I have read many a graphic medical memoir in my time, from Harvey Pekar to John Porcellino, from Marbles to Stitches, stories about cancer, dementia, deafness, diabetes,herpes, HIV—I’ve read them all. So for me, My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s has a lot to compete with. What, exactly, are the makings of a good illness memoir? I’d posit that they are the writer’s personal connection to the material, the systematic and smoothly integrated description of the condition which enhances the reader’s understanding of the subject, and a visual narrative flow which builds upon itself to help the reader take it all in.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s story of his experience with Parkinson’s does fairly well with the first two and falters somewhat on the final point. The Parkinson’s in question is his own and, since it’s a degenerative condition, the book is largely about learning to cope with and treat the changes as they come along. He shares his personal experiences well—how Parkinson’s affects his working life as an editorial cartoonist (it eventually leads to his leaving his job), how it can literally stop him in his tracks while he’s walking and how adopting a silly stepping pattern can get him moving again, and how having a degenerative condition can easily sink you into a pretty deep depression if you’re not extremely deliberate in how you deal with it. These snapshots of life and his depiction of the disease as a dark, ominous shadow self are moving and effective. Clearly, his experience of Parkinson’s means a great deal to him and he has given great thought to how to cope with it and continue to create. His approach to the more clinical aspects of the condition are interesting as well. He details his interactions with doctors and the experimental brain and nerve treatments he goes through, which vastly improve his quality of life, but are not without risks or doubt. His descriptions of the technical elements of brain surgery and rehabilitation are engaging and informative.

The trouble with My Degeneration comes in Dunlap-Shohl’s editorial cartooning background. He is excellent at visual snapshots, single panels that speak volumes, and likewise at specific moments of interesting information. But the flow from image to image is disjointed and the sense of narrative flow is nearly lost in that visual clunkiness. The choice made to chop the story up into chapters keeps it clear that Dunlap-Shohl wants to tell a story with distinct parts, but the tone and audience seem to change from page to page, much like a series of effective but disconnected editorial cartoons. Sure, there are truly fascinating moments of insight and powerful images here, but they do not add up to a story which truly helps you understand the condition. Thus, I can only recommend My Degeneration with reservations. There is certainly much to learn here, but it is in snippets and snapshots rather than in sum total. Not a bad thing, but overcoming that editorial cartoonist’s urge would have pushed this into truly impressive territory.

My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s
by Peter Dunlap-Shohl
ISBN: 9780271071022
Penn State University Press, 2015

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!