100 Months Graphic Novel Book Review

Guest Review by Andrew Schechterman, September, 2015

The final statement

100 Months: The End of All Things is John (“Johnny”) Hicklenton’s disturbing, largely non-verbal, statement about going from diagnosis to dying, to death. Not for the faint of heart, this last work captures and embodies, obliquely, his ten-year progressive decline and ultimate destruction by Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Because of his indirect approach, the disease itself is mostly presented via allegory. (For the reader who would like a more traditional account of his MS, consider a 2008 interview “MS: I’m very angry about this disease,” In the Introduction, Hicklenton’s surviving friend and professional colleague Pat Mills writes “. . . [we would] never ask Jimi Hendrix to turn down the volume . . . and [we should] never ask John Hincklenton to turn down the nether world, the examination of his soul and the loss of himself.”

While 100 Months could be about any “down to the bone marrow” struggle, my lens here is for the Graphic Medicine and Comics Studies professional, as well as relevant healthcare and medical providers, their patients and willing family members. If the time for reading a graphic novel about end-stage MS is appropriate, 100 Months becomes a committed opportunity to experience the last words and last visuals of what it’s like to die well before one’s time, drawn out and painful. For most of us, it’s likely the exact opposite of the way we wish to finish our lives.

Forewarned, there’s no onboarding here, from the very first page Hicklenton releases the Beast, the progressive, the degenerative, the systemic. For those who’ve witnessed and enjoyed his art, comics and many visual-narrative partnerships (including those with Neil Gaiman), you’ll recognize Hicklenton’s style and this will be a bittersweet last read. There’s no pun in this being his last book; it was finished one day before his death. His prior works, such as 2000 AD and Judge Dredd, captured a different audience. If we’re truly our wisest on our last day, if we’re honest enough with ourselves to seek and allow for our most pure insights, then this would be Hicklenton’s finest contribution.

The visual and the textual

Each time we draw a gag, a panel, a strip, a spread, a graphic novel, we chip away at the half-life of our true visual style. Hicklenton’s visual style, with no half-lives left, is museum quality plus “. . . hell hath no fury.” This is the graphic stuff of nightmares; what Stephen King and Peter Straub deliver across spellbinding pages, Hicklenton often delivers in one. There are pages without any words, pages with seemingly orphaned words, and pages with a few poetic lines where periods abruptly appear, suddenly changing our very reading tempo (to experience this shift, read the book aloud). There are pages and pages of controlled spatters of blood and abstract Chinese seal chops of spot red; there’s a continual mix of bone-gristle white, soot grey, flesh tones and human figures covered in pitch black hoods. Many of the images are unnerving and even fodder for night terrors (ICD-9-CM 307.46). His pencil, pen and brush include hard thin lines, then widths and swatches of watercolor blurs; some of his figures are alien and hermaphroditic, partially cooked creatures that do much less to entertain than to very skillfully . . . explain. Whether you like his style or not, you’ll likely acknowledge that his drawings reflect expert mastery of the eye and hand, brutal and violent movements that emerge and sweep across the horizontal, semi-gloss pages.

Textually, Hicklenton’s hand lettering is a whisper, yet paradoxically aggressive: it’s pointed and serrated, almost Grecian in its tiny 45- and 90-degree angles. If you only see lettering as art, it’s easy to miss the language of his poetry which is intermittent but baked in. After picking up the book once, then, fairly quickly, putting it down, I decided to read the book three times: as a “graphic novel,” as words only while trying to ignore the visuals, and as visuals only while trying to ignore the words. I, myself, work on both paper and digital canvases and I tell my students and patients that draw, that every pixel and every turn of the letterform and shape must carry meaning for the communication to succeed. Hicklenton’s pixels are his lettering: triangular uppercase D’s; tiny baby-teeth blades and spurs flailing about; some borne inside his body trying to exit, others directed at his body from the outside. I’ve had patients, including those in Palliative Care settings, describe such as a breath-robbing, “a sandpaper of friction for [their] every move,” a blood flow that has become granular and crystalized, yet still propels itself through their bodies.

Pain or suffering?

The experience of pain does not require eyes, and in 100 Months there are few well defined eyes or fully developed faces. Mostly we watch the sides or backs of heads as characters lumber, or flee, from where we sit holding the book. We see three-quarter views, all a consistent mix of his remarkable pencil lines and watercolor puddles. The faces and bodies (and body parts) seem a Hicklenton-unique combination of the vague and the concrete, motion well beyond any caped action hero. Though we often rely on the talent of the cartoonist to properly draw a character’s eyes to effectively represent a full range of the emotions, Hicklenton’s people seem hard to get hold of: there’s no Disney Princess, Japanese Manga or Pixar Minions here (though there does seem to be a Prince of Darkness or two). Maybe Hicklenton is teaching us that suffering is the best possible example of a human gestalt (I might vote for love, as the other). For better or worse his gestalt is a lava lamp of color, slow motion, emotion, and contemplation; we really don’t need eyes and who needs to see outside when all such experience is within?

