“There’s No Sugar Coating The Nightmare”: An Interview With Zara Slattery

I first became aware of Zara Slattery's graphic memoir Coma when it was just a work in progress presented at the Graphic Medicine conference in 2019. And even though it was a long way off finished I was very excited to tell people about it. Something special, something different, Zara's story mixed the macabre and the mundane in a way I'd not seen done before. She'd gone through the most horrific, nightmare-like experience and she had the skill set to visually describe it through her comics. That was two years ago, but as luck would have it, time has zipped by in an instant and here we are, the book is made, and I can tell you about it. Better yet, I can get Zara to tell you about it.

What's it all about, Zara?

This is where I get to practice my elevator pitch...Coma is an autobiographical account of the 15 days I spent in a drug-induced coma when I became critically ill with a deadly bacterial infection in 2013. It’s also the diary my husband kept during that time, documenting bedside vigils, family life and the community that supported him and our children.

I feel like comics was the perfect medium for telling this story, for depicting the visions, hallucinations? that you experienced in the coma. Is that what they were? dreams? ...beginning with the medieval skeleton dancing at the end of your bed.

I’m not entirely sure, it seemed to be a mix of hallucination and altered perception. Right from the get-go, waking up within the dark I knew it wasn’t a dream - I was conscious and remember going through a check list – awake? Not awake? Dream? Definitely not a dream! I think that initial questioning conjured the skeleton; my body was in peril and that deep awareness brought it spinning into my mind's eye. At that stage, it was in my head and I still had a tentative grasp on reality. Once the nurses appeared at the end of my bed with their faces half skulls, I was friggin terrified and my world upended. They were flesh and bone and this was my reality. At this stage I wasn’t sedated, so it was probably a combination of the toxins poisoning my body and a hell of a lot of pain medication. Once I’d been sedated, they kept changing the drugs, all of which had different effects. I was reacting to drugs and yoyo-ing through different states of consciousness, and all the time, my mind was trying to make sense of things, the physical and emotional. The sensation of spinning when I was coming out of sedation, again felt different, a real shift and back to myself. Someone else I know had a similar experience. Without knowing for sure, I think that was optical. Interestingly at the beginning of my story, the skeleton spun into view as I fell deeper and I span up into the light as I woke.

Coma, "Here to help you"

And the way you've drawn them, that was how you saw it? it's interesting, your mind creating such vivid and harrowing scenes, so visually striking. I wonder to what extent your interests and imagination as an artist played in creating this world? are these themes you'd thought of, or worked on prior to the coma? I mean, like did you have an interest in mythology, that sort of thing?

Yes and no. Yes, in that there were half-skulled-headed beings at the end of my bed; no, I wasn’t in the grand hall of the Norse goddess, Hel. Yes, I found myself on a dockside in Ancient China, balancing on the edge of a feather, listening to the whispering old fellas on the wind; no, Yama didn’t loom over me, brandishing a bamboo cane. Myths weren’t at the forethought of my mind prior to the comic, and weren’t there when I started working on Coma. In truth, I didn’t want to contaminate my memory of events, and so I kept my head down and creative blinkers on. Initially, what I found interesting when I started writing the coma chapters, was the combination of memory; childhood; recent events; the present and everyday language. The hallucinations were a vivid soup of all those. For example; my body knows it’s half dead, so my mind shows me a simple, half-dead visual. I’d visited Chinatown a few months earlier; my life hung in the balance; on a knife-edge. It was sometime later before I saw the connection between my hallucinations and underworld myths, and when I saw the relationship with one mythical tale, I saw more and thought, Wow! This is really interesting! This made me question the origin of my visions. Did I know these myths already? Not sure, don’t think so. Of course, stories from the edge of life are found across our literary history, in religious texts, in myths; they’re imbued in our words, in our cultures. I didn’t explicitly know all of these stories, however, there was a clear connection. What tied my experience to myth and religion (guilt and purgatory play a big part) is a distressed mind trying to navigate uncharted territory with lexicon language passed down through time – what it creates is frightful and wonderful in equal parts. Once I’d recognized the relationship with the myths, I wanted to acknowledge them and have some fun in the process. When I was young, I found it much easier to read pictures than words. I’d explore pictures and imagine the landscape just out of sight, through doorways and round corners. I’m not sure if that influenced the world inside my coma, but it helped in visualizing that world in the book.

Coma, "Map of Purgatory"

You say "have some fun in the process" but was it fun to work on? Isn't it traumatic revisiting such a huge event?

