Sharing stories at the intersection of illness and capitalism

Written by Patrick Allaby


I received two Career Development grants to pursue an MFA at the University of Waterloo. During my degree, I was interested in developing comic works that are meant to be performed. One thing that interested me about performing comics is the way in which a text can change and develop through performance, and how meaning is built through that process. In my MFA, I made two works: The Water Lover and Customer Service. Both are auto fictional stories that deal with chronic illness and capitalism. The Water Lover is about being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 22, and Customer Service is about working at a phone call centre for health insurance as I tried to figure out how to be an artist with an expensive illness. The grants helped me afford to go back to school and experiment. For Customer Service, I spent six months on a hand-drawn animation. These comic slideshows take a long time to do and could never have been completed without the stability that artsnb (as well as other funders) offered me.

Slide from The Water Lover, 2018, India ink drawing with digital grey tones
Slide from The Water Lover, 2018, India ink drawing with digital grey tones

I am not a natural performer, and I didn’t come to this out of some sort of natural charisma, so the challenge of these works has really been how to write for a performance. When I write, I often find myself veering towards a pretentious, Nabokovian tone, which I have no capacity to pull off in person. And while my slideshows are not in any way strict autobiography, by working on live performances, I was able to find out what I am willing to have associated with my face and my person, as opposed to what I am ok with someone reading from “Patrick Allaby” in the comfort of their own home. Developing these works through performance has forced me to really learn my own voice.

I just published a printed version of my first slideshow, The Water Lover, with Conundrum Press. I haven’t really been able to perform since the pandemic began (except once outside, and it went terribly), so it has been very satisfying for Conundrum to print and distribute a pandemic-friendly version of this work. This year, I went through old recordings and scripts of The Water Lover to put together something that resembles a definitive version of it.

Illness and capitalism are two of the central themes of my work. The Water Lover has a pretty direct political message, in “Universal Pharmacare now!” I explored the crushing experience of finding out that Canada’s “Universal Healthcare” system didn’t cover the medication that my life depends upon, although it was developed in Canada with the intention of being broadly and freely distributable. I strongly believe that all healthcare should be broadly and freely available to everyone. Our unwillingness to do this causes many people incalculable hardship. On a personal level, a more truly universal healthcare would save me hundreds of dollars a month and give me a stability I have never known since getting diagnosed with diabetes.

The most rewarding aspect of my artistic practice is reaching people and having a conversation. I love performing these works because it is immediately clear if I am succeeding or not.

It’s important for any community, anywhere, to have its own art and culture because it must be able to tell its own stories. The culture industry model, in which culture is being pumped out of one centralized location in southern California, means that the people of the world do not ever get to tell their own stories. It’s important that people tell their own stories which do not fit the narrative arcs of the culture industry. Every person in New Brunswick, and everywhere, should feel comfortable making their own art and telling their own stories.

Panel from Making the Life I Want illustrating a performance of The Water
Lover, 2020. India ink with digital grey tones.

For me, artistic practice is a daily (or near-daily) thing. I always have something I want to talk about, and art is the place where that happens. My ritual is to make whenever I can.

There are so many challenges to being a New Brunswick artist. This is a small province, there’s not much money, and the public is way more excited by what’s happening on Disney+ than in their own back yard. It’s a constant and overwhelming struggle to fight with your peers over scraps. Art should be about possibilities, about making a better world, but so often it feels like a zero-sum game.

While it would not fix everything, implementing the recommendations from the Premier’s Task Force on the Status of the Artist could be a good starting point in making it easier to be an artist in New Brunswick.

Patrick Allaby is a graphic novelist living in Sackville. His work often focuses on illness and capitalism, and their intersection. His first book, Martin Peters, was published by Conundrum Press in 2019. His second, The Water Lover, has been released in May 2021. Both are about living with diabetes. Recently, his work has been included in Taddle Creek magazine, Shorelines (published by Third Space and ACAP), and Fifteen Dreams (published by Sappyfest). He has been making and performing hand-drawn slideshows since 2016 and has performed them across both Atlantic Canada (at Third Shift, Flourish, Sappyfest, Art in the Open, and the Halifax Zine Fair) and the Kitchener area (at UWAG, Idea Exchange, and the Front Room Gallery). He has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Waterloo (2019).

Stay up to date with Patrick’s practice on Social media:

Instagram: @patrickallaby

Twitter: @patallaby


Find The Water Lover at your local bookstore, if not available, purchase it online:

Conundrum Press: The Water Lover