Susan MacLeod has developed a crisp and smart cartooning style that puts her shoulder to shoulder with today’s cartoonists. In this interview, we chat about MacLeod’s new graphic memoir, Dying for Attention, a focus on the nursing home care industry. MacLeod also talks about the creative process: growing as an artist, cartoonist and graphic recorder.
MacLeod got an in-depth look at the Canadian nursing home care system through the years that she oversaw the care of her mother and she could see it was wrong. Her conclusion, borne out by research, is that for-profit nursing home care is too invested in the bottom line to ever provide adequate care. It’s the value of human life versus capitalism. An ideal resolution is not likely anytime soon. But being aware of the realities is a first step.
MacLeod is someone with a drive to do good. She finds it highly rewarding when she does a graphic recording session with residents at a nursing home. She always leaves enough room for everyone to have a chance to come up on stage, grab a marker, and add their own contributions to the mural-in-progress. It’s during this process of putting words and pictures together that people try to solve problems and make connections. MacLeod knows this better than many folks. She’s modest but quite insightful too. She knows that what she does matters. And maybe she prefers to let her book speak for itself. In that case, she’s got the best calling card any cartoonist could hope for.
Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20
Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.
Sorry, Charlie, but nobody gets out of here alive. If you truly appreciated that, what a world this could be!
Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.
MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.
The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.
Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.
It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.
MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.
Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.
We don’t die in vain when we value life!
In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.
MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.
Let’s say that you do go out to L.A. to chase that dream of fame and fortune. Alright, you’re walking down Hollywood Boulevard. You get a text. But it’s not your agent. You don’t even really have an agent but you know someone who does. Or you thought you knew this person. Where did the time go? At this rate, you only have enough money to last you through…the week? Ah, it can happen. Variations of this happen every day. Meet Farrah Durante. She’s struggling at cattle calls for whatever part she can get. And she actually used to be somebody. Yeah, she was Cee-Lin on that really popular sci-fi show, “Space Farers,” or it used to be popular. That was so many years ago. Close in on Farrah. She’s attractive and seems pretty agile but she’s at the mercy of youth-obsessed Hollywood. However, Farrah has stumbled upon some sort of secret weapon in “Glitterbomb,” the new comic book series from Image Comics with a Hollywood horror tale to tell.
You see, Farrah has a way to exact revenge. She is not looking to make trouble. But something has tapped her to be a vessel that can unleash horrific fury. You wouldn’t think it remotely possible to look at Farrah. And, Jesus, what exactly would horrific fury entail? Look, it’s been brewing for a very long time. Hollywood’s fame culture has already unleashed its own horrific fury, so to speak. We question our looks, our own worthiness, compared to the latest celebrity darlings. We all do it in our own way. And, if you don’t, there are others who will do it for us and unfairly judge us. Poor Farrah finds herself caught in the middle of some cosmic reordering of balance. That much I can tell you. That’s fair enough. I’m not here to spoil anything. What I am here to say is that Farrah Durante is a great character and exemplifies the tragic state of our culture when a talented woman reaches a certain age and becomes something less than worthy: unemployable, unmarketable, unwanted.
There are a couple of classic films that readily come to mind now: “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve.” Both films came out in 1950 and each stars a woman who has committed the worst act in Hollywood: she has gotten older! Gloria Swanson was 51. Bette Davis was 42. Each character was at a dangerous point in their lives with threats coming at them from all sides. Who would love them? Who would hire them? Both films are dark with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset” decidedly noir. Neither is horror, per se, but we come close as, in both cases, these two older women are so up against it. “Eve” is far more restrained although the threat from the young Eve Harrington on the older Margo Channing reaches the level of a blood sport. For horror movie theatrics, you can’t find much better than Gloria Swanson as the aging and desperate Norma Desmond. This is all to say that both of these movies were playing with a common theme, one of the oldest in the book: the young will devour the old…and women are placed at greater disadvantage.
Clearly, “Glitterbomb” is playing for keeps! This is an ambitious work. It’s also a scary one! Jim Zub (WAYWARD, Thunderbotls) has created a script that realistically brings us into the hard luck world of Farrah Durante endlessly scrambling for an acting gig. And he melds that with some of the most inventive supernatural content that I’ve seen in a long while. Add to that the very nimble artwork by Djibril Morissette-Phan that captures the pathos and rage of Farrah quite convincingly. We see her as someone potentially so full of life but who must continue to sidestep all sorts of life’s sucker punches along with whatever that is that spawned from hell–or is it just Hollywood?!
K. Michael Russell provides some great atmospheric colors. And Marshall Dillon rounds out the creative team with well balanced, well-placed, lettering. I especially appreciate his creative flourishes in evoking the urgency of text messages.
At the end of this comic, there’s an eye-opening essay on the abusive culture of Hollywood by Holly Raychelle Hughes. As she experienced it, Hollywood made her feel less than human, more like something expendable. It is a perfect companion piece to this remarkable work.
GLITTERBOMB provides a clever horror vibe as well as great biting social commentary. The first issue is available as of September 7th. For more details, visit Image Comics right here.