He had weighed the idea of pouring his childhood trauma into art, but had always been hesistant. Until now. “The more I thought about it,” he says, “the more I knew it was something that needed to be said.”
As a boy, Stantis had been abused by his hard-drinking father, and now the Chicago Tribune political cartoonist was moved to create an illustrated telling of his secret, via an online slide show.
“It was wrenching,” Stantis tells Comic Riffs of his three-day, first-person project. “By far the most difficult thing I have ever done” as an artist.
The response to his story since its publication last week, though, has been overwhelming, says Stantis (who also draws the strip “Prickly City”), as the raw honesty and brave baring of his deep secret resonated with readers.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Yours is an especially powerful, and personal, way to address child abuse, Scott. Was it the [NFL’s] Adrian Peterson case, particularly, that prompted this cartoon narrative, and if so, how did you creatively approach deciding to respond to the headlines?
SCOTT STANTIS: It was absolutely in response to the NFL domestic-violence stories. As the perpetrators themselves and their defenders spoke more and more defending the indefensible, I felt angrier and angrier. Happily, I had a medium where I could express myself.
MC: Related to that, had you ever before considered doing this type of cartoon narrative on this subject? And had you ever before addressed — in a public forum — your own child abuse?
SS: I had never addressed this issue publicly in all of my 55 years. I mentioned to my wife from time to time the idea of doing a graphic novel “at some time,” but was always very hesitant to mine that territory.
MC: Any number of editorial cartoonists have responded to recent child-abuse and domestic-assault cases involving athletes by rendering images of a black-eyed NFL logo, or depictions of hulking bullies in shoulder pads — which can be so common as to lose editorial force. Did you ever consider those, and at what point did you decide to move from single image to slide show?
SS: I have to plead guilty on at least some of that in my “regular” editorial cartoons. It seemed to be not enough to say, “Knocking loved ones unconscious is bad.” It had to be more.
MC: Personal cartoons can be the most painful to draw, yet also the most cathartic or rewarding. Could you tell us some of the emotions you went through as you created this?
SS: It was wrenching. By far the most difficult thing I have ever done. As I mentioned, I had never mentioned this in public. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was something that needed to be said. As I created the piece, there was a constant voice in my head screaming: “What are you doing? Are you insane?!? Don’t you dare reveal this to the world!!” Yet as I wrote and drew, it became more and more obvious that this was, in fact, something I desperately needed to get out. It was three days of very mental and emotional heavy lifting.
On the evening when it was finally done and going to press, I was in our apartment looking out the window. My wife, Janien, asked how I was feeling. I responded, “For the first time in a very long time, I don’t know.” My mind was a whirl and, surprisingly, deeply confused. After a long period, I said: “You know what I’m feeling? Ashamed.” She asked if I was ashamed of telling the story. I answered, “No, I’m ashamed it happened.” Meaning the abuse.
That’s how it works. I was ashamed I was abused. Irrational, I know. I had nothing to do with it other than being a victim, but that’s the legacy of abuse.
MC: Did the words or the pictures come first? And did you run them past an editor prior to publishing?
SS: I wrote the piece first. Showed it to a small circle of trusted friends, then to the Chicago Tribune’s op-ed editor, Marcia Lythcott, and our Graphics editor, Jon Brazil, who were remarkably helpful. There was a lot of editing [you can read the original text on Stantis’s blog], and the art was then created.
MC: Part of the strength of this cartoon, I believe, is that you personally address not only the short-term hurt, but also the long-term scars of child abuse — the emotions that can try to cripple you well into your adult life, at the least. Could you speak to writing about that?
SS: Like a lot of cartoonists, I project a public image of a confident, sometimes even cocky persona. The truth is, there is always a grinding notion that I am unworthy of any positive comment or respect. It has taken 55 years for me to say back to someone, “Thank you” whenever my work is complimented. It takes a lot of effort to not correct them and say, “That was a piece of crap and here’s why.”
MC: What has the reaction from the public been like? I imagine you’ve elicited very personal stories from readers who want to share their own experiences, as well as those who simply want to thank you for sharing yours — especially because so many child-abuse stories go unspoken.
SS: In a word: Overwhelming. Hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails and calls. All with a story of abuse to tell. I was a guest of the Kenosha Festival of Cartooning the days following publication, and I had both guests and attendees sharing their stories. One woman I had never met before came up to me following my presentation and began to weep, telling me of her own abusive marriage. It has been both gratifying and humbling. I have just today begun to pore over the e-mails and Facebook comments. It will take the better part of a week to get to them all, but I will. I owe them that.
MC: Would you ever consider expanding this into a book? And from a creative standpoint, are there other personal stories you’d like to share as a cartoon slide show, even if the subject matter is far less poignant or dire?
SS: As I mentioned, I was considering approaching this subject as a graphic novel. While I hadn’t considered that while creating the piece it is something I would now. Expanding on the theme would give the story more depth and expand on themes I was unable to address in the original piece due to space constraints.
I am hoping to do a lot more of these cartoon essay’s for the Trib. None will be as powerful, but many will be personal. It’s a new form for me, and I think I like it.