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 I’ve lost sleep, becoming frustrated and even withdrawn while trying to complete work on this theme before (and as Katie describes for herself, this also has an effect on those around me).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.

Bristol Small Press and Comic Expo 2011, Pt. 2 - The Event Itself

This year, by a mixture of design and accident, the task of getting up early in the morning was not hampered by a hangover. Given the shenanigans of last year’s event, and the London Small Press event earlier this year, this was a relatively novel (and refreshing) experience, meaning that we arrived at the venue bright eyed and bushy tailed (actually, that’s a lie) and ready to sell lots of comics and have a good time (that bit’s true). Our table was in the main hall, tucked in a corner at the back of the room (I chose the table, so cannot complain about this). We tethered our banner betwixt a dreadful ‘painting’ (wallpaper design on canvas, but then, this is a hotel) and a fake bush in the corner (ditto). We spread out our wares. We were ready.

Saturday went by smoothly, and sales were good. In the afternoon, we took part in a panel on Comics and Mental Health, organised by Ian Williams. We spoke alongside Katie Green and Ian about our own experiences with mental illness and making comics, and it turned out to be an important, and in many ways, empowering experience for me (more on that in Part 3 tomorrow). After the panel, the last couple of hours of the Expo slipped by, and Nick, Ian and I retired to the pub for a quick pint, before Nick and I headed to mine to watch Eurovision (Moldova were our favourites, should you be curious). Sunday also rolled by much the same as Saturday, slow and steady. As usual, the delirium and fatigue of being sociable and approachable took its toll, and by the end, I think Nick and I had lost the power of coherent speech (if we ever had it). However, we hung on to the last minute while others packed up around us, hoping for one more sale. Our patience paid off with an 11th hour sale to a nice man whose name we don’t know, but who was who good enough to take pity on the needy look, writ large across our wan, Dickensian-urchin faces.

It was a strange couple of days in some ways. On the one hand, it seemed slow, quiet, and there also appeared to be an ever-present patch of carpet in front of our table upon which nobody seemed to be prepared to walk. This phenomenon was noted by the chaps on the tables either side of us, as we pleadingly looked to the passers-by not to cut the corner and come see us. Things definitely never got busy – not in the way we had experienced at previous events, and that felt mildly perturbing. On the other hand, we met interesting folk, had interesting conversations and had, overall, a good time. Also, the Sorry Entertainer, which was enjoying its debut, went down a storm, and we actually made more, and sold more, than we have at any Expo to date.

I guess, in many respects this year was a bit of a full circle for me and Nick; Bristol last year was our first ever Expo, and I think the anticipation, the lovely weather, the new faces and new experiences of the 2010 event lent to it an air of the unknown, that made the experience much more exciting. This year, I think, we were just a little more familiar with the process of selling at an Expo, and with it being in our home town, we felt like it was less of an adventure. I think also, although we know there’s not a great deal of money in this game, our own circumstances meant that the pressure to make more, so that we could afford to eat and whatnot, was greater this year. There were fewer trades than last year, too (though that also has as much to do with capacity in my little flat, as it does with anything else). In all, however, it was worthwhile, and depending on where life takes us, we have every intention of being back next year.

Here we are, me scaring the punters, Nick (Mis-Comp) looking on. Note the delicious fake painting.

Tomorrow – Bristol Comic and Small Press Expo 2011, Pt. 2 – On Comics and Mental Health

Bristol Small Press and Comic Expo 2011, Pt. 1 - The Delivery

Waiting in for parcels to be delivered to your house is truly one of the more universal experiences of contemporary living, out here in the Western hemisphere; it’s like Waiting for Godot, only rather than experiencing any (or no) transcendental or existential insight, you mostly just end up really needing a wee (or worse) but knowing that as soon as you commit to the act, the doorbell will ring and you’ll be left with the most awkward of dilemmas. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Anyway, such were the challenges I was facing last Friday, as I sat in the flat, restless in my anticipation of the arrival of some couriers, but unable to commit to doing anything productive; I’d run out of Bristol board to get some drawing done; my other finishing-the-PhD work was tied up, awaiting comments from my internal examiner; I couldn’t shower; I’d already seen that episode of Gilmore Girls; I’d nearly run out of milk; I’d already seen that episode of Friends (though that’s a fairly universal condition in itself). Tough times.

