In late 2013, comics artist and writer Jess Ruliffson finalized some work from an ongoing journalism project that’s based on intimate discussions with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subjects of her Invisible Wounds recount internal struggles they’ve faced since leaving the military. Ruliffson published an affecting assortment of profiles as a single comic online back then, but her black and white visual narrative is now in print. Via Brooklyn, New York indie publisher So What? Press, Invisible Wounds was made available at this year’s MoCCA Arts Fest in early April, where the artist was among the winners of the event’s first “Awards of Excellence” for her work.
Jess Ruliffson chronicles in Invisible Wounds difficult conversations with her subjects over sixteen pages that originate in a kitchen, where an interviewee begins to explain his history of talking to people about his tour(s) of duty, and the reaction he expects his candor to elicit. “When a person finds out, I’ve noticed this change in them,” the former solider explains. “…the tension building as they start to wonder if I’m dangerous and crazy.”
A Department of Veterans Affairs report issued in late 2012 showed that nearly 30% of the post-9/11 veterans treated at V.A. medical facilities have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that follows a tragedy or horror and yields flashbacks, anxiety, and more. “The long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injuries can be devastating, belying their name,” reported Daniel Zwerdling and T. Christian Miller for a 2010 ProPublica/NPR investigation into recent failures in treating troops’ health problems. “Soldiers can endure a range of symptoms, from headaches, dizziness and vertigo to problems with memory and reasoning […] Once they go home, some commanders who led units across battlefields can no longer drive a car down the street. They can’t understand a paragraph they have just read, or comprehend their children’s homework.”
Arms crossed, Ruliffson’s subject at the start of Invisible Wounds seems absent in a horizontal panel on the first page. He dozes while a loudly whistling tea kettle warms in the background. Per a distinctively sequenced pair of pages that appears later in the comic, each breaking significantly from the more linear structure of the illustrations that precede them, it’s as if the vet’s “brain had effectively shut off” when the water boiled on his stove. On one page, a checkering of micro-sized boxes is interspersed with pull quotes from Ruliffson’s soldier that describe his drastic mood shifts, another is framed in kitchen floor tiles with “lost time” represented by advancing clock hands and short, thick motion lines. Earlier, the artist melds swirling cigarette smoke into the background during a conversation at an airport terminal, so that the haze just above her soldier’s close-cropped hair meets the clouds around the flight being described in his story. Smart flourishes like these can probably be attributed to Ruliffson’s appreciation for the risks that David Mazzucchelli took in his work on the revered City of Glass graphic adaptation — she mentioned it as a favorite in an interview with The Beat last year.
In an insightful overview of her projects that she offered to writer Dre Grigoropol, Ruliffson cited the works of war photographer Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger as influences on her ongoing reporting via the comics medium. Her journalism efforts aren’t solely focused on PTSD — contributions to Symbolia (my post on their new issue) as well as a 2012 piece in The Oxford American are worth a close look — but her recent body of work is focused entirely on the lives of veterans. “I didn’t know what to write about when I tried to make comics before,” Ruliffson tells The Beat. “(I)t seemed like a good way to work, by listening to other people tell stories.”
Jess Ruliffson will be at the marvelous Desert Island in Brooklyn on Thursday, April 17th.