Al Davison is a man with something to prove.
Born in 1960 with spina bifida, a condition which paralysed him from the waist down, the medical establishment didn’t expect much of for him. “First ‘they’ said I wouldn’t live…then they said I shouldn’t live. My parents disagreed,” Davison writes in his 1988 graphic novel memoir, The Spiral Cage. And live he did, though he spent most of his first three years in a hospital cot, and it was some years before he began to walk.
With the world of his early childhood no bigger than the ward and the people who entered it, Al held the singular if understandable worldview that everybody lived in hospital until they had lots of operations and could finally walk. He was more alive in his inner world than in the more confining outer world, unaware of the difference between the waking world and the one he traversed in his dreams. It was these dream landscapes that Al drew from the moment he could hold a crayon. He gave the first of his dream drawings to the nurse who gifted this strange but happy child with the nickname of “the Astral Gypsy.”
Today, that childhood nickname has become a creative brand for a man still uneasy with the term “disabled” in relation to himself, having grown up at a time when the word meant “being inferior.” It also chafes at his wry sense of humour, on display as he describes the time he went to the cinema with some fellow authors: “An overly enthusiastic manager rushed up and declared, ‘We have a disabled toilet!’ I replied, ‘That’s nice, but do you have any that work?’ Everyone else got the joke, but the manager just looked confused.”
The recourse to his imagination would shape Al into the artist and the person he would become. He counts his blessings: “Having managed the M.E. for thirty years, and (from the doctors’ perspective) having lived on borrowed time since I was born, I have always tried to appreciate life, and to live in the moment.” He introduces The Spiral Cage with a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams:
“What is Real?” asked the rabbit one day… “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you, and a stick out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
The excerpt concludes with the idea which became a red thread winding throughout Davison’s life — and his book: “Once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” He’d meet many of those people, but also skin horses.
In the final chapters of The Spiral Cage, we see Al falling in love, and — something he hadn’t thought possible — finding it reciprocated. We’re there with him in those first giddy days, as he is loved not despite his scars but with them. Then he shows some of the doom-laden pages he cut, and we see how different the book could have been.
Like many people who spend a large portion of their childhood ill, the young Al was hungry for art and for stories. He consumed these visually and emotionally, finding echoes of himself and the way others responded to him not only in The Velveteen Rabbit but also Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other stories. Monsters held no fear for him, and instead became imaginary friends.
As a maturing comics artist, he addressed his disability and the stigma around it. His anecdotes in The Spiral Cage make it clear that ugliness is often carried on the inside. In his childhood and adolescence, he continuously ran up against society’s ideas about beauty and humanity.
While the UK’s modern political and social landscape sees people with disabilities frequently scapegoated as scroungers or fakers, the climate of Al’s early adulthood was even more retrograde: “I can recall when pubs and clubs regularly had signs up saying ‘no wheelchairs – fire hazard’, suggesting that the wheelchair was the hazard, not the building’s lack of provision. I can also remember being refused entry to clubs on the grounds that my wheelchair or leg irons would damage the dance floor, and being thrown out of clubs because able-bodied people found my presence offensive.” Such discrimination extended to his professional life too, as he was turned down for a job with an illustration agency because, they said, “we don’t hire the disabled, as the smell puts clients off.”
Throughout The Spiral Cage, there’s a sense of someone driven to prove and improve himself. As an adult, Al’s long practice of yoga and martial arts is key to his physical confidence, and he takes pride in his ability to defend himself against aggressors who never expect him to be able to fight back. From the validation he found in books and his protective but restricted childhood world, he grows into a young man who argues confidently for his right to be himself. He is proud of his accomplishments, and not afraid to show it in his comics.
The book is laced with the routine violence meted out to someone who is different. We see 11-year-old Al, after his first week in a mainstream school: the voices of school bullies through his head; he’s curled up, angry, thinking of suicide. Then we jump forward in time, to September 1981, when he fends off attacking louts on mopeds. He brings us back to his early childhood, when he throws away his walking frame, saying: “B’bye.” Davison contrasts the humiliation he often experienced with the pride he felt learning to walk unaided. Both confidence and innocence are easily broken, and even when repaired, the cracks never fully mend.
The Spiral Cage started as a visual diary, chronicling his life up to the age of thirty, with different stages of health and self-discovery marked by different artistic styles. We see Davison at his most playful when he shows his first attempts to walk, clothed in superhero pyjamas; and at his darkest in autumn 1983, fearful, angry, and in hopeless love. The book’s zine-like quality may be jarring to the casual eye, this format also shows its strengths as a brutally honest chronicle of a man developing as a person and an artist.
