Coping Through Comics

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    “The Road to God Knows” tracks the life of teenage protagonist Marie as she deals with her mother’s schizophrenia. It is just one of many comic books and graphic novels lining the shelves of Atlantis Fantasyworld, located on Cedar Street. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    “The Road to God Knows” tracks the life of teenage protagonist Marie as she deals with her mother’s schizophrenia. It is just one of many comic books and graphic novels lining the shelves of Atlantis Fantasyworld, located on Cedar Street. Photo by Kathryn Power.

    Von Allen grew up with a schizophrenic mother. Rather than try to escape the difficulties of his childhood, he decided to tackle the issue of growing up surrounded by mental illness artistically in a recently released comic book.

    Allen’s “The Road to God Knows…” is a graphic novel about a teenage girl coming of age and coping with her life amidst mental illness. Although it is not an autobiographical comic, the story is inspired in part by Allen’s own experiences.

    “It has a lot to do with how I grew up. My mom wasn’t well. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was a kid,” Allen said. “When I was trying to figure out what story to do first, I thought ‘Well this would be very interesting.’ It’s something a lot of people have to deal with.”

    Joe Ferarra, owner of the Atlantis Fantasyworld comic book store in downtown Santa Cruz, was one of the first store owners to express interest in picking up Allen’s comic. Ferarra heard about the comic via an old business friend and independent comic book distributor, Tony Shenton.

    Ferarra is among several comic retailers who came together to plan a special release day for independent comic books and graphic novels on Dec. 30.

    The event will feature self-produced comics and graphic novels and has been dubbed “Independents Day.”

    When Ferarra asked Shenton for books to sell for Independents Day, “The Road to God Knows…” was high on Shenton’s list of suggestions.

    “People originally came to comic stores for a counterculture, and with the help of independent distributors like Shenton, that counterculture can come back,” Ferarra said. “We’re known in the industry for being independent-friendly, and that has to do in part with our location in Santa Cruz.”

    Allen now lives in Ottawa, Canada, and has dispersed his self-produced graphic novel across the United States.

    “This is not a walk in the park, this book. There are a lot of people going through what the little girl in this book is going through,” Ferarra said. “[Allen’s] book is a little out of the ordinary, but we traditionally sell more non-superhero books than superhero ones. Books with provocative story lines and mature themes are popular with our clientele.”

    Allen said the world was a scary place for his mother, who suffered from anxiety disorders on top of her mental illness. She died at the age of 48 years old. Allen was only 20 years old at the time.

    Allen said he hopes his graphic novel will help remove the sense of isolation that surrounds the victims of mental illness and their families.

    “I never felt she had a fair chance,” Allen said. “People with mental illness have a stigma. There is a lot of isolation. Even if society isn’t shunning them particularly, they feel very alone. I’m not trying to get up on a soapbox and shout at people or something like that. I hope that people who don’t care about mental illness at all may have their eyes opened, and people may realize it’s not as scary as it seems — it’s weird, it’s unusual, but it doesn’t have to be scary.”

    Allen said he was never the kid who was great at art or drew all the time, but he knew that he liked comics and the way they were able to deal with heavy issues. After working in a bookshop for years and reading graphic novels like “Persepolis,” he decided to plunge into a project of his own. He took art classes, found a self-publishing tool and ultimately printed his graphic novel.

    Allen said he was amazed by the number of stores that have picked up “The Road to God Knows…” and commended Ferrara’s willingness to take a chance on a new writer.

    “A lot of times people don’t want to pick up unknown authors and books. That’s one reason why [Ferarra] is really mind-blowing. He really embraces the art form of comics. I think that is really new — he’s willing to experiment and that’s really important,” Allen said. “If stores aren’t willing to take shots at new voices it’s very hard for new writers and artists to develop.”

    Allen said in addition to bookstores, he has sent the book to a number of mental health professionals in hopes that they will find the themes particularly interesting.

    Ferarra said a combination of the location of his store, his clientele, and the store’s ability to respond to the demands of that clientele all help create the chance to diversify the books Atlantis Fantasyworld has on its shelves.

    “It gives us the opportunity to get to know some great independent books,” Ferarra said with a smile.

    Allen said the support of people like Ferrara who are willing to pick up independent books is invaluable to new writers.

    “I hope people take a chance on it. It’s hard, with … graphic novels, but [with] any books. People don’t understand how hard it is for authors to make a go of it,” Allen said. “Most books don’t sell very well. Supporting new voices is important. Even if they don’t want to support my book, it’s important to support local voices and authors.”