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Lessons Learned from Receiving the 2012 Illinois Arts Council Award

A Report on the Results of the Publication of the Award Winning Back Pain Avenger Book and the "Disability in Comics" Research Presentation 
Slippery Start comic illustration from the beginning of the book Back Pain Avenger - Disability in Comics presentation by Joe Chiappetta
In October 2011, I applied (as I often have in years past) for a grant to the Illinois Arts Council, the state agency that supports the advancement of the arts for Illinois residents. In previous years, despite what I thought were compelling proposals about family and parenting in the arts, my bygone applications never made the final cut. For reasons I can only speculate upon, the present application was quite different; my proposal was about gripping disability issues and it was a winner to the tune of a $2,500 award in 2012!

Here is a summary of what I asked for and the outcome of the publishing/research project called Back Pain Avenger / Disability in Comics. It consisted of a nonfiction book with comics, an extensive literature review, disability analysis, and disability research as it pertains to comics and cartoon history. The resulting public presentation to present the research findings took on a life of its own and taught me a thing or two about our fragile yet fascinating human condition.

Comics are an exciting yet non-traditional medium that can educate and inspire people to look past myths and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities and see us for who we really are: valued contributors to society. Living with a disability for decades, it remains important that my creative works not just address this issue as a sidebar--as much of my work has done in the past. Rather with the book, "Back Pain Avenger," my goal was to address disability awareness topics head-on, in a memorable format that gets people talking about issues that matter.

This non-medicated memoir of rehabilitation, "Back Pain Avenger," was promoted, printed in paperback, and also featured as part of a public reading and slide presentation called Disability in Comics. Given that 20% of the United States population has a disability, that 80% of us will experience prolonged back pain our their lifetime, and that comics are a much-loved art form, this is content that appeals to a wide audience. The print book and 60-minute presentation made their world debut at C2E2 (Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo), April 13-15, 2012 at McCormick Place.

Publicizing the Disability in Comics presentation was more time-consuming than originally anticipated, yet the effort paid off in a number of ways. The day before the event, on Saturday April 14th, Chicago Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM WBBM aired an interview with me as a preview of what would be covered in the full presentation.

The official media announcement outlines how the presentation is loaded with bold new disability research essentially relevant to our lives:

Disability in Comics!

Explore the history of characters with disabilities in cartoons and comics spanning 1,000 years! Iron Man, Daredevil, Hulk, Popeye, Civil War Veterans, and ancient kings. What do they all have in common? They all are extraordinary characters with disabilities featured in amazing stories that we love to read about. What do 1 in 5 Americans have in common? Disability. Come to this inspiring presentation celebrating the remarkable history of characters with disabilities in comics. 
This ground-breaking research invigorates those in the fields of disability studies, healthcare, comics history, as well as those in the general public. Rethink the entire history of comics. Based on portions of an award-winning book, The Back Pain Avenger, attend a slideshow that exposes myths and stereotypes about comics characters with disabilities throughout the ages. Discover the intricate connection between comics and disability, where universal truths surrounding disabilities will be revealed in all their cartoon glory.
This Disability in Comics presentation turned out to be a lively educational and inspiring event. My wife, Denise, and I did the presentation together. As we rolled through comics history, I covered the cartoons featuring disability and then she gave additional facts and statistics about each disability covered. 70 people attended including at least 5 people with apparent disabilities and two that were known to be persons with mental illness. The slideshow and talk definitely put fresh material in front of a new audience. Of the 70 attendees, I knew only 10 of them personally; the additional 60 were complete strangers. Most attendees appeared to be mainstream comics fans interested in understanding more about disability matters.

After the presentation there were a few minutes to converse with the attendees who stayed behind to chat. The majority of which expressed congratulations and their enjoyment of this material. A number of them said that the content gave them a lot to think about and that they look forward to being more aware on disability issues, going forward. In fact, we were a bit swamped with favorable comments and questions after the presentation. People seemed to leave the event with a wider appreciation and respect for disability issues--which is exactly what I was aiming for with the project.

Even though I forgot to announce this at the end of our slideshow, many attendees bought a copy of  the book right on the spot just after the presentation finished because they wanted to explore these topics further. What was most encouraging is that the presentation had a great turnout despite going up against some tough competition for that time slot at the convention, with "How to Make a Giant Robot Cartoon," as well as a Star Wars costume panel complete with live Storm Troopers going on at the same time.

