I haven’t felt much of a need, or even a desire, to write about comics in a while.
I started the Mini Comic Courier because of a growing admiration for small press comic creators, cartoonists who bravely forge new paths in this medium, pouring blood, sweat and tears into self-publishing their own work, and my feeling that so many of those works deserved a wider audience.
I wanted to give something back and I decided the least I could do after reading something that had touched, inspired or excited me, was sit down and write about what it was that had made that book special and maybe convince just one more person to seek it out.
I read a book this morning that reminded me of all that and made me want to write again. That I find myself sat here typing out these words, is testament to the power of that particular piece of work, and very much, the dedication and effort, the creator in question poured into its creation.
That comic was I Drank Holy Water by Olivia Sullivan, a relatively new name to the small press scene, but one of such raw talent and passion, that I’m sure lovers of sequential art will be talking about her for years to come.
I’ve been following Sullivan over Twitter for some time and she was kind enough to come to ELCAF a few weeks back to meet me and sell me copy of her book, something I had coveted since she first announced it was complete. I own a few of her earlier works and bought a copy of the Dirty Rotten Comics anthology she appeared in, and it’s been clear to me for some time, she is a talent waiting to break out and I was excited to read a longer comic by her.
To say it lived up to my expectations would be an understatement.
Strikingly brave and touchingly honest, Olivia Sullivan's comic confession I Drank Holy Water is the work of a cartoonist who grows in strength with every pen stroke and is carving out a well-deserved niche for herself alongside the UK’s finest small press creators.
Sullivan’s comics are powerful, raw, sensitive, profoundly honest, hugely evocative and alive with the thumping heartbeat of an artist who is passionate and committed to her craft.
Her scratchy, coarse, penwork and punk aesthetic is distinct and stylish, but also hugely evocative, here palpably creating feelings of fragility and vulnerability and even an itchy discomfort that brings to life the story of a young artist fighting to feel comfortable in her own skin.
On the surface, I Drank Holy Water is an autobiographical work about an act of rebellion, the casting off of a belief system and the void that leaves behind. But it is so much more than that, because, peel back that first layer of the onion and you will find another story, thematically linked and intrinsically joined, of an artist finding their voice after being told to hold their tongue for years, and the explosion of expression that results.
Sullivan's approach to autobiographical cartooning is decidedly of the 'warts and all' variety and I Drank Holy Water is all the more vivid an experience for that. For me it recalls the brutal, ugly truths that Charles Bukowski was always capable of rending into such beautiful, and deeply human, poetry.
Her unashamedly honest depictions of a childhood skin condition that stole patches of her hair, are as humblingly brave as they are viscerally reproduced, with close ups of scabs and rashes, and remembered scents of the various salves and creams she was covered in, all combining to present memories laced with a complex flood of emotions, evoking a sense of being smothered, of feeling unclean, and an oppressive and painful sense of self-doubt and worthlessness.
My admiration of an artist that dares bare their soul the way Sullivan does here is deep and I’m often drawn to work of this type, but intensely brooding work always risks being too oppressive for a reader to enjoy, and obscure in its own darkness.
But Sullivan, perhaps naturally, understands that, and I Drank Holy Water’s darker edges are balanced out by a genuine warmth and a wry sense of humour that adds another layer of depth and humanity.
In amongst claustrophobic memories of a constricting and repressed childhood, Sullivan finds a fondness for her past.
A watercolour image of a young Sullivan and her nan strikes a brief moment of contrast with the book’s artistic style, seeming somehow fluid, dreamy, and awash with emotional resonance and perhaps, suggesting a surrogate parental force for the good.
In two other moments, Sullivan remembers being wrapped in blankets (‘Tartan is always warmer. Somehow’) and playing her Gameboy in church, islands of happiness in a memoir that focuses on a young woman struggling to understand her world.
Sullivan’s narrative is mostly linear, but she is brave enough to know when to step outside of that, and a late section of I Drank Holy Water given over to stream of consciousness text and images is all the more powerful because of its contrast with the more traditional storytelling of the rest of the book.
