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Going Inside An Autistic Girl’s World Through A Comic Book Fantasy Quest

Adora looks out a balcony at a city, past purple curtains, with minarets and other design elements indicating a Middle Eastern town. Adora has long natural hair in a headscarf. Text balloon: "The day is waiting, and we have a lot to do."
A frame from Adora And The Distance.
(Courtesy Dark Horse Books)
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Marc Bernardin has spent decades building his career, coming up through the world of entertainment journalism before becoming a television and comic book writer, along with co-hosting podcast FatMan Beyond with filmmaker Kevin Smith.

But there’s a personal project that’s been percolating beneath the surface for more than 15 years, and it finally arrived in March.

The Los Angeles writer’s graphic novel, Adora And The Distance, explores a delicately illustrated high-fantasy world. Underneath the veneer, it’s about something deeply personal to Bernardin: what the world of a person with autism can be like — in his case, his daughter Sophie's. The book was timed for a physical release ahead of World Autism Awareness Day this past weekend.

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Adora sits up in her lavish bed with a word balloon reading "NOOOO!" In the next panel, another girl comes to her and asks "Milady... are you all right?" Adora responds, "Just a dream."
From Adora And The Distance.
(Courtesy Dark Horse Books)

Centering His Daughter’s Experience, Not His Own

While working as a journalist in the early 2000s, friends and colleagues suggested that Bernardin should write about the story of his life with his daughter as a way to break into publishing.

“‘Is there a memoir in this for you? This could be your thing that gets you on Oprah!’ But I didn’t see what my story was that in any way felt special,” Bernardin said.

“In lots of ways, it is the story of every parent who is dealing with a child who is somewhat atypical, be that via disease, be that via genetic abnormalities, be that via something like autism — that story, I understand what that is.”

Instead, Bernardin was interested in a version of the story that wasn’t about him, but could take readers into his daughter’s world. He’s a self-described nerd who loves quest narratives, and he thought about putting an autistic girl at the center of one — creating a story that was less about him and more about what he imagined was happening inside his daughter’s mind “with no actual insight into what my daughter was thinking at the time — and honestly, what she’s thinking today,” Bernardin said.

That’s because his daughter is verbal, but with an internal emotional world that remains closed off. So while he can’t visit that world himself, he wanted to create something that was emotionally true to his own hopes and dreams for her.

He didn’t believe that her mind was just a void, so he created a world inspired by the things she loves. Elmo became the warrior “El Moor,” while other members of her quest party were inspired by the cast of The Wiggles.

“Knowing the kinds of things that she likes, knowing the kinds of content that she chose to ingest, I then spun this insano narrative about trying to get from point A, to B, to C — but to do what, is the mystery of the piece,” Bernardin said.

Spinning these characters into something new was like building a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, according to Bernardin.

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“It’s the weird nerd compulsion to create narrative where there might not be one, taken to its illogical conclusion,” Bernardin said.

“But it was part of the fun of it. … How does the synthesis of this stuff work in my kid’s head? And what’s the version of it that she feels is real?”

Telling A Story About Autism, Everything, And Nothing

An image showing a city with Middle Eastern architecture, against a pink-hued sunset, with trees and small mountains/hills around.
From Adora And The Distance.
(Courtesy Dark Horse Books)

While putting his daughter’s influences into the book, Bernardin was driven by his own fantasy inspirations. He notes that he “blatantly ripped off” author Neil Gaiman and his comic book opus, The Sandman.

“That book was both about everything and nothing at once,” Bernardin said.

He wanted a book that could similarly reach all audiences. Comparing it to Bugs Bunny cartoons, he wanted something where kids could understand the action, but where there’s a higher level for the parents enjoying the same content.

“We all understand, we all have an affinity for those childhood fables that we grew up with,” Bernardin said. “But I’m also the kid who loved Princess Bride, which was doing that plus a whole different thing.”

That’s why a book about autism also features a lava monster and underwater pirates. People who he pitched the book to early on weren’t always enthusiastic about the subtlety of the deeper meaning, wanting it to be more obvious that the book was about autism.

“But I don’t want it to be just that. I want an audience to be able to come to it and hey, if they want a quest, they get a quest,” Bernardin said. “If they want a somewhat more robust story about neurodivergence, they’ll also get that.”

When crafting the story, he decided to center it on a nine-year-old girl. It’s the age where someone can have an adult conversation, yet still be a kid, according to Bernardin.

“When you get up to 14, you are, by most stretches of the imagination, a grown-ass person,” Bernardin said. “And younger felt like you couldn’t actually expect a 5-year-old to be able to be like, ‘I’m leading an expedition!’ No you’re not, you’re five.”

