When I was in hospital, I was avid that the hospital should have more books on its shelves. It seemed absurd that there was no literature relating to mental illness, no frame of reference given for our experiences. Often, we had no words, and without the resources, couldn’t use other people’s words to convey our experiences.
I had no concentration for a long time, so reading was simply out of the question. I’d learned in my previous depressive episodes that novels were a thing of the past. Things that were more immediate and required less concentration, but still had great substance, became my lifelines. Poems, short stories, comics.
The first book I read when I was in hospital was a book called Marbles, by Ellen Forney. If I met Forney today I would hug her and tell her that her book meant the world to me and everyone I passed it along to. The book had been on my radar for some time, yet for some reason I had dismissed it. A few weeks into my admission it arrived in snail mail. Miraculously, I started to read and it stuck, and I felt like my old, healthy self for a while. I finished the book the next day. I hadn’t been that gripped by a book in a long time, and I had forgotten how it felt to be absolutely in love with a book.
The book is a graphic memoir, about Forney’s life and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder at aged thirty. While the book is an autobiography, she also wrestles with questions of whether creativity and mood disorders are linked, and also as to whether she would lose her creativity as a cartoonist by being medicated for her condition. I finished the book and sung its praises, and passed it on to anyone that would listen. When it was given back to me everyone that had read it said, as I had, that the book had put their experiences into words and pictures, had created a reference point which they could use when describing mood disorders to friends.
I knew how powerful books could be. By being able to get inside an experience people can experience something they otherwise would not. Thus, if I read a book and feel like it’s accurate to me, I can pass that book on to a friend and they, ideally, will gain insight into the lives of people with mental illnesses. Furthermore, for the sufferer the book may grant them the language and metaphors to talk about their condition and convey it accurately. Books have the potential to change attitudes. Kafka said that a book should be “an axe for the frozen sea within us” and I whole heartedly agree. Raymond Carver said that all we have are the words, and therefore I believe that they point the way forward in terms of de-stigmatising mental illness.
Something struck me when I was out of hospital though, and that was how potent comics are. They are the most immediate art I think we are going to get. Comics have an unbelievable amount of untapped potential, which is only now beginning to see the light of day. They allow the reader and the creator to have an immediate link, an instantaneous and readily accessible way of communicating.
When I began to look at how mental illness is depicted in other comics though, I was taken aback by the brevity and ease with which comics depicted mental illnesses and the psychological in general.
Comics seem to be especially attuned to depicting mental illness. Why is this? It could be because comic’s essential archetypes are based in the psychological. Psychology is simply in comics’ DNA. Batman emerges from trauma, and Superman was created to convey the Jewish, orphaned experience. From its beginnings, comics was the art of the outsider, the pariah, the ostracized.
Perhaps creators gravitated toward this material due to their not being the machine of criticism that was already in place for other literature. Thus, by not facing mass scrutiny, and only expecting small, marginal audiences, creators were free to pursue their interests with wild abandon, and damn the consequences.
William Kuskin, a professor at the University of Colorado, presents a theory of why comics may be more suited to depicting mental illness – “You can’t separate graphic novels from their superhero roots.” “That origin story—the broken protagonist who transforms himself—is the true meaning of the genre.” Katy Waldman, in her brilliant article “Patterns and Panels” muses “For Kuskin, comics are above all narratives of metamorphic identity: A traumatized Bruce Wayne puts on a costume in order to face external and internal damage.”
Kuskin and Waldman continue, “The superheroes that are so intimately entwined with comics as a genre are, at heart, orphans and victims,” Kuskin says. For all the BAMs and POWs, their journeys are uniquely psychological. “One self has to transform visually into another self to survive, and that is what creators are doing every time they represent themselves in a panel.”
There are also bigger questions looming over this. Big, sometimes boring theoretical questions. Is language adequate to convey depression, or for that matter, any mental illness? Any experience? Are some experiences beyond language? And if the answer to this is yes, then are words and pictures more suited to convey an experience?
Regardless of the answer to these questions, they can be no denying that recently there was been an upsurge of depiction of mental illnesses within comics. Katie Green’s depiction of an eating disorder in Lighter Than My Shadow, Alison Bechdel’s portrayal of her OCD in Fun Home, Darryl Cunningham’s depiction of his time as a psychiatric orderly in Psychiatric Tales, and I could go on!
Even in the only comic book to date to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, a seminal work for the medium, the form still excels in depicting trauma and mental instability.
Often when asked to describe their experiences depressives often say that it cannot be described in words. So, do Spiegelman’s expressionistic lines, combined with his words, convey this experience more accurately, get closer to the bone? Do Alison Bechdel’s visual representations of OCD strike closer to the truth than any other art form could? Are we able to sympathise more with Forney’s borderless depressive episode and her manic episodes, which burst out of borders and bleed off the page? Do Cunningham’s dark, angular lines convey the experience of mental illness more than prose?
Regardless of whether comics can get closer to an experience, it is undeniable that they have more potential, more room for growth, than ‘conventional’ literature.
Forney’s use of panel borders is a key example of how cunning and amazing comics can be when pushed to their limits. Forney’s depressive episode has no panel borders, whereas during her manic episodes her panel borders burst and bleed off the page, in the meetings she has with her therapist the border is rigid, ordered. Forney can convey emotions without having to say a word, as she can incorporate them into her structure.
Comics also, on the face of it, have more possibilities for multiplicity. Multiple stories can be shown at once, the non-linear narrative can be catered to. The mind’s eye, or mental turmoil, can be shown literally, as an image, rather than as a mess of adjectives and verbs that may be inadequate to convey the experience.
Comics are truly unbound in every sense and can only grow in potential. One area where comics can be refreshingly irreverent is in tone, being able to poke fun at something without detracting from a serious treatment of the subject, whereas traditional literature may be more inclined to a brooding, darker mood.
Katy Waldman, in her brilliant article “Patterns and Panels” (mentioned above), muses on comics’ potential to be a little bit oddball; “Comics, though, can be refreshingly irreverent, funny, and un-self-serious (they’re called comics!). They seem more at liberty to capture the full range of something like depression—its battiness and bathos, how it can feel like waving around a bunch of dead fish—as well as its piercing edge.”
A key example of this is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, whose depiction of depression is considered “one of the best contemporary portraits of the condition” by psychologists. An article for the Canadian Globe and Mail goes on to say about the posts impact – “That post was hailed by critics and psychologists as one of the most insightful depictions of the disease to date. It also galvanized thousands of fans suffering from the illness; they’ve described Brosh’s pieces as the most relatable portrayal they’d ever seen of their own experiences.”
I first came to comics seriously because they held my attention when other art forms did not. However I am now aware that comics are at the forefront of finding news way to look at things, and may be at the forefront of opening people’s eyes to mental illnesses and the experiences of the sufferer. Comics, in the end, are finding new ways to configure our experiences into art, in all of their beauty and ugliness.
Link Dump: Articles etc. used/mentioned in this piece!
Image Credit – Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, linked below!
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html – Allie Brosh’s fantastic depiction of depression, part one.
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/depression-part-two.html – Allie Brosh’s depiction of her depression, part two.
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/meet-cartoonist-allie-brosh-an-unlikely-poster-girl-for-depression/article15190616/ – An article on the impact Brosh’s work has had, both in people and in the psychology community
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/10/comics_and_mental_illness_marbles_swallow_me_whole_and_hyperbole_and_a_half.html – Katy Waldman’s excellent scholarly article on mental illnesses and comics.