December 3, 2014

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The Hospital Suite

The Hospital Suite
Written and Drawn by John Porcellino
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

"I guess I just need to act as if I'm going to survive."

Probably in one way or another, we've all had moments where we've been trapped inside of our own bodies or our own heads. It's those moments when we see everything that we're doing or experiencing but feel so disconnected from the moment to the point where we have no control over our own actions. Life is happening to you but you are not a part of it. For a lot of us, it’s a passing thing, a moment in time where it happens and then we get to move on with our lives. But there are more people than we know of who live like this all of the time. And while we’ve all experienced this, it’s hard to know what to do when we see it happening in other people. It may even be hard to recognize when it’s happening to others. And it’s probably harder to have empathy with what they’re going through.

The Hospital Suite feels like a book that Porcellino needed to draw. More than just an autobiographical account of over 10 years of his life and illnesses, this book is more journal or diary than autobiography. Porcellino breaks the book down into three parts that cover three different types of illness; physical, emotional and mental. The three parts don't flow smoothly as each illness doesn't necessarily lead into the next but they build a picture of Porcellino's life that's centered around doctors, hospitals, suffering and longing. But The Hospital Suite is not even a book that leads its characters or the readers out of any of those. It's far from being a self-help book, painting a world full of cures and miracles. Porcellino's book weighs down on you, bringing you into his mindset and worldview without ever providing any true healing.

Through his hybrid spirituality and his simple, clear lines, Porcellino is still trying to process these illnesses that go back 15+ years at this point. There is a clear feeling of being lost for Porcellino. Whether it's the way he bounces in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices, his cross country moves from Denver to Chicago and back again, or even the way he narratively pops around his own timeline, The Hospital Suite is never a grounded book. Even though it's clear that Porcellino is drawing these comics at some point after the events in them, he doesn't necessarily have any cure or peace from these past events. The images he draws try to break events down to their basic elements that he experienced. This is completely from his own point of view so as he gets trapped by his illness and fears, we get trapped in his experiences. We only ever see his world from his mindset so we get wrapped up in the illnesses as well.

Porcellino never ventures far outside of his experiences and point of view. For an autobiographical comic, that makes sense. But there are big events that happen to him, and people come into and out of his life that feel like they should be bigger in this book than they ever are. At the end of the second major section of The Hospital Suite, the most reflective about the breakup of his marriage he gets is, "I stood there as Kera and her parents removed all of her belongings from our house... It was the most humiliating moment of my life." For almost two-thirds of the book up to now, it's been about him with his wife having this suffering-filled life together. And even before this, we've started to see cracks in their marriage, beginning with when she goes to live with her parents and they start spending less and less time together. It's not a complete shock when we get to the moment where she moves out but any exploration of what this moment means to him is strangely absent from the rest of the book. Instead of exploring life and his sicknesses after his wife leaves him, he startlingly jumps into the third part of the book and backtracks to his developing OCD while in college.


He leads us up to these big moments in his life but he never follows through on them. The biggest frustration about being stuck in Porcellino’s head for during this book is that like him, we see everything going on around him but but he never allows us to explore the people or incidents in his life. Everything is from his point of view so we can only go where Porcellino wants to go. He doesn’t want to talk about the breakup of his marriage. He doesn’t want to talk about his experience with acid except to say “Acid changed my life.” That’s a big statement to make after we’ve spent this much time with him but that’s as far as he wants to go with it.


Undoubtedly, it’s hard to talk about illness, particularly your own. Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite is a very honest book that tries to protect the reader and the cartoonist from unneeded suffering. As autobiography, trying to protect everyone keeps the book from being greater than the events that it is showing. Porcellino opens up the events of his life without opening up the healing to his audience. Every time he gets to a big moment, he cuts it short and moves onto something else. What we get is Porcellino’s need to share the events, to share the suffering because it feels like this story isn’t over. Porcellino gets to the end of the book but it doesn’t feel like he gets to any closure other than life goes on. And maybe that’s what we should get from this book. There’s no real closure to the pain and misery in our lives. All we can really do is get sucked up in them or move on to the next thing.  We just have to trust that we're going to survive.