I’ve hesitated to write a review of John Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite because his work almost always leaves me at a loss for words. It’s not because it’s hugely dramatic or intricate or complex. Rather, it’s the opposite. Simple, understated, and full of empty space and slow silences. But it’s wonderful—profound and personal, without feeling confessional or messy.
The Hospital Suite finds Porcellino recalling and recounting a stomach ailment he had in the mid-nineties which brought with it a series of misdiagnoses, plus a painful abdominal surgery to remove a benign tumor and further health complications. His illness took a toll on his mental health and heightened his awareness of his own mortality, which he captures beautifully in this book.
Having been a long time reader of Porcellino’s long and short works, it always feels like each story peels another layer of the onion away. As he writes and rewrites his life stories, he comes closer to showing you his essential self, without ever getting all the way to his innermost heart, and that’s as it should be—there will always be another layer to peel back, another story to tell.
This feeling of careful but caring narration is matched by a sweet and simple drawing style, a world of stick figures, sweet cats, and clunky cars feels lively and lived in thanks to Porcellino’s precise and practiced hand. Again, what’s left out is as important as what he includes—you can see how far he’s come from his claustrophobic and nervy True Anxiety zines, which are included for comparison at the back of this volume.
Finally, it can’t be overlooked that Porcellino owes much of his understanding and sense of peace about the world to his Zen Buddhist practice, a life philosophy he previously explored in Map of My Heart. Porcellino powerfully intersperses passages from the Heart Sutra with moments from his hospital stay, reflecting on pain, suffering, and mortality as he experiences them. The zen concept that form is no other than emptiness and emptiness no other than form seems like a perfect description of Porcellino’s deliberately spare outlook, both in his life and in his art.
The Hospital Suite is definitely effective as a standalone story of illness and seeking help, but it reads even better in the context of Porcellino at large, either as an initiation for the new reader to his effective, efficient and emotional style, or as a return home for a longtime fan.
The Hospital Suite
by John Porcellino
Drawn and Quarterly, 2014