A note on themes in Grand Gestures

To date, I have resisted offering any explanatory notes on my new book, Grand Gestures, to explain its intentions or even to flesh out what I thought the plot might be. The reason for this is that by-and-large I want people to find their own story and connect with the work on their own terms.

However, a recent review of the book by Rob Clough has suggested it might be timely to offer a few words on the book. This is in no way a criticism of Rob or his review, which is excellent, but just that his words happened to bring to my attention something that I hadn’t really considered, but I felt I should address.

Specifically I wanted to address the possible interpretation of the book as being about suicide.  The book did end up being about confronting hard feelings and the outcomes and impacts of that process of confrontation. Grand Gestures - trying to commune with nature ‘outside’ of human life, rejection of others specifically- can be futile and complicated. Then again, perhaps they can also be meaningful. The outcomes are ambiguous, and the ambiguous ending speaks to that. The grand gesture, however, was not intended to be seen as suicide. As far as I’m concerned, the chap carries on living.

Suicide is a complex, tragic, sad event, and while I believe people have a right to govern their own bodies and their own lives, the debate is complicated. I think if this book was about suicide, it would be a shallow plot device, which would risk trivialising or romanticising the act as a way of escaping the feelings with which the book deals. This would have served to diminish the complexity of the debate, and the complexity of the act itself. I have no wish to do that.

As I said at the time of its completion, in many ways it is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. Perhaps because of this, I find it hard to see suicide as a possibility for the protagonist, rooted as it is in my own inner world, in which suicide has never, ever been something I’ve considered. So although the story might be taken in many ways, I can only offer what I thought I was writing about at the time.

That said, I don’t want to shut down any interpretation of the book, especially those that promote important conversations. Deep down, I know the text lives on outside of authorial intent, and can be whatever you want it to be. It’s not a mystery to which I hold the key and in fact I’m still learning what the comic is about, even now.

Perhaps I need to let go of this fear, and let the story be its own thing. But in so doing, I just wanted to say that for me, drawing this story was about finding hope in the sometimes hard act of living, and I hope that in the reading of it, perhaps you might feel the same.

That’s all for now. Thanks again to Rob for his review and bringing this possible interpretation back to my attention.

Thanks for reading,

Simon

EDIT: I’ve edited the body of this text since its original post to better articulate my thoughts.

Better, Drawn needs YOU

In July 2011, I started a blog called Better, Drawn:

Better, drawn is a place for people to share stories about long-term mental and physical illnesses, told in the form of short comics. The site is a way for people to write and draw about their experiences that might otherwise be difficult to talk about openly. In fact, we think that sometimes things can be said better when they’re drawn.

Submissions are open to anyone with experience of long-term mental or physical illness to share - whether or not you see yourself as a comic artist. So, if you have experience with these kinds of health issues, or if you are close to someone who does, then you might like to consider submitting a comic for the site.

The site has slowed down of late, and that’s entirely down to me being preoccupied with other projects. I’d like to remedy that. Recent events have reminded me that it can be really important to have a variety of avenues for people to talk about what they’re going through, or what they’ve been through. I hope Better, Drawn might one day be one of those avenues.

What do we need?

To work, the site needs more submissions: more comics, more drawings, more stories. For that to happen I need to tell more people.

What can you do?

If you think this is a venture that is worthwhile, please consider helping spread the word. You could reblog this post, tweet about the site, talk about us on Facebook, or tell your friends in the real world.

If you feel you may have a story you’d like to share, please do submit a comic, a drawing or a story. Full information can be found on out submissions page.

You can visit the site here

You can follow us on Twitter

You can find us on Facebook

Thanks all,

Simon

Toronto or bust!

That’s right folks! I’ve recently found out that I’ve been offered a chance to exhibit my comics at the awesome and prestigious Toronto Comics and Arts Festival 2012. This is fantastic news, not least because of its reputation as one of the best comics shows happening at the moment. Unfortunately, I’ve been in and out of work for a while and have not got the resources to self-fund a voyage there. Comics don’t pay, and neither do short-term academic research posts. So, at the suggestion of my friends, I have popped the DONATE button up on the left to see if any friends, fans or well-wishers might wish to help me on my way*.

So why might you want to donate? Well, to be totally transparent, this event will obviously help my comics making ambitions no end. So perhaps it’s a little selfish - especially given the current situation in which so many of us find ourselves. However, those of you who have spoken to me or read my work will know that I also have a vested interested in  investigating and promoting links between comics and narratives of mental health. You may even know about Pictures in Frames’ sister site, Better, Drawn where people with experience of long-term mental and physical illness can share their stories in the form of comics.

My ambition for TCAF is that in collaboration with my friend and colleague Thom Ferrier of Graphic Medicine, we run a workshop or panel on comics and mental health. We hope to bring together makers, publishers, artists, readers and writers to openly discuss the role of comics in challenging stigma around mental health. It’s early days yet, but any amount, large or small, can help us make this ambition a reality. It is obviously only one step in a much larger project, but a valuable one we’d be so grateful to have a chance at realising.