‘Oh, the despair!’ I wailed. ‘Oh, the woe!’ I gnashed, as I took to playing Solitaire with ACTUAL CARDS, or, as I was taught it, Patience (how apt) and drank my fourth cup of tea (boredom lends itself well to counting, it seems). Then, abruptly, midway through my sixth game of Patience (see, counting) the doorbell rang and I bounded like an excited puppy down the stairs to open the door and gain receipt of… 500 copies of the Sorry Entertainer!

Yes folks, it’s here! It exists, and it looks… amazing! Given our Modus Operandi normally involves pens, paper and photocopiers, to hold something that Nick and I had put together ourselves, that had been printed by people far away, and that had arrived, en masse, in a stack of five parcels, was a new and rather exciting experience. I can’t lie – I was rather proud. All the hard work from the artists who had contributed, the folks who donated and spread the word, the printers, and our efforts, had all come together in newspaper form.

There you have it: the Sorry Entertainer! All those who invested money into the IndieGoGo fundraiser will be receiving your copies over the course of the next few weeks as we get ourselves sorted out, make sure we have all those minicomics ready for the perks, buy some big envelopes, and hit the Post Office. For those who haven’t yet got a copy, there are limited quantities available for sale in my shop. As all the artists who took part in the project will also have extra copies, once I run out, it is perfectly feasible that they may have some copies available, too. We’ll keep you up to date.

It just falls to me to thank everyone who contributed, in whatever way, and a special thanks to Anne and the rest of the Newspaper Club team for helping us realise this project so seamlessly. Thank you!

Here are some photos from delivery day:

Coming tomorrow… Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo Part 2 – the event itself!

One unifying formula of everything

  • Andy: might be getting a bike today too, woot.
  • me: haven't you already got one? Or is this like a 'why do you need more than one guitar?' question? Because I do, dammit: because I do?
  • Andy: that is totally a why do you need more than one. Dogg i have two bikes. There is a formula it will hold true for guitars too: x = n+1 where x is the numbers of bikes you need n is the number you currently own. It can also be expressed as x = s-1 where s is the number of bikes at which you will be divorced/dumped/exorcised.
  • me: good formula
  • Andy: yup

Hawthorns, blossom, reviews

With all the green bits ‘round here starting to be peppered by the blossoming of trees I should be able to identify, I thought I’d share Ms. Pratt’s description of the Hawthorn (the one spiky bugger with which I am familiar). You go Ms Pratt; you go.


“What heart does not rejoice to see the buds of Hawthorn whitening on the bough in the pleasant month of May? In the later season too, when its green leaves cat their shadows on the ground, and when young and old meet beneath its boughs on the village green, the Hawthorn-tree is still an object of interest

- p. 51, Wild Flowers Vol. II (1852) by Anne Pratt, (author of common things of the sea-side etc, etc)


It has also been peaceful – and strange – without the planes, but for the sake of friends and family stuck here and abroad, I’m glad that they’re flying again. Perhaps they could close airspace more often, though - an occasional and enforced grounding. It’d be good for people, I don’t doubt – but I do doubt that it’d stick.

In other news, the second leadership debate will be held at the Arnolfini, here in Bristol tonight. We walked past the venue last night, and it was all smoke machines and swirling lights and projected ‘SKY NEWS’ logos on the building; grotesque, but more than a little exciting. I might just go and see democracy in action this evening, (albeit from outside the cordon that prevents us from getting anywhere near it) or I might stay in and watch Dr Who…

As for comics, things are rolling along nicely for next month’s Comic Expo, and Richard Bruton has written a nice, honest review of Smoo #2, now available to read over at the Forbidden Planet International Blog. He’s right about that first strip, by the way… Thanks Richard!

