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Graphic novelist overcomes muscular dystrophy

David Leal, who lost the ability to walk when he was 8 years old, lives through the characters in his graphic novel.

Leal, 31, teamed up with UM alumna Corinne Nicholson, a freelance editor and writer, to finalize his manuscript. For two years, Nicholson has helped him revise and polish the story he conceptualized.

“She’s my hands,” said Leal, who uses a ventilator to breathe and can articulate an average of three words at a time.

Leal has muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that has disabled the use of his arms and legs. However, already 30 chapters into his manuscript, he hasn’t let the disease stop him.

The novel “Eternal Radiance of Romance” will be published in six parts. It is about a man, a character based on Leal himself, who is stuck in a love triangle with a maid and a singer in modern-day Japan.

“I decided to write the story so I could live through my characters and do things I would have done in my life, like swimming, walking and doing things a normal person would do,” Leal said.

Leal remembers a time when he could walk but would frequently fall. Then, one day in elementary school, he couldn’t get out of his chair.

“I can’t let that get to me. That’s why I always move forward,” he said. “I just keep moving no matter what. If I fall down, I get back up again.”

 

The improbable bond

Thirty-six-year-old Nicholson, who graduated from UM in 1998 with a bachelors degree in business administration, was supposed to help Leal with the novel’s character and plot development for six weeks – but she’s been working with him for two years.

“My profession – my passion – saves my life,” Nicholson said. “It preserves my livelihood.”

Nicholson runs a referral-based business and sees up to 14 clients on a regular basis, several of whom are UM students. She helps with graduate school applications, edits dissertations, writes grants and also considers herself a writing arts therapist.

Nicholson said she does the work for herself and her clients, but never for the money.

“I learned a long time ago that even in business in this world, there always has to be a heart,” she said.

Nicholson dropped her fees for Leal because she knew it was going to be a labor of love. At the same time, however, she made a conscious effort to treat him like her other clients.

“My main concern was not his disability,” she said. “It was his ability to write.”

 

From words to art

Five nurses who provide around-the-clock home care helped Leal transcribe his work even before he met Nicholson.

“We used to be his voice, but David’s learning to be his own voice,” said Maria Barroso, one of his nurses.

Soon, Leal met artist Alfonso Garcia, 24, at an anime convention and hired him to convert the piece into a graphic novel. Garcia uses pencil and marker, and most of the illustrations are in black and white. However, some will be in color to highlight significant scenes.

“He draws what I see in my mind,” Leal said.

Garcia, who has a slight learning disability, said he feels he was meant to meet Leal and Nicholson.

“We all have something in common: We’re all artists,” Garcia said.

 

Finding faith

Although Leal was only expected to live to 21, he said there’s still a lot he wants to accomplish in his life. These goals include studying creative writing in college, being in a Pitbull video and giving back to the world.

“I want to be like Jesus, to help people so they never give up in life, no matter what happens,” Leal said. “I want to do something, make an impact on the world. I want to do more.”

Religion has always played an important role in Leal’s life. He believes God brought him his voice. His speech has improved since he began working with Nicholson.

Leal is currently garnering support for his novel through the Facebook group “David’s Anime Otakus.”

“If anybody deserves to walk and jump up and down, he does,” Nicholson said.

July 11, 2013

Reporters

Allison Goodman


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