Katie Green is the astonishingly prolific artist and author behind the Green Bean Zine and is currently working on a graphic novel, due to be published by Jonathan Cape in 2013. The graphic novel will deal with her past experiences of eating disorders and abuse. Despite the difficult subject matter, Katie has been speaking about this work, both at the panel on which we both sat at the Bristol Small Press and Comics Expo, and more recently the Laydeez do Comics monthly Monday forum. She has also written a series of blog posts on the relationship that the comics medium has to telling stories about mental illness, and I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what she’s written. Her third post is in part a response to my earlier post on the same subject, but the posts also deal more directly with her experiences of writing about this sensitive subject matter. They are a sensitive and frank read - and it can’t have been easy to write them. Thanks Katie!
Katie’s posts: One, Two and Three.
Here are my thoughts.
I’d be inclined to agree with Katie regarding the difficulties surrounding the concept of ‘catharsis’ in relation to making comics about personal and mental health issues. On the one hand, I find the act of drawing and making therapeutic; like Katie, I also gain some solace and pleasure knowing that I am making something, and that other people might enjoy that object. On the other hand, in terms of the process of thinking through and (re)creating the themes being tackled, it is definitely more challenging.
I’ve always described making comics as a ‘need’, something I am compelled to do, lest I fall apart: I make comics and they tend to be about my own experiences, for better or worse, as a way of finding my own place in the world. However, dealing with the subject matter of mental illness, no matter how obliquely, is a difficult and uncomfortable experience. I’ve lost sleep, becoming frustrated and even withdrawn while trying to complete work on this theme before (and as Katie describes for herself, this also has an effect on those around me). I would not have described that as healthy.
Is this part of the artistic temperament (whatever that historical subject position may be), or is something more peculiar to working on mental health that is compounded, or at least coloured, by dealing with difficult, personal experiences? Is it something you can get around, or mediate, or is perhaps part of the process - the price we pay for looking at ourselves in this way?
On learning through making:
Katie’s post also made me think about how writing about these events - especially those that are in the past - helps us to deal with, confront, or move past our own experiences. In so doing, the hope is that the story being told will help other people who suffer from similar problems by offering advice, support, solace, or just the thought they aren’t alone.
However, writing and drawing is not simply a case of ‘reporting’ events. It in involves dealing with difficult experiences that are often not only in the past, but also can represent day-to-day problems or conditions. This can be hard because you can become very mired in negative or dark elements of your life or your psyche, and as suggested above, this isn’t always healthy. You open up your present to the ghosts of the past or, rather, let those shadows that always accompany you, take over.
Being ‘stuck’ in your art can thus sometimes prevent you from moving forwards. For example, I’ve recently come to realise that my own approach to writing about my own anxiety and depression vilified the distinct period in my recent past where my problems became unmanageable. The problem for me is that my own mental health recently has suffered from my adherence to seeing that period in my own life only as the progenitor of ‘bad’ experiences. Instead, while undoubtedely a difficult and unpleasant time in my own life, I have to remember that it had its positive and empowering moments, too.
I understand fully that with issues as complex as Katie describes, with abuse and with eating disorders, a confrontation of this type with one’s own past might not be possible in the same way - or at the least would be a very different thing to go through. For me, though, I’m learning that ‘facing my past’ isn’t only about confronting the negative events that I’ve written about, but also situating them within the positive outcomes of that time. It’s a way of undermining the primacy I have given mental health problems in my life - something Loren Knack hinted at in his comment on my earlier post.
I know that my work will end up reflecting this realisation, but I am not sure to what extent that realisation was borne of my work drawing comics. So I’m now thinking now about how art can help you uncover things about yourself, but that you still need to pay attention to your life to actually get a handle on these issues. We need to learn about ourselves, but there is a tension here about how much of ourselves we give to understanding our lives, and how much we give to actually living.