Compared to Al Davison, aged 30, who wrote The Spiral Cage, the artist now finds himself essentially the same — but more confident. “I’m probably less inclined to ‘hit first and ask questions later’ than I was back then; I just miss out the questions altogether now! …I handle conflict more calmly now, and don’t attract the same level of violence that I used to, largely thanks to my Buddhist practice, and martial arts training.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Spiral Cage is the way it blends realism with the dreamlike imagery of the mind. In another context it’d be called psychedelia, but it eschews the druggy prog rock album sleeve cliches. An early episode recounts an attack of what would later be diagnosed as M.E., which left Al blind for days and unable to use his legs. His friends thought he was away and the phone was disconnected, and until he was found by a neighbour he survived on leftover rice and melted frost from the fridge.
Episodes like this are illustrated with a naked honesty (literally — he was unable to dress, and at best wore a blanket against the cold) in depicting himself: balding, hairy thighs terminating in stick-thin, scar-covered lower legs. Most remarkable is the fact that while he went through this personal hell he didn’t stop drawing. A realistic self-portrait, the artist hunched over and glowering at the reader, is surrounded by blind drawings and diary notes. The central figure resembles the hobgoblin from Fuseli’s Nightmare.
As Davison points out in his follow-up book The Alchemist’s Easel, he couldn’t know then if he was constantly drawing on the same sheet of paper, or drawing invisible lines with an empty pen. But, already losing his visual memory and afraid he’d never see again, the act of drawing was important as a lifeline, with little regard for the results.
Neither did he stop drawing when blindness gave way to fever, the results of which are also included in The Alchemist’s Easel. Again Davison doesn’t hold back: his fever dreams run from the Lovecraftian “Journal of Vatock Lum” to abundances of nude female bodies. Davison accepts what his subconscious has to offer him and passes this on to us. It is indeed a rough guide, but also gives us techniques to sharpen our own visual memory and drawing abilities by letting go of how we think objects look, and following our innate spatial awareness instead.
In The Alchemist’s Easel, we see how Davison himself has grown as an artist. He adds to the raw honesty of The Spiral Cage a clarity of line and sense of composition that make his newer work easier on the eye, but no less powerful. There’s still horror and fear, but also love: in “String and Feather,” author Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer find each other. Davison dreamt this story a full decade before they met.
Gaiman has been a loyal supporter of Davison’s work for many years, and has both subscribed to and signal-boosted the crowdfunding campaign for Muscle Memory, which will be Davison’s 400-page magnum opus, further detailing his childhood struggles. It will address his disability and also recount how Davison was physically abused by his father.
Largely absent from The Spiral Cage, Al’s father appeared in The Alchemist’s Easel as the bogeyman who tied his young son to a tree, then sold the landscapes he’d forced him to paint. Davison points out that excising his father from The Spiral Cage wasn’t as deliberate as it now seems: “I didn’t actively leave him out, but he wasn’t as involved in my life as much as my Mam was. I think subconsciously, I was processing the abuse stuff, even though I didn’t remember it till after his death, and that might have influenced me to some degree.”
Davison has also been championed by Alan Moore, who wrote the introduction to The Spiral Cage, calling it “an important addition to the ranks of comic books that strive to break out of the conventions of genre and establish a beach-head of work with genuine human worth and relevance.” An artist’s artist, Davison has fans amongst many other renowned comic book pros, and a key page from The Spiral Cage was exhibited in the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.
However, Davison suffers that frequent curse of creators: his artistic renown is not matched by ongoing financial security. “In many ways graphic novels are still seen as a niche market, though I think that is changing slowly. There is also the difficulty of publishers who in the current financial climate are taking less and less risks, so ‘difficult subjects’ are an even harder sell than they were ten years ago.”
With his first autobiographical comic Davison was well ahead of the curve, but when these became mainstream, he had already moved to more visionary work. Having the resulting book in my hands, it’s hard to see why the Indiegogo campaign for The Alchemist’s Easel didn’t reach the finish line. The book did eventually appear, but Davisons says he wasn’t able to get enough support to complete the project as he would have liked.
For Muscle Memory, Davison chose the Patreon model, which he finds far more enjoyable. Patrons pay for the artist to create, rather than contribute to the entire project. Supporters can offer as little as a dollar a month, or a dollar per page. The work Davison creates will be posted online, but he still plans to end up with a physical book.
“I’d probably work on the Muscle Memory and other personal projects pretty much full-time if I could make a living at it, but at the present, I’m not in that position. Not that I want to give up mainstream work entirely. I enjoy and learn a lot from collaborating with other creators; though it would be great to be in a position where I could choose those jobs, and not be entirely dependent on them financially.”
In the end, for Davison, this is what it’s always been about: the freedom to live and work on his own terms.
Angeline B. Adams writes on arts and culture. She lives in Belfast with too many books, a cat and a Dutchman.