Mirroring the comic’s themes of repression and release, these pages see the author let loose her creative energy, pouring passion onto the page and almost screaming at us that she is ready to reveal herself to world, unshackled by the confusion and constriction of her early life.
As she makes the choice to reject the system of belief so prominent in her upbringing, Sullivan reaches out, looking elsewhere for succour, finding solace in music and serenity in blading and skateboarding, building the pillars of her own belief system from scratch.
As a reader, I hope she also finds catharthis in creating comics, because I am in no doubt that others will take comfort in her frank depiction of some very relatable struggles and be empowered by a young artist brave enough to bare all.
I Drank Holy Water is a serious step into the limelight for a comic creator who is only going to get better and better. It’s a courageous work, which deserves credit for its unflinching portrayal of the way repression shackles creatives. Sullivan’s ability to play out her themes across every aspect of her work – in her writing, in her artwork, in her layouts, in her format, in her tone – help weave the threads of an intricate piece of work that satisfies on multiple levels.
I finished I Drank Holy Water wanting to write about, to talk about it, to scream from the rooftops about it and honestly, that’s a level of enjoyment that is so rare and precious to me, that I can’t help but recommend you get a copy by any means necessary.
I talked to Olivia over Twitter while writing this review and many of her comments added colour to my thoughts about I Drank Holy Water as they percolated. With her permission, I’ve shared that interview below:
OLIVIA Sullivan, an illustrator and comic book creator from London is a relative newcomer to the small press scene, and a recent graduate of Camberwell College of Arts.
She has freelance credits for BBC Good Food, the LTDA and Tower Hamlets Council and recently produced her first full-length comics, The Nose, an illustrated newspaper comic based on the original novel by Nikolai Gogol, and I Drank Holy Water, an autobiographical comic retrospective of her childhood in the Catholic Church, both produced as part of her final year portfolio.
Sullivan is an artist able to channel her strong emotional intelligence into her work, but one who has clearly struggled with confidence in the past.
“It hasn’t always been easy in the past for me to convince people that I can do something,” she said when we talked over Twitter about my reactions to her work.
“Those books (I Drank Holy Water and The Nose) were made through a lot of stress.
Olivia reflected that she was lucky to go to a college where drawing comics was encouraged adding she would ‘have gone mad’ if she had had to repress her desire to draw comics throughout her course.
“It does make you more fearless in what you are doing too,” she said.
Olivia said her decision to study art wasn’t one made easily and one that caused some family friction, a theme that runs through I Drank Holy Water and one that she believes could influence her work forever.
“Going and telling my family I wanted to go to art school was a big issue in itself,” she said. “I wonder if that stigma will ever go? But everything is fuel. Good, bad, weird.”
Olivia believes her style, which incorporates some linear storytelling, with a stream of consciousness style that recalls Joyce and Kerouac (whom she admits as an influence alongside Sylvia Plath), has the potential to be polarising among readers.
“Some people, I feel, may think my approach to making comics is a bit too different, I don’t know,” she said. “My longer (ongoing) project might be perceived as utter nonsense, but it all has a deeper meaning to it.
“Those two books (The Nose and I Drank Holy Water) re the clearest stories I have ever made.
She said the interior monologue sections of I Drank Holy Water were the closest to how she has made comics in the past – as well as a style she hoped to return to - with most of her writing coming from her diaries.
“I was told I should steer more away from that at times, so I’m clearer to the reader,” she said. “It has heled my story-telling somewhat, but it’s not how I truly want to tell stories.”
Olivia admitted that writing was an emotional experience for her.
“I get angry a lot when I write,” she said. “I think it is important that I write it out, because I’m not openly confrontational.”
She said the image of her Nan within I Drank Holy Water had proved particularly challenging.
“That was tough to paint,” she said. “Loved ones that are no longer with us.
“And you are painting that for a few concentrated hours.
“It was so upsetting at times.”
But Olivia says, as difficult as it was to create the image, including it in I Drank Holy Water was always vital.
"It was meant to show I wasn't angry at my nan for my upbringing, so it was important it was in the book," she said. "Amongst the anger I wanted to show what I appreciated.
"It felt like catharsis."