Author: Roland Burkart (translated by Natascha Hoffmeyer)
Publish Date: July 2021 (English edition), Originally published in 2017 as Wirbelsturm (Swiss edition)
Publisher: graphic mundi (imprint of The Pennsylvania University Press)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-0-271-08808-2
Author website: https://rolandburkart.ch/
Guest book review by Paul Mitchell
Piedro’s life changed forever on Saturday May 28. A young man with a job as a sales representative for a food manufacturing company, he had arranged to go swimming at a local lake with his childhood friend, Lucas. But on that warm spring day, when Piedro dived into the water and hit his head hard on something beneath the surface, he would never be quite the same again.
Created by Swiss artist and illustrator Roland Burkart, Twister is a powerful exploration of living with quadriplegia, a graphic narrative that is informed by the author’s personal experience of the same condition following an accident. Burkart depicts how the head impact suffered by Piedro renders him a “C-5” (p. 48) after his spinal cord is severed by a shattered fifth vertebra.
The story begins thirteen years after the accident, with Piedro supine in bed as his in-home caregiver empties his colostomy bag and then helps him into his wheelchair. Exploring the day-to-day reality of living with paralysis is a definite strength of Burkart’s engaging and inspiring novel. Yet rather than dwelling on the existential crisis that Piedro’s quadriplegia provokes, Burkart constructs his narrative entirely in open panels and, thereby, creates a sense of continuity, rather than disruption. In the opening section of Twister, we see Piedro looking down at his flaccid body as he asks himself “Have I changed?” But, when this frame segues into the next, he replies with affirmative defiance: “No, I’m still pretty much the same person I was before” (p. 3). Throughout the novel, a series of parallel images reinforces this idea, with several black and white drawings variously depicting Piedro in the mundane acts of waking, shaving, grasping a hot coffee mug, and smoking, both before and after he became quadriplegic.
At the same time, Burkart’s repeated use of open panels implies the ease with which any unforeseen event can have life-changing consequences. To this end, the borderless drawings provide a visual interface between Piedro’s comfortable life before his accident, when he drove to the lake whilst enthusiastically singing along to Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’, and his latter-day disablement and dependency. Nevertheless, we are told that “it really is remarkable how quickly one gets used to this sort of thing” (p. 1). Like his name implies, Piedro (‘rock’) has the mental resilience to keep strong in moments of adversity.
The medical explanation of quadriplegia is kept to a minimum, with most of Burkart’s text instead prioritizing the story of Piedro’s personal rehabilitation. Although we witness him recovering the ability to use his hands and to eat without assistance, this recuperative process is far from simply physical. At roughly the centerpoint of the novel, Burkart spends four pages depicting an encroaching twister that is drawn as a series of menacing, thick black lines. An existential tornado that threatens to engulf him, Piedro is horrified by the realization that he “would be paralyzed forever” (p. 64). Yet, by confronting his overwhelming sense of “fear and powerlessness” (p. 64), Piedro eventually learns to “just go with the flow” (p. 79). This notion is poignantly represented by Burkart through a sequence of drawings in which Piedro floats on his back in the swimming pool, a particularly significant image given the cause of his accident.
Piedro’s optimistic declaration that he is “looking forward to all that lay ahead of [him]” (p. 93) is comically deflated by an image of him being released from hospital during a torrential downpour. Nevertheless, the novel provides an affirmative vision of his life as a quadriplegic. Piedro finds love and a degree of autonomy, both of which had been unimaginable to him after the accident. And although he remains hopeful that a “miracle drug” (p. 106) will eventually restore his ability to walk, Piedro becomes emboldened by a renewed appreciation for living.
Unable to use his right hand following his accident, Burkart created Twister, his first graphic novel, after learning to draw with his left. Enriched by the author’s personal experience of dealing with quadriplegia, the novel is a thought-provoking, humorous, and ultimately uplifting exploration of how personal catastrophe can lead to a “totally new beginning” (p. 97).
Paul Mitchell teaches in the English department at Universidad Católica de Valencia San Vicente Mártir, España – His latest research project focuses on graphic medical memoirs that are written by men.