The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, Graphic Novel Book Review by Andrew Schechterman

I’m guilty of not having read anything by Julia Wertz. I got this book and read it twice. The first time was on a sun-never-goes-down, gain-a-day flight from China to the United States, always a kind of wrinkle in time for a dreadfully slow tortoise like myself. Second time though I was fully grounded.

As I write this you should know I’m walking in the shadow of much more experienced prior press on the well-established Wertz from the likes of The LA Times (e.g., http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-julia-wertz-20100829-story.html) and The Comics Journal (e.g., http://www.tcj.com/julia-wertz/), as well as her publications exploring flatulence, distilleries, etc. Those who know me know I’m notorious for missing both the forest and the trees, so please take what you like and leave the rest, but don’t forgot to post your comments, thoughts and wisdom for the Graphic Medicine pros, and the World.

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories are three different but fundamentally DNA-related graphic pathographies that can be read start to finish, or in any order with success. They’re assembled into one nifty softback that travels without fuss in a daypack, slightly smaller than an iPad but bigger then your latest iPhone. The book is something that can pulled from the shelf if you get the blues, ‘cuz, well, Wertz has got you covered.

It all begins with “Industry,” next comes the title track (“The Infinite Wait”) and then “A Strange and Curious Place.” While front to back is covered here, it’s the middle of the book, the Lupus diagnosis, that brings it to the forefront as Graphic Medicine. The three stories add up to a lightly chronologic introduction to the Life of Wertz, a dive into the author’s Systemic Lupus diagnosis (also called SLE, or “Slay the Slee” as one of my patients preferred), ending with a dénouement of a love letter to the life of libraries (hey reader, you are supporting you’re local library, yes?).

A few years back Komaya Press savvy-grabbed Wertz Inc. from the big Madison Ave pub houses which Wertz apparently, briefly flirted. As Wertz is no flirt, it’s a good thing she’s now drawing and writing with Komaya et al., my impression is they “get” cartooning, comics, and pictures with words. That Wertz teamed up with the K-team is a worthy milestone and has a lot to saying No when Yes is so easy. This is somewhat of a spoiler, but one way to “Slay the SLE” or, bear with me . . . any chronic, refractory, diffuse, non-specific, relapsing-remitting, the-doctors-don’t-get-it, the insurance-company-is-offering-to-buy-me-out-to-get-me-dead life situation . . . is to say No more often, to self, to others, etc. Read on and let me know if you agree.

The delivery of The I-Wait is two hundred-plus pages, with a nice weight and feel (kudos Komaya again). Outside of the interior pages there are some dashes of color; on the textured front cover look for a calculator, a pencil holder, and a checkerboard on a milk box. The front and back graciously offer French flaps as bookmarks with content as well. The book’s spine design and overall repeated iconics, dirty socks and sock monkeys, messy rooms, pill bottles, flasks of moonshine and such . . . may frequently prompt you to nudge Wertz to tidy up (well, along with a hug of support), but note that given Wertz’s life experience, you’ll have to earn the right.

While there are some panels with no heads, nameless turkey necks and personal beet blowing (well, okay, quite a few of the latter), the bulk of the panels offer a consistent, reliable and very readable tempo, a few hops-n-skips, genuinely expressive eyes (e.g., kind of like cookies the size of your face you can get at the Mall says Wertz) and genuine postures and ergonomics (e.g., flat on face). There’s therapeutic music throughout, snappy sarcastic and non-sarcastic lines, and context-setting half and full page perspectives (e.g., check out the places Julia Jean goes, on page 150). There are a few inside jokes solved by a total read of the book, there’s lots of genuine self-effacement, some genuine disgust, and a lot of existential disgust (what I always label as “arrgh, humans”).

For those who are R-rated sensitive, note there’s a dollop of masturbation which reminds us our heroine is human and not fiction. All the above is scaffolded by three-quarter and side character views, a flat ink style with minimal hatches, casual arcs of our heroine’s spine, flat black tee-shirts, flat black hairdos, and intermittent bleak-black outlooks. Visually, there’s a bit of the Simpsons (Groening), but also Nancy sans Sluggo. Per the latter, it’s worth noting that at least in this book, Wertz frequently travels lone wolf and needs no partner in crime or innocence (there are enough that find her). The important exception is her older brother (and at times, her Mum) who make viable partners in very different ways. (Wertz is also good for giving due credit to her auto-biographic pizza cave-mate peer cartoonists who provide good gurl-power.)

Unlike Groening or Bushmiller, dotted throughout are wonderfully dense urban and day-to-day clutter (page 105 is delightful) with shades of “Where’s Waldo?” which might have commandeered “Highlights’ Magazine’s Hidden Pictures.” Somehow, some way, Wertz balances all this with clean and focused storylines, visual yin and verbal yang; there’s a lot of work here. I noticed along the way there were few characters, some allies, some villains, clothed in plaid-stamped (digital?) patterns; at first I thought Wertz was pointing me to their positive role and disposition, but then that changed, so, well, I’ll leave it up to Wertz to define these. (Then again, dammit, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).

