Alisa's Tale: A Short Story
By Al Davison
Published by Nowgen
I'm going to come clean from the start. My experience of comics is limited to precisely one example: 'Preacher' by Gareth Ennis and Steven Dillon - the story of Reverend Jesse Custer, a beatnik Texan cleric who is accidentally possessed by a supernatural deity during a freak accident.
Needless to say, the storyline bears little resemblance to 'Alisa's Tale' - the story of a young woman with a restricted growth condition known as achondroplasia, as she battles to come to terms with her own identity - but it at least gives me a fighting chance of being able to follow the action.
Alisa's tale was created with the help of artist Al Davison, a clinical psychologist and 17 teenagers, some who had restricted growth conditions. This group took part in two drama workshops and the teenagers generously contributed their life experiences, as well as their expectations of healthcare, treatment and medical research -all of which informed the plot of Alisa's Tale.
The story begins with Alisa's dad, himself a graphic novelist, creating a new comic about the quest of Alisanna, Queen of the Dwarves, to investigate the disappearance of Cormac, last of the unicorns. This fanciful story unfolds in parallel with Alisa's real life, highlighting the everyday challenges of living in a world that's designed for 'tall' people.
The constant taunts and name calling that Alisa endures on a daily basis have played on her insecurities, eroding her self-confidence and leaving her feeling isolated from the rest of the world. She feels a sense of expectation from those around her, not least her father, that she should be as confident and strong as her late mother, and longs for someone to confide in who might know how she feels.
That someone comes in the form of Joe, her new physiotherapist, who it transpires has another, rarer, form of restricted growth. This is where the story really gets interesting. Alisa is instantly attracted to Joe, but her hopes of initiating a romance with him are crushed when he introduces her to his boyfriend - a six-foot-tall Chinese guy who she finds she has far more in common with than might be expected. Meeting Joe makes her realise she's not alone. This gives her the confidence to stand up to some of her bullies and makes her realise that everyone has their insecurities.
Patty, her somewhat eccentric friend from the music store where she works, is another source of solace. When things go wrong and Alisa is accused of stealing a bag as she tries to navigate her way through a crowd, Patty appeals to her kung-fu teachings to help her overcome her fears: 'You have to practice being confident, work at it, keep doing the things that scare you until the good stuff becomes more real than the bad'.
Alisa takes her father's newly completed comic to Patty's birthday party where she is introduced to Patty's cousin, Rachel, who also has achondroplasia. Feeling much more confident, she hits the dance floor with Rachel and even gets chatted up by a friend of Joe's.
One of the most interesting things about this booklet is the process by which it was created. The eclectic mix of people - teenagers, an artist and a clinical psychologist - who contributed to Alisa's Tale ensure that many different perspectives are represented. It's extremely well informed and gives an important insight into the daily challenges of living with a restricted growth condition. Using a graphic novel as a device for reaching teenage audiences is a novel approach and one which has potential to raise awareness of restricted growth issues among audiences who might not normally be engaged. This is important because, as the book highlights, many people do not realise the negative impact their attitudes can have on people with restricted growth.
The challenge now will be how best to disseminate the booklet to those it is intended to reach and how to measure its impact on awareness of and attitudes towards restricted growth. It's difficult to see where the booklet might be used - in its current format it's unsuitable for widespread use in schools, although it could feasibly be translated into an online comic so it can be used to start discussions in the classroom. It may have further applications as a tool for helping young people with restricted growth conditions deal with their social and psychological impact.
I enjoyed reading this booklet and felt moved by its refreshingly honest insight into living with a restricted growth condition. I'd highly recommend it to anyone working with young people affected by restricted growth and, more broadly, as a stimulus for encouraging classroom debate about the medical and social problems faced by those affected.