bernardin’s new book hits me with a personal failing

This week saw the release of Marc Bernardin’s graphic novel Adora and the Distance, a fifteen-years-in-the-making adventure story about a young girl running away from an amorphous monster called The Distance, and the first thing to say about the book is that it’s good, almost transcendently good, and that it leaves you with an emotionally stirring lightness of foot that I think is unique to stories that’re carefully measured, in tone and in pace, so that the emotional blow hits hardest in the final act, then breathes for a bit, and gets capped with a beautiful final sentence or frame (in this case a panel).

The second thing to mention is that the book is a tribute to his daughter, Sophie, who at the age of two was diagnosed with autism and whose condition is explored here in a kind of sprawling metaphor that the reader can either grapple with or not. 

It is, in the end, a friendly book, and you’re welcomed to read it as you please.

Bernardin co-hosts a podcast with Kevin Smith called Fatman Beyond where they talk about pop culture, mainly comic book culture and film, and what makes Bernardin such a great straight-man to Smith’s more nakedly yuk-yuk whimsy on the topic is that Bernardin butters his bread these days by writing for television, a medium where storytellers are tasked with very clear and strict expectations. 

Any given episode has to follow a certain structure and, since production’s pricey, every scene has to accomplish something: it has to advance the story, flesh out a character, and ideally tackle a theme. 

It’s the kinda job that trains a writer to jockey three different horses in three different races so that they all reach the finish line at once. 

And, in his newest book Adora, Bernardin brings those talents to bear. 

Sticking with the horse metaphor: you’re free to choose your track.

First, you can read Adora as an exploration of autism’s interior. 

Young Adora’s adventures, in that respect, are metaphors about her therapy and the travails of navigating a world that, though just barely manageable for those of us who aren’t on the spectrum, may just as well be packed with razor-sharp grass and pirates and volcanoes to someone who is.

That’s one way to read it.

Or, since Adora is joined in her adventure by a team of guardians, some of whom die in the process, or make terrible mistakes with the best of intentions, you can read the story as a parable about how, for one thing, it takes a whole team to raise a disabled child; parents and teachers and tutors and doctors; but also, more pointedly, it’s a story about the special sacrifices inherent to those who provide love and care for a person with disabilities. It’s a story, by extension, about the need not only to leave the comforts of home, of regular life, but to abandon your luggage along the way so that your team is left, finally, with just the clothes on your back, the company of one another, and the songs you might sing to lift each other (metaphorically but also literally–there’s a genie in this book, and razor grass, among other things).

That’s another way to read it..

Still a third way you can read Adora and the Distance is that it’s a story about a kid on the run who gets in adventures. 

And therein resides the layering that makes it not only the kind of story that gratifies its reader with narrative, with insight and emotional power, but also with the sort of nuance that rewards re-reading. 

A re-reading that, given my own experiences with the autism spectrum, will be sooner than usual.

I’m currently working my final semester in a community college tutoring center where I’d say one in twenty students are on the autism spectrum. For some, it’s severe, and we can hardly make a dent in their assignment, while for others it’s just a muddying filter that makes the work a bit more challenging. 

My sessions coaching these students through an essay or outline is a vector of struggle and triumph and discouragement and warmth and motivation and humor (sometimes intentional, sometimes not). As vivid as any other social encounter I’ll have that day.

And that’s in a 30-minute or one-hour session.

Probably the most impressionable experience I’ve had in my seven years at the tutoring center is working with a student who, sitting beside his endlessly patient father, slapped himself, and looked up at the ceiling as though toward colorful bugs that no one else could see, chirping the word “homework” over and over, high-pitched and fretful, while his dad–a white-bearded Cuban guy like my own, probably his early 60s–called the young man “sweetheart,” and directed his attention again and again to the page, and tried to reel from him just a few solid sentences about the essay topic at hand.

Driving home that night I left the radio off and stared less at the road than at the windshield. It was one of those rides where you pull into your driveway and blink a few times and pray you didn’t kill anyone en route. The question that kept pretzeling my brain is whether the kid’s father was delusional or heroic (or both) by enrolling his barely-verbal son in community college. I was wondering how I would handle the issue if I were in his shoes. Would I, as this kid’s father, just resign myself to the notion that my son will never get a higher education? Should a parent at least try to help them through, even if the odds are stacked so high against them? Or is that selfish, the parent trying to prove that their child is more capable than the world wants to suggest? 

At what point does a parent look at a child’s abilities, their achievements, and say, “I’ll push no further. We’ll camp here, and look for joy”?

While driving home that night I imagined a semester of triangular tutoring sessions, the student and his father and me, huddling over notebooks, conjuring essays at the rate of a sentence an hour. The daydream was vivid and terrifying not for its prospect of tedium but because the scenario would force me to confront the kind of everyday hardship that’s made so terrifying, in part, because it’s so seldom written about.

But that didn’t happen. 

The student and his dad never came back.

What I realized, in reading Adora, is that what I describe to myself as an encounter with a person on the autism spectrum was really an encounter with that person’s dad. I wasn’t thinking about the thoughts and feelings of the student with autism, I was thinking about his experience through the prism of his parents’ struggle.

Rather than sympathizing for what a challlenge this class would impose on the student, I was thinking of how the student’s challenge was going to become his parents’. 

I’m not thrilled to admit it but, in that case, I don’t think I was looking at the student as a person. I was conceptualizing him as a challenge around which other people need to orient their lives.

It’s a rare and somewhat shamefaced praise to give to a book, and one about which I might regret being so vocal, but here it is:

Bernardin’s book has shown me that, if only in my mind, I’ve got a tendency to de-humanize.

My experience in working with students on the spectrum, trying to anchor their focus on the assignment at hand, is a social one.

But, in many respects, I approach our sessions as puzzles. 

Slide a tile this way or that, see if a picture coheres, if it registers. 

When the spectrum student’s mind wanders from the task, I leap immediately toward reeling it back, and never ask myself where their imagination wandered to, never try to explore it. 

I never, in other words, considered the destination of their imaginative wandering; all I’ve ever thought about (often irritably) was the point of departure, which is the assignment at hand, the thing we need to get done.

What I’m saying is that the book prompted some introspection. That now, being done with a preliminary reading, there’s another quiet drive ahead of me.

Much as I’ve appreciated his company over the past few years, I’ve never taken the initiative to go watch a production of one of Bernardin’s scripts (he’s written for Hulu’s Castle Rock, among other series)–although I guess that’s partly because, when it comes to TV, a writer’s talents are filtered through so many other variables: the director, the set, the cast, the budget. It would feel insincere to watch an episode he’d written and then tell myself, “Yep, he’s a good writer, I can see it.” 

There’s an artist and colorist on Adora‘s production team (Ariela Kristantina and Bryan Valenza, respectively), people whose vision and talents tangle with Bernardin’s to create something different from whatever existed in his head as he churned out the prose, but for the most part this story is the fruit of Bernardin’s own imagination and heart and labor. And the dude who appears on the page is, to the relief of anyone who might’ve wondered, not just a hawk-eyed critic and scholar of other people’s stories, but a first-class teller of his own.

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