Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #48 by Drew Barth

Live from Miami Part 2—David Heatley

David Heatley’s Qualification is easily one of the strongest graphic memoirs to come out in recent memory. This autobiographical story spanning Heatley’s life takes us deep into the world of 12-step programs, addiction, and the people who qualify at every meeting. 

Recently at Miami Book Fair, I had a chance to sit down with David Heatley to discuss Qualification, the world that created it, and the nature of graphic memoirs. 

Drew Barth: Nice to meet you. Congratulations on Qualification from Pantheon, a graphic memoir in twelve steps. 

David Heatley: Thank you, it’s good to be here. 

DB: First off, this book is so resonant and devastating in equal measure, at times difficult to read because it is a memoir dealing with fairly heavy subject matter. So what was the impetus of structuring it in that twelve step way? You did have experience with those groups, so why were you going for that specific feel?

DH: I grew up in a twelve-step family and so it was part of my culture, for lack of a better word, growing up and it was always sort of pushed on me in a way and I really rebelled and hated it. But in my thirties I found myself kind of gravitating towards it—as you do later in life you sometimes come around to your parents way of thinking. And so this book chronicles six years of me going through six different programs and kind of losing myself in it. The way I describe it is kind of getting addicted to recovery. And so I’m just trying to tell the story of that and it seemed natural for it to have twelve chapters—it’s not like one chapter corresponds to each step, as you know—but just to have the structure kind of rhyme with the subject matter. And pretty much once I left the program, I immediately thought “I need to do a book about this.” While in the program I never would have thought this was material I could use, but suddenly once I was out of it and no longer following its dictates then it seemed like fair game and it was something I really experienced and even survived. I wanted to tell the world about it. 

DB: The weight of the material here—it is heavier subject matter for a great deal of this book—it’s hard to have imagined surviving most of that considering that addiction to recovery like you had said. And this goes into a lot of memoir work, but how did you come to the decisions of “here’s what I want to put in because I feel that this can be put out there” and what sort of stuff felt like “this needs to stay private, this is something that can’t go out there?” How do you come to those kinds of decisions? 

DH: With this book, I knew I wanted to work with an editor and I hadn’t before. A lot of cartoonists don’t, they just kind of edit themselves.

DB: It’s kind of a solo act a lot of the time. 

DH: Yeah, and that’s always what I had sort of revered was these people who could do it themselves. But for this one I just knew I needed some perspective on it that I didn’t have. And so I was assigned Anna Kaufman and Tim O’Connell at Pantheon and they were like my team. This was almost a collaboration with them, they were so wonderful and such good sounding boards. I was even sending drafts of this when it was just typed up prose before I had drawn anything to Tim and he was really helping me see like the tone was really angry or accusatory or like humorless and he was like “let’s lighten this up” or “let’s style this back” so that was really helpful. My wife too, my wife Rebecca certainly weighed in and helped shape how she appears in the book. And I do have my own artistic instinct which is like: I usually start with the things that have stayed with me so much that I don’t even have to look up any reference for that time, it’s just still eating away at me. We usually start with a certain character or a setting or an anecdote that has the emotional resonance to me and then I kind of work it through and write it until I feel it’s come to a place of forgiveness or starting with someone I hate, finding a way to love them by the end of it. It’s this intuitive process of trying to work out for myself what I want to say about this thing. I don’t always know going into it what that’s going to be. 

DB: Yeah, because it’s kind of hard to work with that in a memoir setting that’s like “can you trust your memory?” kind of thing as well. And that even goes into what I was thinking as well in terms of the art style. It is very stark, black and white, and a big departure from My Brain is Hanging Upside Downwhere that had all these colors and its own individual structure like short story pieces, and this being this much longer narrative. And with that starkness, how did you come to that decision to do that pure black and white and let it show itself?

DH: I’m really glad you picked up on that and I think that’s the right interpretation of it. When I was going to these meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous for instance, first off, the word “qualification” in these programs is when a member tells their story in front of a group of people. So they’re qualifying their membership by telling their story and saying what their addiction was like, what had happened to them, and what are things like now that they go to the program. And so I was following that same structure for telling this story. I’m going to qualify about my time in the program. And the thing that always impressed me about these AA qualifications was just how stark, stripped down, and almost artless they were. And they went right from the person telling it right into my heart and I just had no defense against it, it was just so sincere and overpowering and moving. And I kind of was following that too—I didn’t want anything getting in the way of just this clear, clear direct message of what this story is, to pretty it up, or make it super colorful, or dial up certain parts over others just felt really false. 

DB: I think it reminds me of what Scott McCloud talks about too with the simplicity of it makes the message stick so much harder, where a beautiful painting makes you miss what the word bubble says. And for something like this, a lot of the words and images stick with me weeks and weeks later after I finished reading it, especially those moments with your father, I’m still thinking of them now. It’s horrifying, but it’s so resonant in that way and I think that’s why the black and white works so well. 

DH: I sometimes told people I felt like I had kind of opened a vein and was inking this thing in my own blood, like that’s how intense it was. 

