I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Patrick O’Connor. I first became aware of Patrick and his work at Comicspedia through a Q & A he did over at reddit. I was instantly fascinated with Patrick and his work, so I reached out for an interview. Fortunately, Patrick was more than happy to chat with me about his work. He’s based out of Southeast Psych. I just want to start by telling you a bit about what Patrick does.
Comicspedia is a resource where Patrick catalogues various ongoing series by their major themes and issues. Anyone can access Comicspedia and investigate his archive by theme, or character, or demographic. This is a great resource for anyone hoping to use comic books in an academic or other professional manner (Patrick and I talked about this during the interview). Patrick uses Comicspedia as a resource for treating patients. He finds patients with an interest in comic books and attempts to design a course of therapy that involves using comic books to help patients visualize issues or express themselves by relation to a particular character or plot.
Kyle Black: First of all, thanks a lot for doing this. I loved the AMA on reddit and a lot of the people I work with are really itching to find out more about what you do. So, have you been a lifelong fan of comics, or did you come into them later?
Patrick O’Connor: I was a fan of some comics when I was younger, but honestly not many superheroes. I loved The Flash, but other than that I mostly collected Ren & Stimpy and The Simpsons. I only really got into comics when I started Comicspedia almost two years ago.
KB: What inspired the Comicspedia/therapy idea? Was this based on research/reading you had done, or is this a completely new approach to thereapy?
PO: I was working as an in-home therapist for kids in foster care, and one day I had a question about whether there were any Batman and Robin comics that dealt with similar father/son issues as my clients, given that Dick Grayson is a ward of Bruce Wayne. I visited my local comic book store and asked the staff for some help, and they said that would be a bit too loaded of a question to answer. As I found out, problems between the two characters are peppered throughout comics that feature them both, and I would end up just having to buy a bunch to read and decide whether they were applicable. That’s exactly what I did, with a few other heroes as well, and I began cataloging what I was reading. Over time, I developed specific methods to utilize comic books in therapy, modeling it after many approaches used in expressive arts therapy. As far as I understand, a very small group of medical and psychological clinicians around the world do something similar. I believe I’m the first to create a database and make such information publicly available so folks can cut down the number of steps between wondering how they can use comics to help others and actually doing it in practice.
KB: Comicspedia is really captivating project, and I’m sure it’s a hefty undertaking. How has the professional interest in the project/therapy been?
PO: I’ve had some local schools request more information about it, and some administrators have mentioned they intend to use Comicspedia to help bring comics into the classroom, which I think is absolutely amazing. In the end, reading is reading, and if you have a child who hates to read, what better person than Batman or Spider-Man to get them interested? As for clientele, I’ve only had the experience of curiosity and intrigue when I offer it. There have been cases when it hasn’t helped as much as I predicted, but clients generally tell me they enjoy it and were glad they did it.
KB: I’m actually in school for English/Secondary Ed., and I’ve been passing Comicspedia around to some of my more “nerd-friendly” professors and colleagues.
PO: Great! I think it’s tragic that comic book readers have seemingly become marginalized. It’s just an enjoyable experience, and the stories are just as powerful as any traditional novel. One of my favorites for personal enjoyment is Invincible, particularly because Robert Kirkman is so skilled at developing characters the reader cares about. I feel like I really know all the characters in that series, which is another great example of how people can really connect with comics. Part of what got Comicspedia rolling in the early days of development was my own growing fascination with characters and their stories. I realized it wouldn’t be something that would feel forced in sessions – people spend just 15 minutes reading something, and suddenly they’re acutely aware of who everyone is, what their relationships are like, and how the client’s own life may be mirrored in that book. In other words, I realized very quickly that comics are awesome, and VERY under-utilized in a myriad of settings where they can be such powerful tools.
KB: I’m also in love with the physical layout of Comicspedia, by the way. I’ve never seen a tiddly wiki before, and I think it’s such a neat layout, so props for having something unique.
PO: Thanks! TiddlyWiki is a great bit of software. It’s so easy to use, I can’t take any credit for the project’s organization and design – TiddlyWiki does all of that for me. I get a title box, text box, and tag box every time I make an entry. I think it was originally designed for web journals or blogs, but it’s wonderful for creating a reference.
KB: What’s the future like for the project? Have you thought about branching out from single issues to focus more on stuff like graphic novels or movies? Any plans for new therapy activities?
PO: I would love to expand Comicspedia to include non-superhero characters as well as branch into graphic novels; however, its current focus and design seems most practical. Superheroes are very widely recognized and loved already. Part of my opening questions when meeting a client for the first time is, “Who is your favorite superhero?” The practice I work at, Southeast Psych, is heavily decorated with comic book art, comic book covers, mannequins in superhero costumes, movie posters, etc. so it’s not too strange of a question. Our nameplates on each of our offices are even caricatures of each clinician as their superhero of choice!
Anyway, non-superheroes would be great to bring into sessions where the client may already have a rich background of reading comics. Currently, I don’t get too many people like that walking in, so I think I’m going to stick to superheroes for a while. Regarding graphic novels – the nice thing about individual issues is they take just 15 minutes to read in the session. Also, I’ve had clients read specific chapters out of graphic novels or major story arcs (Batman Hush, X-Men Second Coming) and then they go out and buy the collected edition and read ahead on their own. I feel like I have a bit more control over the pace of the process when I have individual issues because it would take a bit more effort on the client’s part to seek out so many issues.
Specifically regarding plans for the future, I intend to present Comicspedia at some conferences over the course of the next 12 – 18 months. I also intend to give parenting talks on how superheroes can help parents connect with their kids. I would love to conduct research into using comics in therapy, but that would probably be the biggest hurdle to jump given the amount of time and resources such projects require.
Also, Southeast Psych has an in-house web studio where clinicians film and upload free videos on a variety of topics related to psychology. It’s called Southeast Psych Studios and is located at www.southeastpsychstudios.com. Over the next month or two, I will be doing twice-monthly 5 – 7 minute shows on specific comics that would be great to use in classroom or home settings for a variety of reasons, so keep an eye out for that!
KB: That does it for all of my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add in?
PO: I don’t think so! People are always welcome to email me if they have questions about the process or anything else.
KB: Thanks a lot for taking this time out to answer my questions, Patrick. I think what you’re doing is absolutely fascinating and I wish you the best of luck in the future.
If you’re interested in Patrick or his work, here’s a handy list of ways to keep tabs and get in touch with him:
E-mail: email@example.comFacebook: ComicspediaTwitter: ComicspediaGoogle+: Comicspedia