About three-quarters of the way into the tenth installment of Chad Dunning’s “Domestic Sway” comic, the book takes a drastic turn. The panels of lewd cartoons containing references to science fiction and popular culture – along with the crude images of male genitalia – have been put aside for an autobiographical section about the artist’s personal life.
“My name is Chad Dunning,” he wrote. “I’m bi-polar type 1. […] This is the story of my, hopefully, last psychotic break.”
“Riding the Lightening,” as the section is called, delves into this experience in great detail. It was only after his book was printed that the Sioux City cartoonist noticed he misspelled the last word in the title: lightening. He corrected his mistake by finding every instance in which the word is used and crossing out the letter “e” with red pen.
The title refers to a phrase that Dunning’s friend (who is also bi-polar) uses to describe the “maniac phases.” Near the end of the autobiographical piece, Dunning admits the experience can be exhilarating and describes his as “one of the most awesome experiences of my life.” However, he “wouldn’t trade riding the lightening for sanity.”
This autobiographical account, Dunning said, was meant to be released sooner.
“Honestly, I was intending that as something I was going to release with the last CD that I released in the spring,” he said. “I just wanted something quick and easy that I can put out with that. I wrote the story up and never finished it. So this was just me completing that and kind of putting that in this book. It’s actually gotten great reception.”
Dunning illustrated his journey with each snippet of text. While not as overtly humorous from his usual work, the images often reveal the state of mind Dunning is feeling at that time. The drawings of his delusions and hallucinations are the most telling.
In the book, Dunning laughs and cries hysterically while riding his bike to his art space; he nonchalantly calls his friends and tells them he’s found Jesus; he believes he’s developed super powers and can heal people; he gets in trouble with police officers and witnesses the opening of a stargate; he set out on a mission of peace carrying a drawing of a peace sign while walking along Gordon Drive.
The last of which became all the more real when Dunning included a photo-copied newspaper clipping detailing that exact occurrence.
“Oddly enough, the exact moment I melded and became one with the universe, and a chunk of my soul basically flew through the stargate and into me -- which you’ll read about… it was just a very pleasant experience,” said Dunning. “That moment was wonderful. The rest of it was sh**.”
The Sioux City artist said he isn’t shy about telling his story. After the breakdown, Dunning said he sought help and ultimately changed his stance on medication, something he hopes readers can take away from “Riding the Lightening.”
“I really like the feedback,” he said. “People seem to really enjoy that aspect of the book and they’ve encouraged me to write more stories about my life.”
Meanwhile, 47 pages before the details of Dunning’s psychotic break is revealed, he depicts an image of Edward Jazz Hands with trumpets and saxophones in place of his appendages; alters the famous Venus de Milo statue to include phallic arms; and compares the pain of putting an ear swab too far into an ear canal to the effects of opening the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Compared to his previous book, Dunning said “Domestic Sway #10: Two Creeps Talking About Dumb Stuff” has considerably fewer penises (he said “dongs,” but I’m paraphrasing). Truthfully, he intended the tenth volume to include no drawings of tallywackers.
“Unfortunately, I just have something where I draw a lot of d*** jokes,” he said. “I front-loaded the book with penises to kind of get them all out of the way. There are less penises as you go along. But that’s probably not true.”
On the back cover, Dunning included a picture of himself at 13 years old, which was around the same age he wrote his first cartoon book.
“My cartoons back then were much more illiterate,” Dunning said, comparing his old work to his current drawings. “I wasn’t a very good student. I eventually went back to [Western Iowa Tech Community College] like 10 years ago and you can kind of see the improvement grammatically… except for the misspelling of ‘lightning’ obviously.”
Some of the humor is similar. Although it was less perverse back then, said Dunning. “Aside from that, the production hasn’t changed much. I just would copy them on a copy machine and hand them out to my friends essentially.”
And he’s still drawing them on the same stack of paper his dad gave him when Dunning was in seventh grade.
“I still have a little bit left,” he said. “I just like the paper. I did buy some replacement because I realized I’m going to run out soon. So I have a stack of similar paper but it’s not exactly the same. Not looking forward to using it. I am a little sentimental about it, I guess. It’s what I’ve been using for so long.”
With political correctness being such a controversial topic these days, Dunning said it might be a bad time for his books, which have an explicitly dark sense of humor.
“I felt like we were in a golden age for my type of humor not that long ago,” he said. “It’s funny because on paper I’m this outright pervert, but in real life I’m an uptight prude. Like if I see anything perverted or weird around me I’m like a Victorian- or Edwardian-Age schoolmarm. I just disapprove instantly.”
So where did Dunning’s sense of humor come from?
“Childhood trauma,” he said, sarcastically. “No, I don’t know. I really don’t know. My dad has a fairly weird sense of humor, but nothing mean. Just culture, I guess. I was raised by the TV, I feel like. I was a latchkey kid. I’d come home and watch TV.”
Or maybe it was that weird stash of porn he found when he was too young to understand what it was that gave him his sense of humor. Who knows? Regardless, Dunning still finds his comics entertaining.
“It’s just what I like to do,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be some sort of cartoonist. I don’t really have any serious aspirations to do it for a living. It’s what I like to do in my spare time, I guess. It’s how I define myself, really.”
I asked, “Do your comics say anything about you?”
Dunning laughed. “God, I hope not!”