DB: And you definitely can feel the blood splatter here. And speaking of just how you’re presenting some of the characters, especially for some of these dependency groups you had gone to, how were you able to find that balance between presenting them in an almost journalistic sort of way where it’s not backsliding into parody of “look at how absurd these people are” but “look at these people who are human, who have these issues” but these program don’t always draw out the best things. So how were you able to convey that without going into making fun of them?

DH: With some characters that I remembered well, it was easier than with others. I had nothing but love for them even after leaving the program, some people I had resented and some people I did find ridiculous in the moment. Tim as my editor was a good gauge on that and he even shared it with someone internally at Pantheon who was a current member of AA and that was a good gauge of “are you being sympathetic?” and I was trying to be. I definitely didn’t want to like hurl a bomb at the twelve step world. And it’s been heartening because several people in AA have approached me and said “I know you’ve made a different conclusion, but I do think of you as a fellow traveler and I think you’ve nailed a lot of this world.” And I mean we’re all kind of ridiculous figures, so like as long as I’m not elevating myself at someone else’s expense—in some ways I think I’m the most ridiculous character in that book, I’m in this quixotic mission to heal myself forever and I just keep stumbling and messing up. And so that’s really where my focus was and these incidental characters just sort of add color along the way.

DB: Speaking of the art style as well, I have seen a really interesting balance between using a lot of interesting visual metaphors, especially with the halo post-meeting and that slowly diminishing or that image too of you as the volcano. And how were you able to balance that as well—the visual metaphor and reality of everything? Figuring out “here’s where I want to make it more grounded, but here’s where I want to show off the actual feelings that I can’t convey in words themselves.”

DH: That’s tricky to articulate. In some ways, the art was secondary to this book. I mean I spent four years writing a manuscript to this before even drawing it all and when I did do the first pass of thumbnails, I did it very quickly, I just kind of said “okay, this panel goes here.” And a lot of what I ended up doing with the final art was very close to those thumbnails. So I think the fact that I wasn’t thinking too much did let those metaphors come quickly and have them be based more on the feeling than trying to be clever and show off any drawing style. It’s a funny thing, though, there’s a trade-off because there’s almost this disappointment once a book goes from just being in your head to being on the page because you’re like “well, that didn’t really capture how I felt.” You have to kind of say “well, okay, that was a very crude approximation and maybe someone else can fill in their own head what that might have felt like.” You kind of just have to accept that this is the drawn cartoon version of that feeling, which is never going to be in 3D Technicolor, it’s happening in this imaginary space in your head. I was sort of at peace with that. I was like “okay, now this is on the page, it just has its own life and its own version on the page and let’s just move on to the next one now.”

DB: With what you said earlier about how this started out as prose before it even became the final product of the actual graphic novel, is that much more different from how you would approach other works as well? 

DH: It’s much different. I’ve done a lot of dream comics and I would say that was a similar approach, like I would have these journal entries that I would then type up and treat as a script to be broken down into panels, so that was a similar process. But that was a series of small stories that I wrote and drew simultaneously. And it’s funny because when I started this book I was going through a period of not wanting to draw at all. I hadn’t drawn in year, I literally just stopped drawing and I even thought “maybe I’ll just write a text only book.” So when I was first typing it up, I wasn’t even thinking of pictures and it wasn’t until a couple years in I was like “this actually does need to be a graphic memoir.”

DB: I think one of the main things that really sticks out in this book is that road to personal clarity, like you have that revelation at the end and I really liked how at the end you also had that denouement sort of thing of “here’s what’s been happening since I finished writing the original script.” Was that something you had actually come up with by the time you had finished, because you said it took four years, so there’s that massive amount of time where you were in that post-recovery phase. And so was that something where you were consciously like “no, I should have this end on this better note than maybe something that may have been more sour?”

DH: Certainly some things happened after I started writing it that then got included. I’d say that both episodes with my parents, really kind of forgiving them, happened way after I started drawing this and I didn’t think that was even going to be in the book. And the section with my mom, really, the conversation where I felt the most forgiveness I’ve ever had with her came after talking to her about this book. So it was close to being done and I told her everything in it. I said “actually, I don’t really want you to read this, you can if you want, I don’t really want to talk it once it’s published. But just so you know, this is what’s in it.” And she really heard me and she really listened and it was a great discussion for both of us and I just knew I had to add two pages to the end of this book just to include that because that’s where it needs to end, with my mom. 

DB: The beginning and ending kind of have that full circle and working with your parents adds that, not necessarily “good ending” but it gives it that feeling of completeness, which is one of the reasons this book is still so resonant. 

DH: It did feel important to tie things up, at least a little bit. Because I’m in a very different place than when I was in that world. I think it’s important to offer readers hope, I do. I think it’s a fairly adolescent thing to just kick and scream and tell people how bad everything is and at a certain point when you grow up it’s like, well, I’m actually building the world, especially if you have kids, I’m building the world around them. So I want to positively contribute and it was important for me to have this book have some hope in it. 

DB: Thank you so much, David Heatley. 

DH: Thank you, it was a pleasure. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.  

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Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.