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Making the Best of the Worst

by Michael Ames
illustrations by Aneurin Wright

Following the death of his father, Community School graduate Nye Wright channeled his emotions into a spectacular new graphic novel that is anything but comic.

Aneurin Wright was 29 and a struggling freelance illustrator when he learned that his father was dying of emphysema in a trailer park in Sonoma, California. Wright, who goes by Nye, flew from New York City to the West Coast, and six painful months of round-the-clock care-giving, selfless sacrifice and surreal misery followed. It's the kind of situation that could drag even the most optimistic person into a deep depression. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to go insane if I can't do something about this,'" he recalls thinking at the time.

An artist by training and nature, Wright channeled the pain into what he knew best: He started drawing. Eight years, 300 pages and an immeasurable amount of his soul poured into ink and paper later, he has published Things To Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park ... When You're 29 and Unemployed. The herculean graphic novel introduces itself as "a lesson in several parts put forth in form of the comic (a unique combination of words & pictures) so as to expedite communication, education & dramatic catharsis."
Wright's facility with words qualifies him as a first-rate writer, the kind who can put emotions to poetic prose and make it look effortless. Of his initial activity in the trailer park, Wright begins, "Pill counting is the bedrock act in any good retirement community. One imagines it is much like praying the rosary or contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. If one listens very carefully, one can hear the patter of pills and capsules like rain falling on the tin roofs of the trailer park."

This is not your average comic book.

Any further discussion of the plot requires the following disclaimer: The two main characters are a blue Minotaur (half man-half bull) and a blue rhinoceros. Monkeys—maybe real, maybe imaginary—run amok, climbing metaphorically all over people's backs. For graphic novel newcomers, the combination of heavy emotional material with what looks at first glance to be childish cartoons can be disorienting. After all, we read about serious subjects in the front of the newspaper and turn to the comics for relief.

Wright isn't the first illustrator to tread this ground. He follows the path of Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus told a Holocaust story in a whole new way. Whereas Maus used simple line drawings, Wright's is a far more ornate illustrated world. We first meet his father as a finely detailed rhinoceros, aging and frail in his easy chair, eyes sad and snout hooked up to an ever-present oxygen tube. He is the most heart-rending blue rhino you've ever seen.

Wright says the "sophisticated" explanation for presenting characters in animal form is based on academic comic book theories, studied variously by Scott McCloud in his Understanding Comics and by Wright in his own senior thesis at Yale, which explored how illustration can be used as a way to understand Shakespeare.

Wright knew the book was an important emotional step for his own soul, but he had his doubts about its commercial viability. "A comic book about the death of my Dad is kind of a downer." And no details have been spared. From a molecular depiction of the way emphysema slowly kills to the humbling realities of giving one's aging father an enema, the book pulls the reader through the unique psychological morass of caring for sick or dying loved ones.

Neil Wright, Nye's father, was a Ketchum mainstay. He was one of the first professional architects to open shop in the fledgling resort town in the early 1960s. His license plate, 5B 228, was a badge of pride in a town that has long honored seniority. Some of the most successful and enduring architects in the valley got their start studying under him, including Jim Ruscitto and Jim McLaughlin. To those who knew him best, Neil was an incredibly talented but complex and challenging character. After his death, the town named a street after him, "Neil's Way," which his son describes as a fitting double entendre.

Most of the book is spent in the mobile home that father and son shared after Neil went into hospice, but there are a few throwback Sun Valley references sure to please any longtime Ketchumite. One scene is an homage to Elmar Grabher, the straight-shooting Austrian contractor who worked with Neil for years out of an office on Warm Springs Road.

Wright said, "Stuff happens to you in life that causes existential itches, and I'm a firm believer that you need to scratch them somehow." Some people figure out their lives in cooking or the gym or by seeing a therapist. "For me, I'm a comic book guy. It's 'let's see if we can turn what happened into a creative story.'"

With Things To Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park, Wright has created something powerful and vastly accessible to a generation that is right now entering a decades-long epoch of caring for aging baby boomers. He also joins a growing cadre of young creative professionals who grew up together in the tiny Wood River Valley and have since gone on to find demographically disproportionate success. Alexander Maksik, whose You Deserve Nothing was released to great critical acclaim in 2011, and Brandon Jones, whose All Woman and Springtime was named an Oprah notable book of 2012, were creative writing classmates of Wright's. All three graduated from The Community School in 1992.

Wright said that when he was growing up, Ketchum "was a town where cultural currency came from being able to ski fast or mountain bike like a lunatic. I didn't have a lot of cultural currency." Today, Wright has taken his life well beyond the valley walls. He currently lives in Brighton, England, and this August his travels will come full circle when he triumphantly returns to his native mountain valley as a featured guest of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference.


Photo by Chris Conroy