By Joe Tash
Jon Ascher’s new graphic novel, “Neil,” is full of ups and downs, much like the author’s own life.
The book’s protagonist is a young man trying to find his place in the world. Along the way, he struggles with drug addiction, paranoia and suicidal thoughts. At the end, he must choose between jumping into the void, or embracing love.
In Ascher’s case, adversity came in the form of multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis he received at age 16. At one point, the neurological disorder left him temporarily blinded and unable to practice his main passion in life, drawing.
Ascher, a Torrey Pines High School graduate who spent his childhood in New York and his teenage years in Carmel Valley, worked on the book for 10 years. The main character is loosely based on a high school friend who actually committed suicide, said Ascher, but the 110-page book is a work of fiction that showcases his talents as an illustrator.
“It’s kind of a psycho-drama, but it’s also a black comedy. It’s dark but it’s pretty funny at the same time’” said Ascher, 34, who now lives in Oregon with his girlfriend and infant daughter.
Devon Devereaux, who published the book in July under his Cackling Imp Press imprint, compared the work to an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the 1960s science fiction TV series that starred Rod Serling.
But it’s also a project near and dear to Ascher’s heart, who meticulously painted every page of the book on 20-by-30-inch panels.
“No matter what he does after this, I don’t think he’ll ever create anything as close to his heart as this book was,” said Devereaux, who is also a close friend of Ascher’s. “If you read through it you can see the love he put into it, you can tell it’s an honest piece of work.”
The book’s pages chronicle Neil’s story as he wanders along a sort of mental tightrope between fantasy and reality, and sanity and craziness. The illustrations also vary from dark and disturbing to a two-page panel in which Neil and his girlfriend admire a sunset above a cityscape painted in deep purples, pinks and splashes of sky blue.
Ascher began drawing as a toddler, he said, and knew by high school that he wanted to pursue a career in art. After high school, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and graduated in 1999.
He then went to work as a digital illustrator for a San Diego web design company, but had to stop working after several serious MS attacks. He began receiving a disability pension, and also worked on his graphic novel.
While he is able to walk on his own, the disease has left him with short-term memory loss, a speech impediment and balance problems, Ascher said. He also suffers from bouts of fatigue.
“It’s all stuff I can live with and function with, but it’s a little unpredictable,” said Ascher, who hasn’t had a severe MS attack since 2003.