A few weeks ago I came across the webcomic ADHD Alien and was immediately hooked. The strips center on what life is like with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder but it’s relatable to anyone who’s struggled with indecision, depression, impostor syndrome, or a dozen other emotions every human feels.
I’m really glad that the series’ artist Pina Varnel was interested in doing an interview about ADHD Alien. It was an extremely honest and insightful discussion. Read what had to say about the genesis of the strip, its quick popularity, and building a career as a cartoonist.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a cartoonist?
My art is mainly influenced by the animation industry, but one of my biggest comic influences is Nagata Kabi. After reading her book My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness I was blown away by the fact that you could write about your experiences and that it didn’t necessarily have to be fictional. Her works showed me that there are topics that everyone experiences, yet are hardly ever talked about. I also love Bastien Vivès and his expressive linework.
What kinds of comics did you make prior to ADHD Alien?
ADHD Alien is my first comic! I drew the odd comic to make my family and friends laugh, but I always considered myself to be a bad writer and not very good at words, especially coming up with fictional stories. After reading Nagata’s book, I actually started narrating my experiences and emotions in my head as if it was a comic. This, going to therapy, and learning to voice my experiences is what enabled me to write.
What inspired you to begin making comics about your experience with ADHD?
I was diagnosed in 2018 after my life was falling to pieces and I was about to lose my dream job, my first job as an artist for Feature Animation. After starting medication, I was shocked by how much my quality of life improved and started questioning why I was so afraid to seek out help and try medication. I became resentful towards people in general, blaming them for making me believe that seeking help and medical treatment was a shameful, dangerous thing.
Since the diagnosis, I was confronted by so many people denying the existence of ADHD. I got so mad that I got up one night at 4 am and just started drawing comics in order to voice my emotions.
What’s your process for creating the ADHD Alien comics? Do you start by writing a script or go straight to the drawing board?
All comics are pretty much based on my reflections and what I call “therapy homework”. If I struggle with something, I write out how I feel and try to pinpoint where the problem started and how I can stop it. This leads to some really big revelations about my life. I then go and read up on other people’s experiences about these struggles, trying to find something I relate to.
Then, I look at what the research and medical field say about this and finally I take all of these notes and turn them into scripts. That means the scripts are usually 1:1 my thoughts. Sometimes I have an image in my head, sometimes just the text. I actually made myself a blueprint sheet where I can thumbnail and write the script down.
Has the response from readers to your work been gratifying?
The response to my comic has been insane! I never would have thought that so many people could resonate with what I considered to be the most shameful moments of my life. I do get the odd hate or ADHD denier but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I get so many emails and DMs from people writing how my comics have changed their lives that I can’t even answer them all. It’s incredibly surreal.
Has ADHD Alien helped you manage your own ADHD?
Yes! I still struggle more than people assume I do. I was in a very bad spot when I got diagnosed and I took the diagnosis even worse. But ever since making the comic, I think I’ve been more positive and self-accepting than I’ve ever been before. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this much positive feedback for just being myself, and I’m just so happy right now. And, of course, I am even more motivated to look into and to try out new coping strategies.
Do you share your comics with people in your own life to help them understand you better?
I hesitated for a few months before showing the comics to anyone I know personally. I write about the people around me or situations that people have seen me in, but I never let anyone know how much I struggled. I usually don’t open up and talk about these things because I always thought that having these issues was bad to begin with. Now pretty much everyone knows about the comics. But I try to not think about the people who could read the comics while I make them. I think that keeps them genuine.
In addition to your comics, are there any other resources or educational tools related to ADHD you’ve found helpful?
Oh yes! I have to thank Jessica McCabe from How to ADHD for giving me the courage to seek a diagnosis with her great Youtube Videos. Dr. Russel Barkley was monumental in helping me understand a lot about myself. Also, Erynn Brooks and artist Dani Donovan regularly post incredible insight into the daily life with ADHD over Twitter!
You recently quit your day job and made comics your full-time profession. What made you decide to take that step?
I actually had a low but reliable freelance income with loyal clients, but it got to a point where I couldn’t sustain drawing for work during the day and drawing the comic deep into the night anymore. I felt the comic would be the next step in my career, something that could help me evolve and grow more than the freelance work could, and it got to a point where I had to decide.
At the time of deciding to make comics full-time, my income with the comic wasn’t great (especially after a few hundreds in fees and tax’s cut.) But I was overwhelmed by the support I’ve received and the people willing to support me on Patreon to make this work out so I decided to take the plunge.
Do you hope to make comics that are non-biographical at some point?
I actually have something in mind! It will be a while before I have finished work on the ADHD Alien graphic novel so this idea is still in its infant shoes, but until then I might have found the courage to try a fictional story.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].