Other panels that were also running in the same time slot included "Drawing DC Comics" and the showing of an anime full-length movie screening of "Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker" complete with the voice actors present to discuss the movie thereafter. As if that were not enough competition, one more panel of interest that ran at the same time was "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with David Newell," who was one of the stars on the TV show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." At least one person who I spoke with right before my presentation started said that she was torn between attending Disability in Comics or the Mister Rogers' related event. I told her that she could catch Mister Rogers on reruns, but not me. Perhaps that convinced her to stay.

Due to the interest that has grown from the initial Disability in Comics presentation, a number of libraries have expressed interest in hosting this presentation for their local patrons, perhaps in the future. Moreover, the City of Chicago included the Disability in Comics presentation as part of the official programming for its Access Chicago Fair for People with Disabilities on July 19, 2012 at Navy Pier. Because we moved from the Chicago suburbs to the north side of Chicago that same week, this presentation at Access Chicago was not heavily promoted and to make matters worse, the location of the panel was nowhere near where the rest of Access Chicago was taking place at Navy Pier. Nevertheless, 8 people attended and 4 of those stuck around after the presentation to express their appreciation and talk further about the disability issues brought up.

Changes to the Back Pain Avenger Project

Major changes to this project seemed to fall from the sky--yet all of them made for a better final result. While the first edition of the eBook version of "Back Pain Avenger" was completed in 2011, the print version of "Back Pain Avenger" was projected to be finished at least one month prior to the April 2012 comic convention. In fact, book copies were intended to also be used to promote the Disability in Comics 60-minute presentation, since the presentation is based on material from one of the chapters of the book called "Disability in Comics." However, in finalizing material for the presentation, new findings on the history of characters with disabilities in comics were discovered and the decision was made to extensively revise the book once more.

Therefore, the paperback version of "Back Pain Avenger" was not completed, printed or shipped until just before the convention started. In fact, the books arrived the morning before I was scheduled to go to McCormick Place to set up my booth--talk about cutting it close! Despite the unforeseen delay in the book's completion, the end result led to a much better and more thorough book. Plus, a few previously unidentified errors were also corrected. The extra time allowed more refinement to be added to the main story in "Back Pain Avenger," as well as more development of the bonus features in the book. Specific enhancements to the "Back Pain Avenger" book that were a direct result of the extra time as well as the Illinois Arts Council Award include the following:
  • A stronger conclusion with disability industry projections and recommendations was added to the "Disability in Comics" chapter.
  • More amazing characters with disabilities were discovered that are over 100 years old, making the book and presentation much deeper.
  • The book cover was completely redrawn and revised to be more heroic in representing the rehabilitation process and its connection to family.
  • The amount of comics added to the book's end feature, "Silly Daddy 20th Anniversary Comics," was doubled.
  • The book's table of contents was reformatted into the shape of a spine.
  • Three amazing back-up articles were written and added to the book: one by my daughter Maria, one by my wife, and one by Jillian Moyet on mental illness.
Onsite at the C2E2 convention, for two and a half days leading up to the Disability in Comics presentation, 800 postcards were handed out to C2E2 attendees, mostly by my son, who was bold as a lion. Having a 10' x 10' corner booth well-situated toward the front of C2E2 also allowed the presentation to be discussed and promoted in conversation with hundreds of those passing by. At the booth prior to the event, two additional media interviews were conducted with Chicago's FM News 101.1 as well as with the website

Future Impact of the Award on my Career and Professional Life

Due to the complete fascination that I have for the history of disability in comics, I have begun an even deeper artistic dive into this history and am exploring the possibility of expanding this presentation into a semester-long college or high school disability studies course. The literature review for the current project was moderately comprehensive, yet I'm sure there are more disability/comics discoveries just waiting to be found in our rich history. In fact, for my 1-hour presentation at the C2E2 event, there were 93 slides covered. Since then, I have assembled more than 425 slides for a more comprehensive study into the amazing topic of Disability in Comics.

This idea would not have been possible without the Illinois Arts Council Grant, which gave me the start-up funds and extra prestige to present this in places that normally would not have given disability issues as much attention.