About five years ago I was unemployed and feeling rather useless, spending my days drawing pictures of awkward men using weird chat-up lines (don't ask – it's an odd life, being a cartoonist).
Around the same time, I came across Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a male suicide prevention charity that offers support through a helpline, events and online articles. I sent them some of my doodles and they very kindly got back to me, suggesting a weekly illustration column featuring unconventional superheroes who celebrated the uncelebrated aspects of men. Thus Disappointman was born, a hero with the power to be endlessly disappointing.
Disappointman dons a cape of inadequacy, wears odd socks as a delusion of luck, and puts on his nautical pants of conviction. He’s a hero who doesn’t fight crime, but struggles to get out of bed. Rather than going against a villain hell bent on world domination, he battles Ennui – an enemy hell bent on stopping Disappointman from leaving the house.
Over time, the column spawned more anti-superheroes. There's Self-Aware Man, who has the power of damning self critique, and in situations of heightened self awareness, transforms into the Self Aware Wolf (bad puns are the foundation of the series); the perpetually out of work Unemployman; and Broadway Boy, who sings and dances about his anxieties (special move: Jazz Hands). Together, they embark on a series of adventures and quests to find out what it means to be a man, via talking cupcakes, awkward musicals and depressive vegetables.
The series is semi-autobiographical. The characters are exaggerated extensions of myself and the situations only slightly more absurd than the reality I encounter. I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a real man, and have always struggled to relate to what are considered to be ‘manly’ things. I was a quiet and emotional child who wasn’t interested in football or cars; I liked Sylvanian Families and novels about warrior rodents. Over the years I was told to stop crying and win at things – the main criteria for being a man. I think masculinity is still measured against such criteria; emotion shows weakness and men need to be strong.
Nowadays, when I find myself on the verge of tears, rather than hold them back I allow myself to succumb to them, because being a man involves being able to accept one’s emotions. Besides, tears contain sodium, the most manly element, and this is what man size tissues have been for all along – to mop up giant manly tears.
Drawing the comic has been a form of catharsis for me, but it’s also made me address my own mental health. It has taught me to open up about my feelings and anxieties, for keeping them bottled up would allow them to fester and grow, to manifest as a super villain intent on destroying my inner world.
Whilst working on Disappointman, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the character himself that was endlessly disappointing, but the expectations thrust upon him. All I can do is continue to try and undermine these expectations by highlighting their absurdity through silly cartoons.
This idea has become the foundation of the drawing workshops that I'm about to start running, in which I invite people to create superheroes who celebrate the uncelebrated aspects of themselves, using humour as a vehicle. I don’t know if the attendees of these courses find the exercise as cathartic as I did, or if we’ll collectively defeat those manly expectations, but I’ll be wearing my odd socks and nautical pants, so here’s hoping.
Chris Sav’s ‘Disappointman’ workshop is part of the National Army Museum’s Masculinity Late, 13 September 2017, 6.30pm, £12 tickets available www.nam.ac.uk