Story & Art by Nagata Kabi
Translated by Jocelyne Allen
Adapted by Lianne Sentar
Lettering & Retouch by Karis Page & Gwen Silver
Cover Design by Nicky Lim
Edited by Jenn Grunigen
Nagata Kabi’s fourth book finds her at a crossroads both in terms of her physical health and her manga career. Kabi talked a lot about her dependency on alcohol in her last book and mentioned trying to wean off of it after her last hospital trip, and unfortunately, Alcoholic Escape depicts her going through a relapse so severe it resulted in her being hospitalized for nearly three weeks for severe pancreatitis and fatty liver. In reflecting on how she got there, Kabi recognizes that her alcoholism and her artist’s block were intrinsically tied. As much as My Alcoholic Escape from Reality is a chronicle of Kabi reconciling her relationship with alcohol and the effect it’s had on her physical health, it’s also a story about her growth as an artist. It represents a turning point and serves as an artist’s statement for Kabi as she realizes what motivates her to draw and what message she’s trying to communicate to the world, finding a sense of pride and purpose in her work.
My Alcoholic Escape from Reality represents a shift in style and tone from Kabi’s previous memoirs and distinguishes itself in a number of key ways, chief among them her art itself. Kabi’s art is incredibly expressive and her linework feels a lot looser and more confident, and even her coloring feels a bit bolder albeit messier, often bleeding outside her lines. I get the impression from her strokes that she used a marker to color this book, which may explain both the bold and uneven quality. Her hatchwork on page 26 also stands out to me, establishing the uncomfortable vibe of the doctor telling her about the consequences of worst-case pancreatitis. These choices highlight Kabi experimenting with her style, trying to find the most comfortable and effective ways to express herself through her art.
While My Solo Exchange Diary ultimately veered into a very minimalist style, often askewing backgrounds, Alcoholic Escape features very detailed environments and a tangible sense of space whether we’re in Kabi’s hospital room or the grocery store. Moreover, she experiments with more dynamic camera angles and perspectives in her panels, with the POV shot of her looking up at her doctor in the very first panel and the bird’s eye shot looking down at her after she’s been discharged from the hospital, leaves fluttering around her, being particularly striking visuals. She also plays around with the language of comics storytelling in interesting ways. For instance, page 17 makes clever use of the panel border to shape the top as if it were the edge of a thought balloon, framing the previous pages, recounting Kabi’s story of becoming an alcoholic, as something she’s thinking about while laying on the hospital bed. Kabi’s art has always felt emotionally intimate and evocative, and this book is the strongest showcase of her range and depth as an artist so far. Major props should also be given to the lettering and retouch team for evoking a hand-drawn aesthetic that compliments Kabi’s art so well to the point you could mistake it for being her own.
Of course, the most blatant artistic difference is the book’s orange color palette, whereas her previous book used pink hues. Contrary to what one might expect, it doesn’t seem like Kabi purposefully chose this color for an intended purpose. She revealed in her recent interview at TCAF that her publisher simply thought the color she chose for the cover looked orange, so they color graded the entire book to match, and Kabi simply approved their choice. To begin with, she’d only used pink as her go-to color in her previous books because when she first started drawing Lesbian Experience on pixiv she just happened to have a pink pencil crayon on her desk, and she’d just kept going with it to stay consistent.
That said, even if the color wasn’t chosen with a purpose or an intent, the orange tones do characterize Alcoholic Escape differently than the previous books. I feel like the previous books’ pink tones presented a more comforting aesthetic. The color pink evoked and reflected Kabi’s desire for warmth and love, evoking an almost dreamlike quality to the art as Kabi deep-dived into her own emotions and feelings. In contrast, the orange palette of this book helps characterize the more sickly and uncomfortable physical experiences Kabi has. As a duller, muddier color, it’s less evocative of abstract feelings so much as tangible sensations. Consequently, it helps ground this story more in the reality of what is happening to Kabi’s body and in her life. Kabi may’ve not intended the color choice to have this influence on how the reader interprets the book, but make no mistake, the orange color tones definitely compliment and accurately characterize the tone and content of this story.
The effect of the orange hues complements Kabi’s shift in focus from describing her emotional strife to her physical condition. As a whole, Kabi’s works are characterized by the exploration of her pain. Her previous works explored her battle with loneliness and her quest for love and how various traumas have affected her mental health. While she does come back to that theme by the end of this book, this story is more focused on her fraught stay at the hospital and the lingering consequences of her alcoholism on her physical health. Rather than fixating on how these events made her feel emotionally, she hones in on describing her physical pains and labors in visceral detail.
Kabi’s a genius in personifying and symbolizing abstract concepts in recognizable and tangible forms. She depicts her stomach pains as sea urchins writhing around inside of her body, poking and stabbing her whenever she moved. She personifies her fever, nausea, pancreatitis, and fatty liver in the form of cutesy mascots whose cartoony appearance belies their severity in a morbidly humorous way. That choice, however, is a notable shift in Kabi’s approach and perspective on her pain compared with her previous works. Alcoholic Escape is a surprisingly funny book as Kabi recounts her fraught hospital life, replete with terrible food, weird neighboring patients, ineffective painkillers, neglectful or uncommunicative doctors, and the annoying inescapable IV that she always had to have on her even when she left the hospital. By personifying her demons in childish forms, and by finding the humor in her arduous experiences, she removes the power these events and ailments have over her. They don’t have to be seen as these scary, daunting problems, but as slight inconveniences that she can understand and make peace with.