If you think this is a cause that you might be able to get behind, please do consider donating what you can. Free comics, drawings and thank you letters to all those who donate after TCAF.

*the money will be spent only on airfare and accommodation. In the event that I do not attend TCAF, money will be returned to all donors.

better-drawn

Call for Submissions for a new site

I’m starting a new website, called Better, Drawn. Please read the info below and spread far and wide!

better-drawn:

Hello and welcome to Better, Drawn.

Better, drawn is a new place for people to share stories about long-term and chronic mental and physical illnesses, told in the form of short comics. The site is a way for people to share experiences that might otherwise be difficult to talk about openly. In fact, we think that sometimes things can be said better when they’re drawn; hopefully, these comics might help some people feel better, too.

To get this website going, we’re looking for submissions. If you have experience with physical or mental health issues, or if you are close to someone who does, then you might like to consider submitting a comic for the site. You can visit our FAQ to find out more about how to send us your work.You don’t have to be an ‘artist’: just somebody with a story to share.

We could also do with your help to spread the word about this site. So please reblog this far and wide if you can, share the link via Facebook using those pesky ‘like’ buttons to the right, or tweet all about us. If that happens, we should be up and running in no time - and you’ll be able to follow our progress on Twitter,too.

So the only thing left to say is… get drawing!


Katie Green writes about comics and mental health

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.

On Catharsis:

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.

Bristol Small Press and Comic Expo 2011, Pt. 3 - On comics and mental health

As I mentioned in a previous post, during this year’s Bristol Comic and Small Press Expo I took part in a panel discussion on comics and mental health, organised by Ian Williams of Graphic Medicine. We had around 15 people in attendance, and, despite technical difficulties (that is, no cable to run the laptop into the projector), the panel went well. Ian, Nick, Katie and I all spoke about our different experiences with mental illness and comics, as the attendees crowded around the laptop screen to see the images we were showing. This lent a peculiar sort of intimacy to the proceedings, which suited the subject matter, but did make the audience scrutiny of our words that little bit more apparent. After we had spoke, we opened up the floor for a more broad discussion and fielded some questions. As is often the case, the conversation was just getting going by the time we had to call it a day.

Anyhow, the event left me thinking a little about my relationship with depression and anxiety, the (all-too-common) ailments that many people are afflicted by, and about which I spoke on the panel. It also left me thinking more generally about my relationship with comics.

First of all, I’d like to say that talking about depression is helpful, if hard, because it provides validation. Some days, I don’t even know if I really do have depression, or if I just use mental illness and an excuse to deal with a profoundly psychological set of problems that mean I just don’t always function very well, that I should pull my socks up and crack on with being. Depression, it seems, has a good way of talking itself out of existence, or shifting its form – rather, to use that oft-quoted quote of a quote from the Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” (Baudelaire, if you’re curious). Depression is very good at convincing the sufferer that it doesn’t exist, either.

But that’s just it; a great deal of the time, the popular discourse of depression is often reducible to “depression comes and goes”, suggesting that in those times of absence, we function the same as anybody and everybody else. Disregarding for a moment the notion that anybody is ‘normal’ to begin with, my experience of depression doesn’t fit this binary on/off analogy.  On an almost daily basis, I (and many others I am sure) have to mediate, moderate or otherwise scrutinise what I do, just in case I cause, for want of a better phrase, my brain to crash; if I drink this cup of coffee, will the caffeine accelerate my adrenaline levels to a point where my brain cannot process them, and I will spend the rest of the day panicked, paranoid, and miserable? If I do not sleep enough, will I be lethargic and de-motivated the next day (probably) but will that lead to a deepening sense of sadness, self-disappointment and existential inertia (sometimes)? This doesn’t mean I am miserable all the time – I’m not, far from it – but it does mean I have to take care of myself. After all, I have an illness.

Perhaps I make it sound worse than it is. But my point is that it interweaves itself into my everyday life, the same way that every other proclivity and predilection of mine does. I like pork pies; the smell of rain is nice; being fed up at work is not being depressed; depression is not an excuse for being rubbish at organising my own life; organising my own life can sometimes prompt spells of feeling low; depression can emerge at any time; pork pies are still nice. At the end of the day, everyday, I try hard not to give it too much sway over my everyday life, while not forgetting its presence. It’s a game of balance, and one that I don’t always manage to win.

One of the things about doing autobiographical comic work is trying to find a balance between the specific and the universal, between cataloguing the events in my own life, while flagging up the common things to which we can all relate. Writing about depression itself directly is hard, because depression is boring; it is boring to have. It is probably boring to be around. When depressed, I can’t imagine I’d make for a very dynamic character in a drama, unless I were to do something either poignant or outlandish (and my idea of poignant or outlandish when depressed would probably be neither of those things). It is boring to write about, and may well be uninteresting to read about, too.

