Best known for his social justice comics, which he shares online, Irish cartoonist Pan Cooke makes his middle grade debut with graphic novel memoir Puzzled. In it, he depicts his childhood and teenage experience managing persistent anxious thoughts that he deems “the Puzzle,” which he later learns is undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder. At 10, Cooke, who attends Catholic school, engages in an extensive bedtime prayer routine, only tucking himself in once his Hail Marys feel just right. At 12, intrusive thoughts insist he must run up the stairs or risk his family dying horrifically. When, at 14, he begins counting calories, the compulsion soon results in an anorexia and hypochondria diagnosis that eventually leads him to uncovering a “piece that fits”: a description of OCD. Cooke spoke with PW about his journey from traditional painting to creating comics, his process behind developing Puzzled, and how his work has evolved over the years.

How has your debut experience been so far?

It’s been great. My first few copies of Puzzled actually arrived a few hours ago. So, for the first time I got to sit down and read it front to back. It’s a real book, and it was a surreal experience for me to have it in my hands after all the work I put into it. People seem to be enjoying it so far, so I’m super excited to watch everything that’s to come at the official release stage.

You started out as a portrait artist before pivoting to comics in March 2020. Can you talk about that trajectory?

I was working as a portrait painter for a lot of my 20s. I did a lot of celebrity portraits, or peoples’ kids and grandparents, from photos clients sent me. It was going okay, but it was really starting to plateau. And then lockdown happened and I had to move back in with my parents at 30 years old. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had a lot of free time on my hands. I’ve always been creative and loved reading and comics, so I picked up an iPad and started doing a daily diary comic of my life during lockdown as practice. I knew it was such an event; I knew that when I looked back at [the comics] in a few years, I’d be like, “That was crazy.” So, I thought having documentation of it would be helpful.

Then George Floyd was killed, and everyone was on social media posting the black tile in solidarity. I thought that was a really powerful thing, but I also thought that there was some more proactive way that I could get involved. I decided to use this new format of comics to educate myself on those realities a bit more. I began by researching Eric Garner and made a one-page comic talking about what happened to him and the injustice of it. I had no intentions of sharing it, but I sent it to a few friends on a WhatsApp group and they were like, “We found this very helpful, and we think people will gain something from it.” So, I set up a separate Instagram from my painting one and I posted it there. The reaction was pretty immediate. People said that they were learning from it; they found it as being a helpful medium to digest things that can otherwise be difficult. Throughout lockdown, I dedicated myself to that for a year and it’s something that I still do, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I imagine I will continue doing it for a long time.

Did your work creating comics for advocacy organizations influence your development of Puzzled?

Everything I learned from doing those comics I was able to use in a different way in Puzzled. I was able to look at high-pressure scenarios and try breaking them down into the easiest way to digest them. It was obviously quite a contrast to what’s taking place in my social justice comics, but in times where I was experiencing obsessions or anxiety, they felt like the same kind of high-pressure scenarios, so I was able to use the same kind of storytelling techniques. After I started making those original comics and I built a following, I started thinking about telling my own story and how other people could learn from it and hopefully help others, like my comics were already doing.

I started thinking about telling my own story and how other people could learn from it and hopefully help others.

In the book, you use the “puzzle” as a metaphor to help contextualize your OCD. Did you use the same description in childhood?

I did. I was trying to process what was happening to me. One of my main OCD tendencies was a subtype called Just-Right OCD, where the compulsions exist without the intrusive thoughts. So, I had really uncomfortable feelings that I would have to neutralize by acting out compulsions; I always had a feeling of incompleteness if I didn’t. When I was trying to combat them by doing a compulsion—say, brushing my teeth—I would be in my own head trying to solve this anxiety. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I just knew that by doing a simple movement, it would go away, but I never knew when it would go away. It kind of felt like a puzzle—every time I was enacting my compulsion, I was adding a piece to it, hoping that after a while, a piece would land, and I’d be able to stop. It was just one in a long line of different ways to try and conceptualize what was going on, because I had no idea what was happening to me.

Did you imagine you’d be publishing a graphic novel memoir?

Not in a million years. I had lost a lot of passion for painting, and I was stuck, and I was living at home again and I didn’t really have any prospects. So it’s incredibly fulfilling and just a dream come true to be able to sit down and work on something I’m passionate about and that will hopefully lead into a career that I can continue. A lot of luck was involved in getting me here and I’m thankful to all my readers online. Hopefully they can gain something from this experience as well.

What do you hope they gain?

I think people will gain different things. Maybe Puzzled can help parents who have a kid who they think may have OCD understand more about the nature of the disorder. Maybe [it can help] kids who, like me, are growing up and experiencing symptoms of OCD, but don’t quite understand what’s happening. I hope my book outlines the ways it can manifest and hopefully be a stepping stone for them to seek treatment, but also let them know they’re not alone. OCD is known for being quite difficult to diagnose and people who experience OCD wait, on average, 11 years from when their symptoms begin to seek help. I just hope that it can help kids shorten that waiting time before they get help, and they can start getting better.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on my next book, but I don’t think I can reveal anything about it yet. But I’m always working on stuff, whether it be commissions, or my own personal projects. Drawing cartoons is my passion, and if I was working an office job, I’d be coming home in the evenings to make comics as well.

Puzzled: A Memoir of Growing Up with OCD by Pan Cooke. Rocky Pond, $23.99 Apr. 16 ISBN 978-0-593-61561-4; $13.99 paper ISBN 978-0-593-61562-1