Kabi expands on this approach to her physical condition to her overarching emotional issues, allowing herself to find more clarity and confidence in how she wants to address them. Kabi’s alcoholism was fueled by the guilt, responsibility, and pressure she felt from publishing her previous works. Not only is she hyper-concerned about not inadvertently hurting her parents again by writing about their personal lives, but she’s also worried about disappointing her readers because she’s still struggling with her physical and mental health and are afraid people will disparage her for continuing to write about the problems she’s having and be unsympathetic to her plight, instead blaming her for incurring her situation through her own irresponsibility and negligence. Rather than confront these fears, she tried to run away from them. She decided to abstain from publishing another autobiographical manga, believing writing fiction manga was the only path forward to make her parents and readers happy.
Her concern for what others might think or how she might hurt them haunts her, preventing her from expressing herself freely. Her choice to do only fiction manga becomes a suffocating restriction that stifles her creativity, leading to artist’s block. Consequently, she created more stress and guilt for herself, creating a bigger problem she turned to alcohol to escape from. Instead, she found herself at a dead-end and lost the ability to freely enjoy something she relied on for comfort and validation. However, in that loss and in through her pain, Kabi finds meaning in her experiences and a renewed understanding of her wants and desires as both a person and artist.
By becoming unable to drink, Kabi’s able to have perspective and clarity on the choices she’s made and why she made them. She’s also able to see outside herself and reflect on helpful messages from other people. One of the most striking, brilliant parts of her journey in this book is how she becomes inspired by another person’s autobiographical essay, which completely reframes her perspective on writing memoirs. Much like how Kabi’s readers have been helped by reading her story, Kabi is helped by someone articulating their experiences and being honest about themselves. She recognizes that sharing your pain is not a shameful thing, and in fact, it’s among the few values of the experience. This realization gives Kabi both clarity and a sense of purpose in what she’s trying to communicate in her art.
Kabi finds both meaning in her pain and lessons to learn from her experiences, and moreover, she understands that she has a viewpoint that other people can appreciate and resonate with. It feels like she’s truly self-actualized and has become aware of the power her stories hold and the responsibility she has as an artist to write those stories with purpose and a point to make. She grapples with the blurred lines of her actual life and what she depicts in the manga, and the meta-narrative of depicting the process of drawing the very manga the reader is reading. As odd as it is to say this about a memoir, Kabi writes in a very self-aware way of how her comic will be perceived by readers and what ideas she’s trying to get across in her story. There’s even a meta aspect of her commenting on the actions of her past self or her future self interacting with her past self. She also addresses concerns readers may have about her intentionally self-harming herself for story material, showing that even though those thoughts may cross her head, she knows that is both irresponsible and not the message she wants to send to her readers.
Kabi opens her heart in this book and so viscerally explores her pain to make a point about perseverance and hope. A particularly poignant encapsulation of this theme comes when Kabi is lamenting to her mother about being forbidden to drink alcohol or eat sweets and having to be medicated for the rest of her life. Her mother remarks that Kabi is thinking of her situation in a defeatist way, and reframes it more positively; so long as Kabi stays abstinent and medicated, she’ll live a long and healthy life. Rather than thinking of this as the end of a chapter in her life, she realizes that it’s really the beginning of a new one.
Kabi’s self-actualization makes the ending of this book particularly powerful. My Alcoholic Escape from Reality is portrayed as only one chapter of Kabi’s life, and the final page sees her literally draw it to a close while looking back towards the reader with a smile. That she draws herself confronting what she was afraid to face head-on, her readers, while accompanied by the personifications of her illnesses is such a wonderful sign of her growth and maturity. She has made peace with herself and has embraced her pain and anxieties as part of who she is, and is no longer ashamed of letting people know about them.
If there’s one takeaway readers should glean from her story above all else, besides not becoming an alcoholic, it’s that you should always keep your head high and never run from your problems. You can’t move forward if you’re always looking back or down; you must keep your head up and look towards the future, and make an effort to get there even if it’s just one step at a time. Nagata Kabi’s story is only just beginning, and even if it may take a long time to tell, she’s inviting us to follow her along the journey. I admire her courage and appreciate her bravery in trailblazing a path forward for others to follow in embracing and taking ownership of their mental and physical health. I’m also grateful for Seven Seas and translator Joceylne Allen’s empathetic localization of Kabi’s works that has allowed English readers to understand and resonate with her story so strongly. Alcoholic Escape may at times be a hard and uncomfortable read, but as readers, we must understand and respect that it’s so much harder for Kabi to write and reveal herself so vulnerably to us, and the least we can do is empathize with her struggle and cheer her on as she makes strides forward in her quest for happiness. After all, we can’t escape from reality, only into it.