Cork teenager Jessie Griffin is launching a new comic-book series about her own life. She tells Donal O’Keeffe about her work as a comic artist, living with Asperger’s, and her life-changing time with the Cork Life Centre
“I wish I had seen something like this when I was a kid,” says Jessie Griffin, as we look at an early print of the first edition of her beautifully drawn comic series One Piece Missing, entitled On the Road.
The cover of this 30-page comic features a striking image of a young woman in dark-blue silhouette with a jigsaw-piece-shaped space in her head. One piece missing.
Jessie was diagnosed as a child with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. She struggled in primary school, experiencing literacy difficulties. She says she liked secondary school, but suffered from stress. She has been in the Cork Life Centre for the past year, and is now completing her Leaving Cert.
“I wish when I was diagnosed that I had been exposed before to the idea of people on the autism spectrum,” she says. “At the time, not even movies had characters who were on the spectrum, and there was no-one I could look up to or relate to.
“So now my goal is to educate people.” Jessie is 18, and she has always drawn. She says that when she was in sixth class, she began to get more serious about her art, and by first year she had fallen in love with the Japanese Manga-style of comics. Encouraged by her family, and with the help of Tracy Sayers of Thomond Comics, she has now published the first chapter of an autobiographical account of her life.
We’re sitting in the toasty-warm upstairs sitting room of the Cork Life Centre, once the Christian Brothers’ Edmund Rice House, up on what is, this morning, the aptly-named Winter’s Hill, looking out on a frozen foggy city. This was the lord mayor’s house, 250 or so years ago, with sweeping views down across the Lee’s north channel to the old Cork Mansion House, now the Mercy Hospital, and far beyond to the spires of St Finbarr’s.
The Cork Life Centre is a voluntary organisation which offers one-to-one tuition to children who have fallen between the cracks in our education system. It receives only minimal funding from the Department of Education.
The Cork Life Centre celebrates its 20th birthday this year, and the centre’s director, Don O’Leary, says it simply couldn’t exist without “powerful young people like Jess”.
Don is extremely enthusiastic about Jess’ new book, but says: “We take very little to no credit for this.
“Jess is an amazing young person. All we can take credit for is that Jess came in here and she had to know how every minute of her day was planned out, and we’ve totally disorganized all of that! So, nothing throws Jess now.” Don’s deputy, Rachel Lucey, shows us the back cover of Jess’ comic which features a striking drawing of the red door to the Cork Life Centre and the promise “Stay tuned, special edition in the making”. Rachel says she can think of no finer birthday present than to have the next issue set in the Cork Life Centre.
Jessie returns to the theme of awareness about autism, and says that when she was diagnosed, her mental health began to deteriorate. She says she took great solace when, on a family holiday to Paris, she went on a Winnie the Pooh ride, and her sister mentioned that Rabbit from Winne the Pooh had OCD.
Coincidentally, on a wall in the Cork Life Centre is printed a quote from a Disney Winnie the Pooh film: “Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” Jessie says it is her hope that she will be able to work full-time in comics, a discipline she finds very therapeutic.
“I want to make more comics, not necessarily about autism, but I’ve noticed in my time in the Cork Life Centre that I tend to make comics to help me process things I don’t understand.
“When I meet people, I sometimes forget to tell them that I have autism, and I only usually only mention it by accident. When I was hanging out with people before I had a tendency to randomly high-five or fist-bump people, and they thought it was weird. It could just be me, somewhere in my autism, just wanting to connect with people.
“And they’d always be like, ‘You don’t look autistic’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to teach!’” For Jessie, her hope for One Piece Missing is that it will educate people about disability, while telling an entertaining story.
“You can’t tell just by looking at people what they’re going through, be that mental health or disability. Disability isn’t always a visible thing.
“You can’t tell by looking at someone that they have a disability, or a learning disability, and that’s what I’m hoping to get across.”
One Piece Missing: On the Road, Episode 1 of a comic series by Jessica Griffin, launches at 11.30am today in the Creative Zone at the Boole Library in UCC.