Late stage MS, depending on the decade, century or continent, has always struck me a bit like the Plague or Black Death or Ebola’s Haemorrhagic Fever. For Hicklenton, his depiction is scalable and animalistic, drawings of the Pig, the Piglet and the Wild Boar all appear many times on the pages. The Boar in particular is never shy to show its massive tusks and to exert its heavy hooves. There are also moments when a character threatens to cross the fourth wall . . . though I know we all enjoy a good scary movie or dark roller coaster ride once in a while, I’m a bit thankful that some of his in-your-face, skeletal-type characters had little or no flesh, drawn simply in black and white. All his animals are so rich in presentation that it’s important to remind oneself that this is an allegory, a metaphor, not a piece of fantasy science fiction. That said, I kept flipping back to earlier pages [panels], looking again at the Beast or the Boar, seeing it as nothing less concrete than the signs and symptoms and MS diagnosis itself; perhaps Hicklenton did too.

Hicklenton, like many accomplished cartoonists, artists and filmmakers, captures the subjective for us when we can’t do it ourselves. While 100 Months is about living and dying and even salvation, I cannot see Hicklenton producing it if were not for his terminal diagnosis. In his own MS, the bodies pile up and life is purposely twisted out of him; every movement of his brush seems to signify one less inhale, the loss of mind (and truly, brain). Unlike the unwitting demise of a frog in boiling water, every page offers this hurt, this depression, this loss of control. The terminal MS patients I’ve met would tell me 100 Months has everything to do with a progressive disease that robs you of volition and choice, that forces you under the water until you hear your own lungs fill. Though I’ve known fewer, I think ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) patients would probably describe the same.

The graphic medicine experience

There are not a lot of graphic medicine books, blogs and strips that I’ve encountered that are quite like 100 Months. Many detail a personal journey, the experience of a loved one’s sickness or injury or recovery, a medical, surgical or therapeutic best practice, an educational opportunity, a chance to develop wisdom per a human healthcare circumstance. Every time I read 100 Months: The End of All Things, I admit I hoped it would be over. To know the end of the book is to know that the pain or suffering has passed, the journey has resolved, that there’s peace in Hicklenton’s rest. There’s beauty and horror for 170 pages, you can turn one page every other second and see it as a film . . . it becomes a midnight movie or a bad trip you hunker down for, one that loops till sunrise and welcomed daylight.

Finishing the book one day before his planned death, Hincklenton took his own life in 2010 with the assistance of Zurich-based Dignitas. For graphic pathographies (subjective as they should be), he helps us to clarify our own perceptions of illness, what signs and symptoms to look for (or ignore), how to behave (or react), even how to be sick (e.g., Gilman, S., 1988, Disease and Representations, New York: Cornell). If reciprocity and empathy are twins sons of different mothers, Hicklenton’s graphic novel artfully and successfully “reflects and informs” (e.g., Whitehead, A., 2014, Medicine, Health and the Arts, pages 107–127, Routledge: London). If you decide to read up on Hincklenton (e.g., Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hicklenton) don’t be too surprised to learn that, on a day to day basis he was a comedian at heart. There are many stories out there about his comic nature, his outrageous sense of humor, his knee-slapping laugh-out-loud style. People really liked him. Of course, pain and comedy are yin and yang and Hincklenton understood the serious underbelly of genuine humor, and successfully delivers on it. He says “MS sneaks up on you . . . it can be in your body before you realize anything is wrong.” Paraphrasing, this is [his] act of education and empathy for all others who might suffer the same, and live until they can live no longer.

100 Months is a visual poem of beauty and violence, baked in it are Aeon Flux, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, with almost endless hand to hand combat among monsters and men and women. You might find it to be a statement about religion, blasphemy, atheism, existentialism, Christ or the Anti-Christ. It may be about a shared journey through birth and death, sex and love, sadness and suicide, a personal statement on right and wrong. It can be read in about an hour: focus just on the words and it’s a pithy Dante’s Inferno; focus just on the drawings and it’s an apocalyptic strain, a long deep groan against an internal nuclear wind. Here are a thousand paper cuts, embossed one at a time, thin pencil drawn strands of flesh outlined against wide arcs of energy, the severing of body parts, and the loss of function. Collectively it’s an allegory, a gritting of teeth till the last sinister element of Hicklenton’s Multiple Sclerosis floats away. This is an adult graphic novel for a select and relevant audience, not so much because of its imagery, but because it’s raw and naked and effective in it’s message of disease and brutal premature death. Hicklenton may have had much more to say but no time left to say it. He ends on a calm and lovely note as the very last words are a brief Buddhist Prayer that finish with “. . . may you be loved,” indeed some of the very last words we ourselves may want to say and hear.

Andrew Schechterman is a Medical Psychologist (Behavioral Medicine, Research, Strategy and Design) and Designer. A cartoonist and comic with a lifelong interest in visual vocabularies, you can read his other Graphic Medicine Book Reviews (The Infinite Wait, by Julia Wertz,) on this website as well. Find him on the web at www.LinkedIn.com/in/andrewschechterman, https://Twitter.com/aschechterman, or www.ElevenTimes.com.

Originally published at www.graphicmedicine.org.