Agoraphobic artist slays demons through comics

Characters in Kimball Anderson's comics don't battle the villains typical of the genre. They fight an anxiety disorder that can turn the simple act of leaving the house into a frightening ordeal.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
The comic Before We Saw conveys both isolation and hope. Kimball Anderson

Kimball Anderson's comics feature superheroes, but not the kind with capes and X-ray vision. Anderson's superheroes summon extraordinary strength just to do the things most people take for granted -- walking out the front door or making small talk with a neighbor.

Anderson's superheroes, like their creator, suffer from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that can make ordinary situations feel unspeakably terrifying. The characters stare from the page faceless and alone, narrated by text that often expresses worry, self-doubt, and confusion, but also resolve. In addition to anxiety, the 25-year-old Anderson struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome that can cause exhaustion for months at a time, and from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a sometimes-debilitating disease of the autonomic nervous system that can lead to dizziness, muscle weakness, depression, and other symptoms.

Anderson's comic series Inside explores what's it like to be stuck indoors, afraid to go out. (Click to enlarge.) Kimball Anderson

Together, these disabilities make inaction Anderson's primary mode of being -- and also make comics an ideal medium for expressing what's it like to live with them.

"The nature of comics is that they are a series of frozen moments, given life by our desire for narrative," Anderson tells Crave. "I sit and I watch narratives on the TV, read them in comics, but am not part of them. Both the desire for narrative, and that narrative-less, indelible, ambiguous frozen moment speak to me. And I think their interaction has the power to speak to what it's like to really be sick."

"Inside/Outside," a collection of Anderson's art, is currently on display at VSA Massachusett's Open Door Gallery in Boston. The gallery regularly features work by artists with disabilities.

The exhibit, open to the public through November 8, includes Anderson's paintings, as well as panels from the comics Outside Life, not we. not I. but, and I don't get it. The comics range in style from abstract to illustrative, but all explore, with honesty and raw emotional heft, the tension between safety and the desire to overcome fear and limitations.

"Kimball's work is a window onto a profoundly personal world, an intimate revelation of the artist's perspective," says Charlie Washburn, executive director of the Open Door Gallery.

Anderson, who lives with family in a suburb of Boston, grew up on Web comics ("really, in my teen years, the Internet community of Sluggy Freelance was my social life") and cites Aidan Koch and Anthony Cudahy as current favorites in the art comics crowd on Tumblr.

"I would be happy if my comics turned out anything like theirs," says Anderson, who has no formal art training. "There are just a large number of amazing people in the community who do comics that aren't so much about story as just juxtaposition. I feel like I am finding my peers there, even if I am really more story-based than they are."

For now, Anderson is enjoying being featured in an art show, though the public nature of the experience does not come without anxiety. While drawing -- be it comics, landscapes, or even nude self-portraits -- brings a sense of comfort and grounding, "me being in the gallery, that makes me anxious," admits the artist. "Advertising it online, being all social media, that makes me anxious. So much of putting myself out there makes me anxious, but, I think, not the art."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 3.2 million American adults between the ages of 18 and 54 live with agoraphobia. Those with the condition tend to avoid situations that they fear could trigger a panic attack, frequently steering clear of crowded places, such as shopping malls, public transportation, or sports arenas, where they feel immediate escape might be difficult. While a psychiatrist first suggested agoraphobia as a diagnosis when Anderson was 14 or 15, it wasn't until a couple of years later that it became clear to Anderson that "I was scared to go out the door."

"Since I realized it, I have been pushing to get outside, to basically get better," says Anderson, who doesn't take medication for the condition but sees a therapist to work on becoming desensitized to anxiety triggers. "But chronic fatigue syndrome makes it so that I can't really make too large an effort at that."

Yet, despite these challenges, Anderson is working full time to carve a niche as an artist.

"My goals are too art world for the geek community, and too geeky for the art world," Anderson says. "I am in the process of trying to find my audience."

"White," a pencil and ink on watercolor paper, is one of the works on display at the Open Gallery in Boston. Kimball Anderson