This week, I asked author and sequential artist Nathan Caro Fréchette to speak about his graphic novel, Some Assembly Required, now available at Renaissance book press and Amazon. Grab a cup of something and read more about this incredible human.
(Please note that responses to my questions are only minimally edited to preserve the integrity of the author’s answers.)
You just recently published a graphic novel of your web comic, Some Assembly Required. Can you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to create this comic?
Some Assembly Required has a really long history. Louis actually was a character in the first story I ever wrote when I was twelve years old. Laurent appeared not too long later, and I put them through story after story, changing things up, and the only constant in any storyline involving these characters is that they kept falling in love with each other, no matter what I did, or who they were with at the time. Eventually I decided to just write their story, and because they’re characters I’ve had close to me for my whole writing life, I made it a very personal story, one about mental health. I’ve struggled with mental illness a good deal of my life, and I wanted to talk about what it was like to be in a relationship with someone who had a mental illness like mine when you yourself may be struggling with depression, but also growing up and coming out queer, and the intersections of friendship.
At Ottawa Comiccon, I attended an excellent panel led by you and artist Dominic Bercier. You both discussed the misrepresentation of people with mental illness in comics. What are the issues you notice the most with misrepresentation, and how do you want to break those tropes in your writing?
With mental illness in particular, there are a few things I notice that really get under my skin. The first thing is lack of research when stories are written by abled folk; sometimes things are shown that are completely out there, and completely wrong. One of the most vivid things that comes to mind is a horrific episode of the show Psych, when the criminal is a man suffering from [Dissociative Identity Disorder], who goes around meeting psychiatrists, asking for a sex change and getting the authorization (on the first meeting, mind you!!) and then murdering that psychiatrist out of anger. First of all, that’s not how either DID or being transgender works, and I should know, because I both have DID and identify as transgender. Second, people with mental illness are at a huge risk of being the victims of violence, and at a much lower risk of being the perpetrators. And yes, this is a big deal because antagonists in fiction are often portrayed as having a mental illness and that is why they are doing the evil actions in said stories, when the reality is that most people convicted of a violent crime don’t actually have a mental illness.
Another trope I hate is the “my mental illness gives me superpowers” trope. Yeah, there are a few good sides to some mental illnesses: but when you’re portraying someone who is bipolar as having the ability to stay up all night and accomplish a thousand things in one night when they’re experiencing a manic episode, but never showing that it also comes with a depressive episode where you languish in intense depression and the paralysis that comes with it, you’re not showing the whole picture; and when you picture someone as having the ability to learn and retain a lot more information because of a split and compartmentalized brain like with DID, but you’re not showing the crippling dissociative symptoms or the inability to access said information because it’s stored somewhere you don’t have access, you’re also not showing the full picture.
A lot of people have responded to these things saying that misrepresentation isn’t a big deal because these stories are only fiction, and people know not to take fiction seriously, but this is dead wrong. Fiction is the first contact that most people will have with a diagnosis, since there is still a lot of stigma and people tend to keep their mental health situation to themselves; meaning that they will make their idea of what it is to have a mental illness from what they see on TV. If TV repeatedly portrays people with mental illness as dangerous serial killers who can explode into violence at any minute, and also their mental illness grants them advantages with the only side-effect being that they sometimes harm or kill people, is it really that surprising that discrimination, stigma and outright fear of people with mental health issues is so pervasive and persistent?
Do you feel yourself reflected in your characters, or are they an amalgamation of experiences you’ve witnessed through people?
I would say a little of both. I think every character I create has at least a bit of an aspect of me in them. Louis has a lot of my anger and self-effacement; Laurent has a lot of my pain, and a lot of my symptoms; Lily has a lot of my insecurity and strength; and Camille has a lot of my no-nonsense and caregiver attitude. Mostly, though, they’re people who come fully formed in my head, and I think it’s a mix between my lifelong deep empathy and deep curiosity toward people’s stories (I was a child who talked to strangers a lot, much to my parents’ dismay) and I think absorbing all that made me good at really understanding people. And that’s really my relationship with my characters; I don’t make them, I discover them, and it’s through learning to understand them that I can write them better.
When I first glanced at Some Assembly Required on Tapastic, I started binge-reading it. I had no idea that could happen with a comic series. Is that what you expected when you first created it?
I actually completely expected this comic to go unnoticed and to peter out unread. I had a really hard time selling the novel, and when I decided to turn it into a webcomic it was mostly because I thought two or three people out there would want to read it, and at least the story would finally be out and done. I even saw it as a way to refresh my skills (I hadn’t done comics in years) and to transition from working with paper (which is how I started the comic) to working with software. I really didn’t expect people to like it the way they do now. It’s a story I’ve been writing for almost 25 years, so the feeling of it finding a public is indescribable.
The cover of the book is really striking in full colour. The panels of the comic, even on Tapastic, are in black and white. I felt the grayscale panels made it feel more like I was reading a book. I loved that. Why did you choose that design instead of full colour?
I don’t know if it’s the way that I perceive colour that’s different from other people’s, but even though I enjoy colour sometimes in art and photography, I vastly prefer black and white pictures and drawings. I don’t know why, but I feel like I see things better in it, like the soul of the image is coming to me more than its surface, if that makes sense. So in my own art, although I am able to use colour, I vastly prefer working in black and white and tones of grey. And now that you mention it, maybe it is because it feels more like reading a book; I am an enormous bookworm, after all. But I’ve always been drawn more to the black and white and grayscale comics, much more than the beautifully coloured pages of European bandes dessinées, so that’s always what I’ve tried to do with my own comics.
You are the director, editor, and cover/layout designer for Renaissance book press. You’ve also published six of your own books. When do you have time to draw such an excellent comic series?
I’ve put writing on the backburner while I’m working on this comic. Although I’m still writing, I’m doing a lot less of it than I was before, and I’m trying to delegate some of my Renaissance work. There’s no magic to it, though. I’m a workaholic, and taking on too much is a problem for my mental health. Right now I’m trying to slow everything down, and that might mean that the comic updates less often.
So, big pitch time! Why should we all rush to Amazon or the Renaissance website to buy Some Assembly Required? Can people order a signed copy, too?
Some Assembly Required is so much more than just a love story. It’s a story about mental illness that shows it how it really is; it can be hard, but more than anything it’s about being human. The print edition looks really great, a lot better than it looks on screen, I think, and it comes with an introduction by author Jamieson Wolf, a few extra materials like illustrations and author’s notes, and all that. You can definitely get a signed copy of the book, as long as you order it through www.renaissancebookpress.com and then send me a message via my Some Assembly Required Facebook Page to let me know that you want a signature and/or dedication. [That way,] you’ll receive a signed/dedicated copy!
Thanks so much, Nathan, for your candour and for sharing your amazing art and stories with the world. You learn more about Nathan Caro on his Website, follow him on Facebook, Twitter , Goodreads, and buy his books on their Amazon author page.