In the first story, Industry (which could also be called Hell is Other People, but that was already taken), Wertz states she’s fundamentally a 5-year old. This is an important asterisk and a pilot light, but read on. Wertz navigates tough tween and teen and twenty-something years including a zombie-death-march of drug and alcohol abuse and dependency. This is perhaps foreshadowed by childhood sugar-highs, and a politically tagged dad who fairly early in her life, skips town. This dad does show up later but seemingly unchanged, a nice contrast to all the work that Wertz herself has done. The heart of Industry shows-n-tells countless less-than-zero minimum wage service jobs along with the emotional labor of working all possible 25-hour shifts; there are motely crew’s of mostly not-so-great co-workers and restaurant customers (“arrgh, humans”). Though tenuous, there are some angels on Wertz’s shoulder; she intermittently crosses paths with a few good folks who see her through her haze, encouraging a bit of fuel to the pilot light. Of course these folks make a big difference in clinical outcomes, and Wertz does seem to make tacit note of them along her rough way. With perseverance and latent whack-a-mole spunk, Wertz is largely kept safe from too much irreparable harm (sadly, I’ve known many who lost their lives to similar lifestyles). All this is good because Julia Wertz is good; she’s a good egg with a good soul and from the get-go offers a solid prognosis, despite the awful diagnosis that comes in the second story.

In her many jobs as babysitter, older sister, dishwasher, busser, bartender, student, server and such, Wertz sometimes wants to act out, but mostly chooses a lot of acting in with a decent dose of holding up the mirror. There’s also a subtle dose of patience and empathy (another positive pre-morbid sign); Wertz does this under the radar for both self and others, though the former is fragile. She draws out the experience of being unseen (Casper ghost-like), drinking too much on the job with subsequent bouts of shame and remorse, and empathy for the homeless and mentally ill (she sometimes feels just one step away). While trying to pay the bills, she finds ways to keep the shirt on her back when she could have easily lost all boundaries (and her life) to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, etc.

Industry as a story also gives us meat madness, the functional façade of the rich, fad retro diets, and boring straight vs. non-boring gay people (she’s neither, but is true to sensible foot wear). There’s an occasional panel with just time and thought and no dialogue, but overall she favors a mostly 2 by 3 egalitarian page view with fewer pauses. Per that positive prognosis I mentioned, Wertz does allow herself to be angry, and to feel, and for that to be motivating. Wertz gradually surfaces from the family’s genetics, the nature-nurture of childhood history and all the biopsychosocial barnacles. All this does result in a recipe for angst, insight and dare I say, the examined life. As such, the first story partly sets the stage for where Wertz came from, and the work she did in the meantime; it’s helpful for us to know. Stand-alone, it’s linear, gritty, sad, hopeful and endearing. At least for me, how humans-as-patients survive a major medical event has much to do with a their history as well as their present, and this first set of pages succeed in doing that.

The second story, The Infinite Wait, tells us there are several million folks with Lupus in the United States, millions more worldwide. The Graphic Medicine foray into the Lupus and the “auto-immune spectrum” is a great place to set a stake. Anything with such diffuse signs and symptoms deserves images with words. So how long is The Infinite [Lupus] Wait? Well, it takes as long as it takes, and that’s usually a lifetime. I myself have been fired for saying less to a few colleagues and many insurance companies (puzzling, no patients fired me), but I hold to this Zen-like, umm, truth. Based on my reading, I think Wertz might as well. She wrestles with disease management as more relevant and rewarding than any miracle cure.

The Lupus diagnosis, clarified via the local library (more to come) brings Wertz closer to her natural (and therapeutic) comics and cartooning career option, as well as famous people who likely had Lupus (not Rickets), and that TV Seinfeld was comics in motion (but not animation or film). Though only briefly mentioned, she reminds us that her mom was able to diagnose Lupus via Google in “less than 10 minutes,” while it took the folks at the big-HMO several months. Perhaps she exaggerates, and perhaps I do too, but such is the spot-on subjective reality of a patient’s life in the industrialized, commoditized, healthcare system. Whether it be financial incentives or dis-incentives, shoddy skill sets, ticking timers, poor clinical integration, or frequently failing to see the whole patient rather than fictionally discrete systems, most patients will suffer months if not years before a multifaceted diagnosis is rendered. Sadly, many hold their breath for this anti-climactic event, anticipating [seismic] change.

