenty of real physical and mental health issues that arise that show up on lab or radiological tests; and many treatments bring improvement though sometimes temporary ones. Like us all, he’s a work-in-progress; but unlike most, his health problems are exhausting, seemingly never-ending. If there’s a shortcoming to The Hospital Suite, it’s from the nature of memoirs; namely, we only get impressions, impacts, and feelings of other people in John’s life through John’s lens and not their own. Regardless, I highly recommend The Hospital Suite for its honesty, transparency, and insights of living with a body and mind that’s hard to feel in control of.
John’s medical problems in this graphic work starts with “… a hearing disorder called hyperacusis—where every day, average sounds could be extremely painful— …could result in pain and pressure in my ears that lasted … a day to a month.” (12) While in extreme medical crises he moves between unbearable pain and calming meditations. At the back of The Hospital Suite John provides a couple of Zen Koan’s (unanswerable contradictory mind puzzles to break down ego and help achieve enlightenment), “The Heart Sutra”—parts of which he repeats periodically to calm himself down—and some references for further reading.
John has numerous health issues—beyond his hearing disorder—only some of which will be mentioned here. They include: appendicitis and appendectomy as a child, prostatitis, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), allergies (e.g., food sensitivities), panic attacks, fungal yeast infection, nutritional deficiencies (e.g., anemia, and pyroluria—latter causing extra low zinc and vitamin B6 and zinc/copper imbalance; required for some metabolic functions, such as hemoglobin synthesis, and connected to mental health disorders; note: pyroluria isn’t recognized by the American Medical Association), and misdiagnosis for Crohn’s disease. He goes through various healthcare providers, who often provide a temporary fix. They include acupuncturist, doctor of environmental medicine, medical doctors, therapist (physical and mental), naturopath, allergist, and nurses. The hospitalizations emphasized in The Hospital Suite revolve around his gastrointestinal difficulties (debilitating stomach pain, diarrhea bouts). They eventually result in finding he didn’t have Crohn’s disease (diet changes hardly helped), but a bowel blockage leading to removing a benign tumor along with eight inches of his small intestine. John provides details of his hospital stay, including his reactions to specific pain medications. John wonderfully gives his story of coming back into consciousness after reviving post-surgery.
After successful surgery, OCD dominated for a time. OCD moves him to almost paralysis in decision-making and activities (e.g., one person coughing then touching something, leads to his mind making everything contaminated). He berates himself because of his debilitation, but has trouble stopping it. This even led to several years of not making comics.
He intermixes his health issues with relationship struggles—he’s a hard person to live with; some humor (being hooked up to monitors in the hospital reminds him of Star Trek); and several moves between Chicago, Denver and San Francisco. His longest relationship in The Hospital Suite was with his cat, Maisie Kukoc (1991-2007).
The third part (True Anxiety) of The Hospital Suite has a summary of the first two-thirds and had been previously published as a Zine. He provides the True Anxiety comics in their original form at the back of the book (245-253). OCD is emphasized in this part of his graphic work. The anti-depressant medications recommended by his therapist helps some, but it “sloooowwwed” his brain so he didn’t stay on them for long. Later, he learned about SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and he “ …bought a bottle of Tyrosine – and it worked! I wasn’t crazy anymore …but …” (240-241)
He has a very pleasant drawing style. His artwork is simple, minimalistic black ink line drawings with no shading. He gives enough backgrounds to give placement in space (e.g., buildings have random windows or tic marks for sense of scale). His lines are gentle, smooth, confident. His humans are three-fingered, as typical for cartooning. His sound effects are more to say what’s off panel (e.g., “(traffic)”). Unlike most graphic works, rather than use all caps for narration he writes with cap/small lettering sentencing. Word balloon dialogue remains all caps. He has some metaphorical dreams both positive and negative while under the influence of anesthesia or pain medications. Here and there are editorial comments, often funny, in gutters under panels.
John provides a well-documented story of his life, primarily revolving around health problems in The Hospital Suite. I’m not familiar with his many other works (e.g., King-Cat Comics) that he’s been producing and publishing online and in book form for decades. The Hospital Suite has led me to seek out more of his graphic works.
John won an Ignatz award in 2005 (Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man) and was nominated for at least two other Ignatz’s awards (1997 and 2007) and an Eisner (2010).