Lim Cheng Tju / CT Lim
As a genre, graphic medicine is on the ascendance and within that genre, comics on mental health are gaining prominence especially given how the recent global covid-19 crisis has affected mental wellbeing. Recently I moderated a panel on comics and mental health, featuring Singapore artists, Sonny Liew, James Tan, Anngee Neo and Mak Kean Loong.
I Am Still Your Child, a 45-minute Canadian documentary written and directed by Megan Durnford, was released in 2018, and is a haunting testimony of children who had to take care of their parents who suffered from mental illness. It features three individuals in this situation – Sarah, a high school student; Jessy, an art student who is also in a band; and Von Allan, a comic book artist who self-publishes his own comics. Out of the three, Sarah and Jessy are still taking care of their parents while Von’s mother passed away in the 1990s when he was a young adult.
While Sarah and Jessy’s stories are very powerful, our focus is on Von. Allan is a Canadian comic artist based in Ottawa. Comics helped him to survive a traumatic childhood. Superhero titles such as The X-Men were an escape for him -- something to keep him sane during the trying times. He struck out on his own at 18, worked in an independent bookstore, and learned to draw comics late in life. His mother passed away at the age of 48 in 1994 and 15 years later, Von’s first graphic novel, The Road To God Knows, was self-published and is a semi-autobiographical tale of a teenager’s relationship with her mentally-ill mother.
The book led Megan Durnford to contacting Von in 2015 to be in a documentary she was making on individuals like Von -- children who had to take care of their parents who were manic depressive and suffering from bipolar disorder. While Sarah and Jessy were still going through their challenging family situations, Von showed what it is to survive such an experience. And it is reaffirming to see – one can get through this and still learn something valuable from it. As Von shared, “I think that the most positive impacts on my life is that it just gave me more sensitivity."Durnford had wanted to use images from the book in the documentary, but Allan was uncomfortable with that as he felt his early work was too rough. As a compromise, he redrew selected pages which was used in the film. On his website, Von shared the process here with a side by side comparison of the 2009 version with the 2017 redrawn pages. <https://www.vonallan.com/2017/09/on-getting-stronger.html>
Surprisingly, Allan is not the first to tackle such a topic in Canadian comics. Chester Brown also drew about his schizophrenic mother in I Never Liked You (originally serialized as “Fuck” in Yummy Fur in the 1990s).
I had not read Von Allan’s comics before and watching this documentary has made me curious about his work. Unfortunately The Road To God Knows is out of print, but his newer comics are for sale on his website or on Comixology. Some can be read for free online on his website. <https://www.vonallan.com/p/comics.html>
You can watch I Am Still Your Child for free if you are in Canada. Or you can buy the DVD from the official website. The film website provided this sobering fact: “More than half a million of Canada’s frontline mental healthcare “workers” are less than twelve years old. They’re called COPMI – Children of a Parent with Mental Illness – and there are 575,000 of them in Canada.” This is an important issue and a documentary definitely worth watching.
A version of this review will be in print in IJOCA 22:2.