When a cartoonist is diagnosed with a disease as serious as Parkinson’s, one of the natural questions is: How long will I be able to do the work I love?
Dick Locher , the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist in Chicago, has had a long and rewarding career, retiring after decades from the strip ”Dick Tracy” just this year. And Richard Thompson , who on May 28 will learn whether he’s won the National Cartoonists Society’s cartoonist-of-the-year award, continues to be at the peak of his profession with his acclaimed “Cul de Sac.” Thompson received his diagnosis less than a year after his strip launched in 2007.
PETER DUNLAP-SHOHL, by comparison, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2002, at age 43. The longtime political cartoonist continued to work at the Anchorage Daily News till several years ago, when he accepted the paper’s buyout offer.
Due to his symptoms, Dunlap-Shohl has learned to draw with a digital pad, and now writes and draws his blog the Alaska Parkinson’s Rag, which he says began as “an information clearinghouse for the Anchorage Parkinson’s Disease Support Group” — and became “a sort of therapeutic hobby.”
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Dunlap-Shohl to discuss how a cartoonist responds personally and professionally to Parkinson’s, which he calls “hellishly complex” — yet he also acknowledges that the disease became his muse:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So Peter, how has Parkinson’s affected your career as an artist — from the physical to the inspiring work you’re doing about it?
I was diagnosed in 2002, at the age of 43. Getting diagnosed with this disease at that age is to have your personal world struck by a meteor, transformed to ash in an instant of unexpected impact. Like most people I knew so little about the disease that all I could focus on were the words “progressive, incurable and disabling.”
Parkinson’s disease is a disruption of your ability to move properly, a slowly developing brain injury that steals your ability to perform the simplest task. It threatened my longest-held sense of who I am and wanted to be, a cartoonist. I had been editorial cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News for 20 years and drawing since I was 6. To not draw was to not be myself. So I set about figuring out how to keep at it any way I could. With the help of my wife who is an ace on the computer, with understanding editors, and with the cooperation of the buffoons running Alaska who supplied me rich raw material for my cartoons, I lasted in my job eight more years.
At the same time, the Internet was changing publishing. I decided that I would start a Parkinson’s blog illustrated with my drawings. Part of the idea for me was to leave a visual record in the actual marks I made in the drawings of the effects that Parkinson’s was having on my ability to render. Over time, you could see my drawings suffer the impact of both the disease and the medications, which bring on their own motor complications. This would also be a way to work at writing, which I figured I could still do if I were unable to draw. In a perverse way, as my sister pointed out, Parkinson’s became my muse.
It also opened my eyes in a way to an important view of the big picture. As a political cartoonist, misanthropy is an occupational hazard. You spend all your time reading and thinking about liars, incompetents, idiots and evildoers. When you have PD, these people don’t go away, but you can’t help noticing the compassion of your speech pathologist or the intelligence of your neurologist. And you better hope your brain surgeon is competent. I felt like a Gulliver in reverse, washed up on the Island of the Caring and Competent. It all gave me plenty to blog about.
MC: Artists are in a distinct position when dealing with PD, in that their work is so reliant on precision of hand-eye movement, often for long periods of time. Can you speak to your experience as an artist who has Parkinson’s — for instance, what has been most frustrating, encouraging, aggravating and enlightening?
PDS: Drawing is all about solving problems with your limited abilities. PD is all about supplying problems and limits. One of my biggest battles is to draw without pain. PD causes stiffness in your muscles that can lead to all kinds of ergonomic problems. I’m fairly stoic. I once tried to return to work with three broken ribs directly after being struck in a crosswalk by a pickup truck. But I developed pain that was so insistent that I could barely make a pen-stroke.
We eventually solved this problem by setting an electronic sketch pad that allows me to position myself the most ergonomically advantageous way. In one of those constant PD ironies, this led me to overcome my indifference to the computer as a tool, and unleashed a creative roll that took me from the 19th-century world of cross-hatching on paper to the 21st century of color and animation.
As you find new ways to solve problems, Parkinson’s finds new ways to screw you up. So it’s a constant test of creativity on top of the normal creative demands.
MC: H ow do you manage to approach Parkinson’s with a positive attitude, and does having your art somehow help you channel or focus your energies?
PDS: Depression is a big part of PD. It affects roughly half the PD population at some part of the course of the disease. Frankly, one of the reasons I cope relatively well with Parkinson’s is that I am on an effective antidepressant. Another is that I have a stalwart wife who I know will do her best to be there for me and a wide circle of family and friends that back the two of us up.
Parkinson’s disease has forced me to step up and do things I never would have considered before. I became the leader of the support group in Anchorage almost by default and against every fiber in my being screaming against taking on the responsibility. This led to all sorts of foreseen stress and all sorts of unforeseen payoffs in terms of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from making someone else’s life better.
In a sense ... PD has become a muse. I’ve channeled much of my creativity into writing and illustrating my blog Off and On, and it’s been a vital source of feedback for the sense I have that my work needs to connect with other people. I get correspondence from around the world from other people with PD, doctors, researchers and advocates.
MC: At midlife, are you hopeful that a cure for PD will be found in your lifetime — or at least [there’ll be] major medical advances?
PDS: In 2002, when I was diagnosed, the standard line was that a cure within 10 years was in our grasp. This is not the standard line anymore. Parkinson’s disease is hellishly complex, and much less easy to understand than we thought then. At the same time the tools at our disposal to unravel this complexity are the best we’ve ever had, and improving all the time. So the answer to your question is, I plain do not know.
I think that PD for some of us now can be greatly mitigated with dedicated management of diet and exercise, along with the careful use of medications and surgery. You have to be serious as a patient about learning all you can and applying it with as much discipline as you can muster.
MC: Is there anything you’d like to say directly to readers about PD — be it related to research, personal stories, social awareness or any other aspect?
PDS: When my diagnosis of PD turned my world to black, Parkinson’s advocate Bill Bell slipped in a bit of light with the observation that it’s a good time to have PD. This sounds weird, but it’s true that the tools now available to manage PD mean that with a little luck, a great deal of discipline, a good support network and decent medical care, there is no reason that you can’t have an excellent quality of life for decades after diagnosis. And if you can’t, well, misery loves company, and with the Boomers moving into the prime years for developing this insidious and nasty disease, you will at least have plenty of company.