Get involved: Send your news, views, pictures and video by texting SUPIC to 80360 or email us.
Until the end
A muscled blue Minotaur is counting out 26 pills for a wheezing rhino connected to a canister of oxygen. So opens Brighton-based Aneurin (Nye) Wright’s epic Things To Do In A Retirement Home Trailer Park... When You’re 29 And Unemployed.
Mixing fantasy with the unflinching reality of living with a dying relative, the graphic novel combines tragedy, comedy and pinpoint observations of modern life, from unthinking neighbours to the caring professionals dealing with death on a daily basis.
And what makes the eight-year labour of love stunning is that it is a real-life memoir, based on Wright’s own experiences caring for his father as he died a slow death from advanced stage emphysema. Wright stars as the minotaur, while his father Neil is the ailing rhino.
“How do you sell a book about the death of your father to the guy on the bus?” asks Wright ahead of the book’s London launch at Orbital Comics.
“I think of it like travel writing – if someone has gone to Rome and had an amazing experience it can be very compelling to read, whether or not you’ve been there. An autobiography can be travel writing about life, about grief, loss and getting on with it.”
Although there are some genuinely sad moments in the book, there are heartwarming moments between Neil and the people tasked to look after him, as well as some laugh-out-loud comedy.
Not far on from count-ing out his father’s pills, Wright has to administer an enema – and learns some homespun wisdom: “You know what your mother and I learned when you and your sister were born? You can do anything as long as you breathe through your mouth.”
At first glance Wright’s choice to “animalise” himself and his father might seem strange.
For Wright the reason was practical.
“The biggest challenge to a sequential story is if you choose a character you have to redraw that character over and over,” he says. “We are attuned to the subtleties of the human face, so if you draw a character in a slightly different way the reader can be taken out of the story.
“No matter how worthy the material, every artist wants to enjoy themselves on a project, and part of that was designing characters which were fun to draw.”
It allows a certain amount of fantasy to enter the story too, as Wright dreams of vengeance on the tobacco merchants who contributed to his father’s death in a brilliant superhero pastiche, and some beautiful metaphorical images of his father swimming in a vast ocean towards a sunset with his son and social workers in a rowing boat nearby.
Wright began work on the eight-year-long project two months before his father’s death, using the drawing board in his father’s trailer left over from the days when Neil had been an architect.
“It was an itch I had to scratch,” says Wright, who in the book portrays the urge to tell the story as a dark monster threatening to engulf him.
“I remember him squawking from his side of the trailer: ‘What you workin’ on?’ He came over to have a look and was delighted – he was a bit of an egotist.”
Wright believes it was his father’s long stints at the drawing board that first inspired him to pick up a pencil, making a graphic memoir particularly appropriate.
The reason he was in his father’s trailer was also down to his career choice, after the closure of the New York animation studio he worked at in 2002 – for whom he had created the animated section in Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary Bowling For Columbine.
“I wanted to be a full-time artist,” says Wright.
“I didn’t have enough money to pay my rent, and my dad was getting worse. There was this idea of getting dad some full-time care and I was the one person in my family who wasn’t working.
“On the other hand if I was rich and famous I wouldn’t have had time to look after him.”
Following his father’s death Wright continued work on the story, releasing three sections of it in short 44 to 56-page “zine” form.
“There was no greater compliment than for people to lay down cash for the zines or get in touch about them,” he says. “It definitely sustained me in the process.”
After his father’s death Wright moved to Los Angeles, taking work as a freelance storyboard artist, illustrator and animator – but found few opportunities.
“With a lot of the work you got about 15% of what you needed to live on, but were told you could put it in your portfolio,” says Wright. “You wouldn’t dream of telling your garbageman that. I got frustrated so I went for a gig in retail.”
He made the move from LA to London in 2006, moving to Brighton with his graphic designer wife Lyndsay three years later.
The book started to take a fuller shape after some comprehensive feedback from his stepbrother in 2007.
“He was a film maker, writer and professor of arts at New York University,” says Wright. “He said we knew what was going to happen at the end, and that just because someone dies doesn’t make it interesting. It just makes it sad. His advice ended up giving the book an entirely different denouement.”
Moving to Brighton led to Wright getting in touch with city-based publisher Myriad and editor Corinne Pearlman through the monthly comics convention Cartoon County.
Over the course of the weekend he got a series of emails detailing her progress through the book before the final one which read: “I’ve finished it, can we publish it please, please, please!”
Perhaps the most nerve-wracking thing for Wright was showing the completed work to his sister and his mother, who both feature in the story as themselves.
“When you’re a two-year-old throwing food across the room which makes a nice pattern on the wall your mother will be proud,” laughs Wright.
“I remember my sister calling up in tears, but good tears. I was freaked out – my sister is tough as a rock.
“She said, ‘I’m reading this book and I don’t know how you do that, getting in touch with your feelings, allowing all this to come out. It’s beautiful.’”
* Things To Do In A Retirement Home Trailer Park by Aneurin Wright is published by Myriad, priced £19.99.
*Aneurin will be signing copies of his book between 1 and 3pm on Saturday, April 14, at Dave’s Comics, Sydney Street, Brighton