Along with frequent visits to the library, Wertz reads The Onion online, finds ZAP, discovers internet porn (never true to reality) and is accosted by a flasher while riding public transport (which is brief unreality but then real). Like Industry, The Infinite Wait admits her overwhelming attraction to alcohol and drugs, along with real risk for dropping out of life and wallowing in self pity. With courage, Wertz notes possible links to early drug use and auto-immune diseases (diathesis-stress?) and in the throes of Stage 3 Lupus, she highlights lethargy, joint pain, high fevers, hair loss, weight loss, fainting, kidney biopsies, bruising, light sensitivity, depression, Indocin regimens, CT scans, the challenge of climbing stairs, the fear of seeking medical help, chemotherapies, and a whole lot of vomiting. As she considers her gruesome end, the stand-up comic in her says things like “. . . at my funeral . . . if they read from the bible and play ABBA . . . I’ll come back to life so I can kill myself.” (If I ever meet Wertz, I’d ask if Guns-n-Roses or Whitesnake would be better options. For the record, I’d attend and bring vegan rabbit snacks.)

With her Lupus comes free-standing thought bubbles that will resonate with every Lupus survivor (e.g., page 121, bottom right panel), also critically important social supports (her older brother Joshua Aaron, who cannot be overstated in his role) and periods of pseudo and real remission. Big bro Josh reminds us “. . . she’s emotionally stunted and never learned to love,” reframes Lupus as “Poopus” and perhaps saves her life several times over (I myself think it’s the subtle saves that count more then the dramatic ones). There’s also the appearance of Oliver, the boyfriend from way way back who may be a complementary pilot light (e.g., can there be genuine love? maybe so?), and male roommates who play off each other and Wertz; I’m not sure if she intended them to be wonderful memes and benchmarks for all of us. Like most survivors, Wertz does a lot of labor in the panels and between the panels; she also gets sick of thinking-talking about her “lame” disease and shifts to the outside world, asking others about their lives, listening, responding, and caring (this also positively impacts her addictions).

A Strange and Curious Place (the final pages 208 to 226), modestly fills in some prior blanks that might have had us, well, curious. It’s indeed a valentine to libraries and books and reading and learning (as well as younger and older brothers-in-arms who are sometimes literary co-conspirators). Here we see Wertz as small and young (“If you Give a Mouse a Cookie”), we watch her parents divorce (she’s in High School) and then fast forward to adult when she discovers that one of books she authored is in the digital catalog of her hometown library [applause, applause]. From a bibliotherapy angle, the reader might note the gazillion titles Wertz has strewed about such as O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Hesse’s Siddhartha. Books and titles aplomb, throughout this third story as well as the prior two, Wertz offers a host of reading recommendations, as well as helping us learn those which influenced her. Via her deep read dives, Wertz questions her father’s personality and behavior, as well as all the major religions of the world; on these final pages she also travels a bit, skips school, dips into petty theft (a library book, awesome) rounding off with “. . . someday I’ll write a book.”

Story three also reveals various small strongholds of privacy, safety, intellectual and emotional health safety, sought and kept: the home attic (top panel visual, page 214 is a keeper) and similar hiding places which carried over into her young adult years (the wobbling stool in the alleyway). Her willingness to be re-connected (perhaps for the first time), to ask questions, to not shrink from, and to tolerate ambiguity . . . prepares Wertz for her day to day, on-going recovery from poly-addiction as well as Lupus. Likewise, the “morally justified” punishing of the self is gradually replaced by a socially connected journey of generally reliable, non-judgmental camaraderies, vulnerabilities, and even a bit of eye-crinkling laugher.

Any of the three stories you start with, you can’t help but like Wertz (even though she may be skeptical of you). It’s a good sign if you worry about her safety and regret that she did not take care of herself earlier-sooner-quicker. If you’re a Lupus survivor, Industry and A Strange and Curious Place sandwich the disease guts of the book, but also review and point to the constitution, Achilles heels and talents that got Wertz to the place that she is at today. In healthcare (and life), those before and after visual narratives are critical for all of us to listen for and ask about. Infinite Wait, even if lyrically titled, has everything to do with the continuum of health, illness, relapse, life and love; its take on Lupus (as well as addiction) is granular. Follow her lead, read, write-draw your own story (or help others to do so), and you’ll take your life back from labs, meds, insurance denials and TV commercial cures, and start to live again.

(You can also check out Wertz’s books and baubles and more at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/JuliaWertz, watch her on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcrqHYPKUMo, and read her blogs and columns at: www.JuliaWertz.com. If you do meet up with her at a book signing or a small ethnic restaurant where she’s waiting tables, know that her resting-state-face can be a smidgen cranky, but underneath it all, there’s tons of understanding and wisdom to share.

Andrew Schechterman is a Medical Psychologist with a background in Behavioral Medicine, as well Research, Strategy and Product Design. A lifelong interest in anything that has a visual vocabulary, he can be found on the web at www.LinkedIn.com/in/andrewschechterman, https://Twitter.com/aschechterman, or www.ElevenTimes.com. Please email him at aschechterman@gmail.com with your thoughts about Graphic Medicine, this book review, or anything else . . .


Originally published at www.graphicmedicine.org.