The Pass Me By graphic novel series considers the dementia experience in layers of life and colour
When Kyle Simmers and Ryan Danny Owen started working on the five-part Pass Me By graphic novel series, they knew that complicated work lay ahead. Though Simmers had worked on a few pages from 2015 to 2017, the project took its full form when Owen came aboard in the summer of 2017. They wanted to tell the story of Ed, a queer man in his 70s living with dementia, and they wanted to do it in a way that properly reflected that Ed was a complicated person no more defined by his dementia than any other part of himself.
“[Pass Me By] is a split narrative between Ed’s experience in contemporary life dealing with this disease — and family and agency and control — and then, back in the 1970s, when he went on tour with a glam rock band, sort of subverting your expectations of this bachelor living in a rural Canadian context,” says Simmers.
A visual artist whose pronouns are “they” and “them,” Simmers was inspired to create Pass Me By based on their own experiences growing up in a small town where they remember both a lot of joy and also the pain of not fitting in. Shortly after Simmers’s grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, they began an early version of Pass Me By to help channel their feelings through art.
It was around this time that Simmers met Owen through the Alberta College of Art + Design (now Alberta University of the Arts), where they were both students. Owen was dealing with illness in his own family — his mother’s cancer diagnosis — and wound up helping to storyboard and write dialogue for Pass Me By. In July 2018, the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance the project. At the end of the 30-day campaign they had raised $9,131 — nearly double the $5,000 goal. The following February, the Pass Me By series was picked up by Alberta-based Renegade Arts Entertainment for publication and distribution.
As artists and writers, the collaborators were naturally drawn to the way visual storytelling can communicate differently than text-only works.
The key narrative device that makes Pass Me By unique is its use of colour. Aside from the requisite white, the only colours in the story are pink and teal rendered in different vibrancies, depending on the context. In their most simplistic function, the two colours indicate to the reader when Ed feels confidently cognizant or connected to a memory (pink) and when he’s feeling confused or frightened (teal).
As the creators strived to avoid reducing Ed to a diagnosis alone, they also avoided one-dimensional portrayals of memory. Plenty of frames make use of both colours in keeping with the fact that dementia experiences aren’t a binary of clear and foggy, good and bad, or any other polarized spectrum. The colour system also allowed the story to remain focused on Ed’s experiences and not become dominated by those around him.
“A lot of times, dementia narratives [become] about those who fall into caretaker roles. The person dealing with dementia a lot of times ends up losing the dignity of being a character in themselves,” says Simmers. “We really wanted to look at how that would feel to start to lose your faculty over yourself and not reduce Ed down to a victim.”
The first of the five-part Pass Me By series, Gone Fishin’, is available now through Renegade Arts Entertainment and both Simmers and Owen are hard at work on the next instalment. [ ]