To begin with - yes. My first attempt stopped soon after it started. Documenting missed opportunities and slow diagnosis just made me angry, so I figured I wasn’t ready to write it. I needed to wait until I could be led artistically, rather than dragged down emotionally. Instead of planning a comic, I filled lots of sketchbooks; playing with themes, shapes and a variety of materials, all of which was fun until I needed structure.

I first read Dan’s diary about a year after my illness and sobbed and couldn’t read it for years without sobbing, however, I knew this was where the structure of the book lay. So, I toughened up and started plotting. His diary wasn’t written with the intention of anyone reading it other than us, however, he used to be a playwright and his writing is beautiful and a joy to work with. Pretty soon I was nonchalantly flicking though it, marking passages. Overall, I imagined myself a magpie gathering all these shiny pieces and the book an unwieldy puzzle slowly taking shape, all of which felt good. Once I had all the elements mapped out I determined to enjoy it.

How did Dan feel about his diary becoming the narration of the book? did it become a collaboration at this point, you illustrating his memoir?

It’s his memoir for sure, however, he doesn’t think of it in those terms. There’s a passage in the book where he ponders, who is he writing it for, me or himself? At the time it was for him, and in the aftermath it was for me and he considered it mine to do with as I wished, so no, it wasn’t a collaboration in the traditional sense. Being literary minded, his only advice was not to hold on to his words at the expense of the story. The first time he read the diary since writing it was after I’d illustrated it, so that was strange. That was a bit emotional. It was also the first time the kids read it; I sort of held my breath as they did. The consensus was that Dad was a really ‘good’ writer.

Coma, “Heading home”

And mum is a really good draw-er, I hope.

Well yes...that’s a given. Only joking! They’ve grown up surrounded by art materials and my work, so it’s nothing new. Dan’s writing has been largely hidden. They unearthed his plays once and were a little shocked by their youthful vigor, which was funny.

I suppose the book could really be helpful for you as a family to deal with the trauma of your hospitalization. Was that the case?

The trauma of my hospitalization and the effects of my illness were immense, so we had to deal with them at the time and over time. I thought I’d pieced together most of the memories, however, seeing scenes on the page and connecting events has been illuminating – it’s certainly joined the dots in ways I hadn’t anticipated. In relation to the family, the book has shone a light on the other people in this story. The children were unaware or had forgotten about the generosity of friends and family, so that’s been really nice. In part it’s a recognition of them and to say thank you. (There were more people than I could feasibly put in the book!)

Coma, ‘Leave me be. Let me go’

I'm not sure to what extent the book is being marketed as Graphic Medicine... is that an area you've explored, or had many dealings with? Happy to be labelled as?

I think Graphic Medicine is phenomenal, in the way that all comics are, in how they engage and bring light to complex issues. With Coma as its title and subject matter, I reckon it happily sits plumb on a graphic medicine shelf. And by virtue of it being a comic, it’s a multi-layered story about love, family, community and how ancient myths and modern human experiences are intertwined. In terms of marketing, I think it’s a useful tool for medics and their understanding of the patient experience and beyond that I hope the book reveals a mystery or two about the human condition that appeals to a wide readership.

I certainly enjoyed it, I'm a fan of diary comics as a tool, one that works so well with the showing and telling involved in Graphic Medicine... I think they build real empathy with the audience. And the way yours jumps from Dan's day to day dealings with life and the kids and what to cook for dinner to your terrifying visions... it's really something. 

Coma, "The Letter"

I wanted to ask, and if you'd rather not talk about it, that fine, but the experience left you physically disabled, is that an aspect of you, you're happy to talk about, be public about? The book doesn't really address the impact that losing a leg must have had, your rehabilitation, how you interact with the world and how it interacts with you. 

There’s something neat about just focusing on the 15 days of my induced coma. Fifteen dark nights of the soul; journeying through the tempestuous world of a modern day purgatory. There’s a clear narrative with a clear end – and then I woke up, it was all a dream - which meant I could be objective in my approach. Plus, I made mini models of the key characters, aside from having our names, it meant I was drawing them rather than me/us. When I first woke up from the coma, I didn’t think my situation was that bad and then reality crept in and I thought, Fuck! This was not on my happy life chart. How the hell am I going to do this? There’s no sugar coating the nightmare that I’d woken up to. I could write a comic integrating all the tragic Greek myths starting with Prometheus and the reality hitting me every new day. It was brutal. My disability brings lots of challenges, and unlike comic book characters, there is no easy fix to my amputation. I’ve had to learn to live with it and with people's reactions to it. It was unbearably hard to begin with, but I’ve grown a VERY thick skin, one that puts me before my disability, and one that puts the happy back into my life chart. I hope Coma creates understanding and empathy with the reader, I fear if I wrote a book about my rehabilitation it would evoke sympathy, and I don’t do well with sympathy – not at all!

