Parkinson’s and me…

This interview is by DANIEL BEST and ran in the recently released magazine of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association, Inkspot #101 (Summer/Autumn 2024). It’s reprinted here with permission of the author. You can read more from Daniel at his recently launched Substack page.

Gary Chaloner: Parkinson’s and me

Interview by DANIEL BEST

Gary Chaloner knew that there was something very wrong with his body in March 2020. While everyone else in the country was dealing with the pandemic, he was dealing with the beginnings of something far worse…

Never a fast artist, but a meticulous one, he noticed that his hand would become tired and begin to shake after a session at the drawing board. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t work around, and he was well into the relaunch of Adventure Illustrated along with his other, extra-curricular activities, which included working at MONA. Then he went gardening. 

“I had a bit of a gardening session pulling out a huge pile of blackberry, and I thought I’d overdone it because after that session, when I had a shower and stuff, the arm started vibrating a little bit and I thought, ‘oh well I’ve overdone it, it’ll go in a couple of hours,'” Chaloner recalls, “but it didn’t go. It started to persist.”

Chaloner then visited the doctor. The doctor was significantly concerned enough to send him to a neurologist for further tests. It took twelve months for the final diagnosis to come in and it wasn’t good news.

Chaloner has Parkinson’s Disease.

The internet tells us that: ‘Parkinson’s disease occurs when the nerve cells in your brain don’t make enough of a body chemical called dopamine, which affects your movement and mood. Common symptoms may include tremors, muscle stiffness, slowing of movement and posture changes.’

A good example of what Parkinson’s does to a person has been shown by actor Michael J. Fox or Muhammad Ali. The tremors will get worse and, for an artist who needs his fine motor skills, the future is bleak, art-wise. For Gary Chaloner, the prognosis is not good, there is no known cure. Medication and physical therapy will help, but the symptoms will get worse, and, eventually, he will no longer be able to draw.

Gary Chaloner with his Stanley Award for Comic Book Artist of the Year (2023). Photo: ACA

After the initial shock wore off, Chaloner knew that he had to find a way to work with this. He had finished Adventure Illustrated #1 and was gearing up for the second issue.

The tremors didn’t affect Chaloner’s art in those preliminary stages as he worked around it by taking breaks and adjusting his schedule. Medication also assisted in keeping things under control. It did slow him down though, and the tremors got worse. Something had to change. 

Used to working at his own pace, Chaloner now found that the mornings were the best time to get his art done.

“After I sleep at night, my brain still produces a certain amount of dopamine and so I’m topped up in the morning,” he explains. “In the mornings it’s easier for me to control a pen than it is as the day progresses and my arm gets tired, and the day and my brain uses up all the dopamine that I have in my system and I’m more reliant on the pills.

“You’ve got to wait for that to kick in and in the afternoon that it can be up and down based on the levels of dopamine that the pills create in your body,” he says.

“As far as the drawing routine goes, I’ve limited it now. I get all of my quality drawing done in the morning, like inking the close fine work and in the afternoons, if I have time, I can do loose layouts, ideas, typing emails and doing all the other admin stuff I need to do.

“Even that is dictated by how tired I get, because the pulsing Parkinson’s disease gives you is just very tiring,” Chaloner says. “In the morning I’m resilient and fresh, but by the late afternoon invariably I get very tired and need to have a break and pace myself a bit more.”

For Chaloner, it’s all about listening to what his body tells him.  

“Unfortunately, as an artist drawing, cartooning and doing fine inking work plays against having Parkinson’s because it’s a nerve-controlled disease,” he says. “It is counterintuitive, but what I’m trying to do is maintain control of a pen and brushes to do fine work when really the Parkinson’s is saying, no, you can’t control that fine work anymore. Go and lie down for a while and come back and try again a little bit later.

“There’s a whole swag of assistance tools that you can get for Parkinson’s. I’ve tried some of them, but none of them really work,” Chaloner adds. “It hasn’t got so bad yet where I need to have any kind of specialist tools yet.” Chaloner did try a pen holder splint that slipped over his finger, but he found it restrictive, and so he discarded it.

The idea of Chaloner going down the road of creating his artwork digitally and giving up drawing physically isn’t on the cards just yet. As he explains, he is slow enough when it comes to producing art, and having to totally readjust his approach to go digital would slow it down further.

What does the future hold for Chaloner? After a period of doubt, after a period of readjustment, he is in a good place. He knows his limitations, and he knows exactly how to work around that. There will come a time, in the future, when he will have to stop drawing entirely, but, hopefully, that time is a fair distance in the future, “when good friends will turn to me and say, ‘that last drawing you did was shit. Put your pens down.’

“If there was something that did get out there on a regular basis, I would be hoping that I’d be made aware of it quickly to lift your game or get out. Then I would just stop drawing,” Chaloner says. “I’d just write more and do more things for other artists to work on. I’d still be creative. It’d just be less artwork and more prose.”

The day will come when Gary Chaloner, one of the best comic book artists that Australia has produced in the past fifty years, will put his pens down for the last time. When that time comes, he will do it knowing that he has given everything he can, right to the end. And the art scene will be a poorer place when that day comes.

My thanks to Gary Chaloner for his time and assistance with this article. Adventure Illustrated #2 is available now, and Adventure Illustrated #3 is in the works. He is also working on new The Jackaroo stories for a relaunch of the comic in 2024/25, the 40th anniversary of the character. DB

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