He compared it to Searching for Bobby Fischer, a story about a young person who’s emotionally mature, but not worldly.

“He knows what he wants. And he knows how best to achieve that,” Bernardin said. “Can he drive? No, he can’t do that. Would you count on him, would you rely on him to do bigger things? Probably not. … And so that feeling of innocence meets preternatural maturity is what I was hoping for.”

Visualizing The Indescribable

An older man stands next to Adora, looking out the window at the city below. Text balloon for the man: "You are but a child. And you are right to fear such things. I would fight to the last to spare you this fate if I thought it would help. And none who live within these walls would refuse the call to arms in your defense."
From Adora And The Distance.
(Courtesy Dark Horse Books)

The quest involved a search that ultimately leads to The Distance, a mysterious something that no one can quite put their finger on. So how do you put that into a comic book?

The story is illustrated in dynamic fashion by artist Ariela Kristantina, with colors by Bryan Valenza. Bernardin found Kristantina online, originally thinking her style would work for another book that he was working on, but the timing didn’t work out.

“But I always kept her little portfolio bookmarked on my browser,” Bernardin said. “When this came along, the thing that I was looking for was a precision meets a kind of classicism, because I wanted somebody who could draw incredibly well, and incredibly finely, but could make a thing that my grandmother could have read and understood.”

There are other artists whose work Bernardin loves, but he felt that there was a higher barrier to entry.

“She just sunk her teeth into it, because she really wanted to do fantasy, she really wanted to do a quest book, she really responded to the locales that we were doing,” Bernardin said. “What do you want to draw, if you’re an artist? Do you want to draw lava monsters? … If you like helicopters and machine guns, then you’re not going to be great for this book.”

It was a full collaboration, with changes made to the story based on Kristantina having another vision for how things could be depicted. As far as Bernardin is concerned, he’s happy with whatever makes the work better.

“The script was written, and had been written for a long time,” Bernardin said. “The art comes in and I start removing words, because ultimately, you’re seeing what it is. I don’t need to describe much, and if you’re doing the performance right on the characters' faces, I don’t even need that many words to tell you where you’re supposed to be feeling.”

Kristantina was looking to make something that felt like a combination of Technicolor and watercolor, so colorist Bryan Valenza applied his technique to make that happen. He balances a rich and vibrant look in parts, while adjusting the saturation and giving it a mellow feel elsewhere to guide the emotional storytelling of the book.

His work also included coloring a variety of skin colors, working to bring life to a deeply diverse cast.

“When it comes to things like diversity and inclusion, I want things like this to feel as the way they probably did, but we haven’t seen before,” Bernardin said. “We have had a tendency to forget that Europe in the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries was an incredibly cosmopolitan place. Bridgerton may have taken some people aghast, but no, there were people of color who were noble. There were people of color just hanging around. There were people of color kind of everywhere.”

How Sophie Connects With ‘Adora’

The story ends with a bittersweet, Twilight Zone-esque twist — a tone that Bernardin’s pursued in other areas, including a short film he recently wrote and directed after funding it via Kickstarter, Splinter. Both Adora and Splinter tell stories mixing genre with a moral quandary, both with children at their center. Adora’s parents are left wondering whether she’s happier in her fantasy world than with their efforts to find a bridge to her.

“Taking my daughter to various therapists and watching her work through issues, she manifestly does not want to be there,” Bernardin said. “This is not fun for her, no matter how much they make it like ‘Well, it’s play therapy. It’s like a game, and we’re learning stuff.’ She doesn’t want to do it, and I’m making her do it. So now, who am I serving in that process?”

He cited a moment from Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s musical episode where hero Buffy Summers has been brought back from the dead. She reveals to her friends that she’d been in Heaven and was happy — they pulled her out of that, and she’s filled with resentment.

Bernardin hopes that he’s making the right choices as a parent, but knows that he’ll never know for sure. He wanted to put some of that moral conundrum into the story, in the style of classic Star Trek — Bernardin’s also been a writer on the TV series Star Trek: Picard.

While she’s the inspiration for the story’s hero, Sophie still can’t fully engage with the book.

“Even though right now she’s 19 years old, she’s still learning sight words. She’s still figuring out the very basic rudiments of reading,” Bernardin said. “She’s flipped through the pages, and I don’t know if it means a thing to her or not, because it’s not the kind of story… it’s way too deep for her.”

Yet, her favorite movie is Finding Nemo, Bernardin said — another story with colorful visuals but a far deeper, heartbreaking story underneath.

“But to date, Adora remains just a thing on a table that she walks by every now and again, on her way to something she wants more. And I can live with that,” Bernardin said.

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