Coma, "Soaked the toilet brushes."

Empathy not sympathy, okey dokes. You mentioned model building, that was something I wanted to ask about. Such a clever approach, can you tell me about that? about your process? 

I love that you think it’s clever! I make models because I’m not so clever. I need to see what I’m drawing and they make for good reference material. It means I can play around with angles, shadow and light, and draw my characters reasonably consistently. I love making models because it releases me from hours of trying to figure stuff out – pop a head at a certain angle and the rest of the drawing follows. I’ve used a range of materials along the way; air-drying clay; Plasticine; Fimo and Sculpey. In my humble opinion I think a combination of Sculpey and Fimo work best. Sculpey for it’s shaping qualities and Fimo for fine detail. I generally stick them on the end of a pencil & store them in pencil holders – they make for jolly desk companions when not working.

Character heads used for reference.

I’m planning a new set of characters for a new project, and I fancy on being a tad more ambitious this time round by investing in aluminium armatures. I’m aware of many a fine comic artist making character models, so I know I’m in good company. 

I'd not seen it before, I don't think. I know some people who use digital sculpting, 3D modeling programs to use as reference, but you're creating something that actually exists in three dimensions. I mean, it's the difference between working from a life model and working from a photo, the photo is already flat, and the resulting drawings always seem to be flat, flat, flat. You teach drawing though, so I wonder if you're bringing different skills than the average cartoonist, different approaches. 

I’ve done lots of portraits and life drawing, so I guess that does effect how I draw. I love the energy born out of drawing from life, which is great, because I’m terribly impatient. And I love the transition from object/subject to drawing – for me, it’s problem-solving at its most rewarding. I’ve had to temper my impatience or energy when it comes to comics though. I like the rush of getting something down on paper, but then I have to slow my heart down – take things slow, discipline myself. The best way I approach this is by working in clear stages; sketchbook to thumbnails, to roughs to line etc. If I didn’t, I don’t know, I’d probably be a fine artist with a side line in model-making.

Those stages; thumbs, roughs, pencils, inks... they're pretty embedded in how most cartoonists work. I wonder if that's a good thing? In other creative fields ad-libbing or freestyling can make for some wonderful results, spontaneity. Perhaps we're losing something in these stages of refinement.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, and not everybody does detailed planning. There’s lots of scope for spontaneity, freestyling, and we get to enjoy all sorts of comics, from 24hr ones to sequential line/shape, concertina books for example. I think people are compelled to play with the form, and take it to the edge of what we consider comics. Prior to Coma, I only made short comics and they were predominantly silent ones. They had the outward appearance of a traditional comic in terms of panels, sequence and pacing, however, I was experimenting with materials and approach. There was a definite focus on flow and movement and certainly a lackadaisical approach to planning. Nothing ground-breaking, but fun. When it came to Coma, I clung onto a 9 panel grid as if it were a mast in a storm. The very nature of pulling together multiple narratives over 260 pages, within a tight deadline, meant I needed structure – for my sanity, if nothing else. When I look through the proofs, and see the ink, the lines and the story holding together, I’m thankful for this tried and tested way of working. Coma is my first full length comic and a far cry from 4 page silent comics; it’s been a steep learning curve, one that’s left me a whole lot more confident in my comic storytelling. After a few more sleeps, I’ll be fired up to embark on the next project, whatever form that takes.

Coma, "Spashworld"

Well whatever it is, I look forward to it. I haven't asked about what you're doing next, I always find it a bit annoying when people ask me that... it's like the second you've had a baby and they're asking "ooh are you gonna have more?"

Yeah, what the hell are you doing, asking me about my next project?!!! I love my Coma baby, however, it’s definitely flown the nest and I’m brooding, pencil poised over my sketchbook! I’m thinking of weaving a very old story with very precedent environmental concerns, and habitat destruction. I’ve got a story in mind – it’s a starting point, so we’ll see where it goes. If I had a beard, imagine me stroking it, nodding, gazing knowingly into the middle distance at this point. In the meantime, I’ve been invited to create a couple of short story comics; one is part of a larger community/conservation project and the other is an anthology. The latter is someone else’s baby, so I can’t really say too much about it, other than it will be a collection of very fine evocative tales that will stay with you long into the night.

Ha! this seems like a good spot to bring this to an end, what d'you think?

Yeah, I think this is a good place to end. Thanks Joe!