I also find it terribly reductive, or overly didactic to write about in too much detail (this post notwithstanding). By this I mean that seeing as depression is so prevalent, seeing as it masquerades itself in such a huge number of different outfits for different people, at different times in their life, different stages in the day, different seasons of the year, to use the primacy of the written word to state THIS IS DEPRESSION is incredibly unhelpful. I mean, sure, writing about it for myself is a good thing, but for the reader? If you don’t suffer the same symptoms as I do, is one of us wrong? Can you relate if I only describe MY illness and not your illness?

This is what brings us back to comics (thanks for your patience). We touched upon this in the panel, and I think it is an important point – the importance of the way in which sequential art is an excellent medium to explore issues of mental health and, really, everyday life, because it relies on the fact that different readers will interpret the same images in different ways. By virtue of how each reader or viewer responds too, reads, and makes sense of the images in infinitely different ways, comics allows one story to have many, many different interpretations in a way that some other media sometimes can’t. Unlike words (the danger, in their quest for exposition, of becoming too rigid) or moving images (affective, moving, absolute, but often coercive – the director directs the viewer), comics provide an excellent opportunity to get at the essence of things, ideas, feelings, abstract concepts.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t ‘direction’ at work in comics, in panels, in the layout, composition and so on of a page, because there is; nor am I suggesting other media can’t represent mental illness - of course they can, and do, often very well. But something about the visual medium lends itself to being interpreted more widely; different people see different things in the same combination of words and pictures. I think this gives comics an ability to distil themes and ideas in a manner that can still be warm and relatable (I actually think poetry is the closest relation, imagining what is between the words being what makes that medium so powerful, but that’s for another day). Comics - sequential art - offers potential.

This is where it gets a bit tricky for me. Because of their relative liminality in mainstream culture (especially here in the UK), those of us who operate as comic creators and fans will find solace amongst one another, having that medium (and our relative marginalisation) in common. Reading comics has, for a long time, been a means of distinguishing oneself from others, whose imaginations or values or hobbies differ from those of us as readers. The worlds comics create offers an escape and a refuge from the outside world, especially (but not exclusively) when we are younger, allowing us to create worlds away from the prying eyes of people who just don’t get it. I certainly read comics in this way as a kid.

But the medium of sequential art is such a broad church, and it can be sometimes difficult to position myself within it - partly because of the public perception of the so-called ‘fanboy’ or  ‘fangirl’. It’s not that I don’t like comics that operate in other genres (for want of a different word) - I do - but sequential art is also a format, that is, a way of telling a story. Just as readers of fiction may choose one genre over another within the the format of prose, so to do we do with comics. That’s pretty cool. But for me, as a creator, producing art and making sense of my own life is the thing that drives me. Comics, insofar as this distinction is being made, is just happens to be the medium that makes the most sense for me to work in. I guess it just becomes difficult for all of us, as fanboys and girls in our own rights, to challenge the stigma that lumps us together as one thing in the public consciousness. That harms us, and it harms comics.

The empowerment of self-publishing, of creating our own little worlds of readers and distribution in a way that blurs the maker/consumer boundary, is a vital part of challenging this process. As the vitality of the zine scene shows, it doesn’t have to be comics that provides the common format for self-expression and empowerment: it is a collective need to create and share and relate to one another. Mental health issues are discussed and explored widely among the scene, in multiple ways; directly, indirectly, as comics, as writing, as poetry and as illustration. Furthermore, because, often, the readers are also makers, or also sufferers, the loop of response and creation, devoid of recourse to an overarching canon (which does happen in comics, I think), allows the self-expression to develop in helpful and hopeful ways. So while, I’m not saying that these scenes are devoid of evaluation or aesthetic judgement, or that there aren’t benefits to having a critical network for honing the art that we create, what I am saying is this: it is the attitude, the drive to make and explore, and finding that in other people, that I also find empowering. That isn’t only because I have an audience of like-minded individuals who might ‘get’ my prose, but it’s because there are people out there who want to listen.

As my own work moves away from direct autobiography, and towards a more abstract attempt to deal with some of these little ideas and issues surrounding illness, the power of comics becomes more and more important to me. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing, and never really have, but this experience of thinking and making is helping me to make sense of things. Sure, there’s the challenge of creative work – any work – like getting stuck, getting angry, bored, disappointed, upsetting others, upsetting yourself, losing track of workloads, forgetting to have a life, but those challenges are worth it. I believe this strongly, because using art, in any form, to make sense of the world is one of the unique things that people do, and have done, for the longest time. High art or low art, whether it is to your taste or not, words or pictures, has something to say.

These are old arguments in the arts, and I can’t lay claim to them. But what I would like to suggest is that making comics, or zines, or paintings, or photographs, or whatever, as a technology of the self (to crib a phrase from, I think, Foucault) offers a way of becoming who you would like best to be, by exploring yourself, and the lives of others, in an attentive way. So mental illness, for example, may be the lens that will forever shape how I see the world, but through making comics I am learning to see that same world in other ways. Hopefully, too, such an attitude to making will encourage others to explore their own medium of self-expression, comics or otherwise, and that piece by piece, we can collectively come to understand one another, and ourselves, better.