Also: check this out.

It really could be my greatest fear…

…having to return stray footballs to those playing in parks. I was reminded of this when I read the following on the train to London this weekend, and then, again, when walking (cowering) through Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon. Take it away, Umberto Eco:

Many malignant readers, seeing how I discuss here the noble sport of soccer with detachment, irritation and (oh, all right) malevolence, will harbor the vulgar suspicion that I don’t love soccer because soccer has never loved me, for from my earliest childhood I belonged to that category of infants or adolescents who, the moment they kick the ball – assuming that they manage to kick it – promptly send it into their own goal or, at best, pass it to the opponent, unless with stubborn tenacity they send it off the field or to plunge among the flavors of the ice-cream cart. And so his playmates reject him and banish him for the happiest of competitive events. And no suspicion will ever be more patently true

- from The World Cup and Its Pomps (1978) in Eco, U (1998) Faith in Fakes: travels in Hyperreality Vintage: London

This has nothing to do with anything, of course. More pertinent things soon.

The Poopsheet Foundation

I’ve just created an account over at The Poopsheet Foundation. It looks like an awesome resource:

"Here at the Poopsheet Foundation our intention is to be a central meeting place for mini-comics publishers, artists, writers, readers and collectors. It’s a community-driven site that’s also got social networking features built in. Members can upload photos and videos, participate in discussions in the forums, post mini-comics news and reviews in their individual blogs (these get fed into the main blog on the front page), "friend" other members, send messages to other members through the site, invite friends to join, add applications to their profile pages and other fun stuff."

Anyway, I’ve just posted a piece about doing a daily comic strip, which I did for a couple of months in 2008. Go; have a peek.

All the live long day

Between 12pm on Saturday 23rd and 12pm Sunday 24th of January, a bunch of us stayed up for 24 hours straight, drawing, talking, listening to music and succumbing to fits of fatigue-induced delirium and laughter in the comfortable surrounds of SHOP. It was very, very fun. The event was designed to encourage people to come in from off the street and out of the woodwork and to have a stab at drawing something with us for a while, whether drawing was something they thought they could do or not.

I initially conceived of my contribution to follow Scott McCloud’s 24 Hour Comic idea - to write and draw a 24 page comic in 24 hours (with a bit of kip thrown in). It was along these lines that I had some advice running up to the event from a number of folks. This good advice ran like this:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Moderate caffeine use,
  • Avoid too much alcohol.
  • Eat well, avoid carbohydrates, look for food to keep your energy up.
  • Work quickly, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

What I actually did on the day was a bit different:

  • Drank very little water, Had too much coffee,
  • Boozed on plenty of beer.
  • Ate poorly, including a big sandwich and left my banana at home.
  • Worked slowly, thought too much about it and drew very little for the first few hours, and largely had that sitting-in-an-exam-not-knowing-any-answers panic feeling.

Whoopsy.

As you can probably guess, I did not manage to complete a 24 page comic. I failed terribly on that count. I did however learn about how I approach making comics. I’m very hard on myself, very precise and yet (oddly) I don’t regard precision as being an asset necessary for my kind of comics. I’ve written before about my love of James Kochalka and John Porcellino, and their rejection of aesthetic conformity has been of enormous influence to me. So while I have learned about the importance of planning ahead, I hope to try and recapture some of that scrawly spontaneity that comes from focussing on the story and the effect, not the validity of the representation. This was an extremely important less on for me – one I knew, tacitly, but had to be shown through something quite uncomfortable to actually realise consciously.

I also came up with some ideas for stories – one of which will feature in Smoo #3 (which I finished writing and thumbnailing this weekend, by the way) and another of which will hopefully find fruition elsewhere. It has also inspired me to do a 24 hour comic in the future. Better planned, at home, and with sufficient sleep factored in with a good, a healthy diet and only the smallest amount of booze. We’ll see..

As for the event as a whole, it was a tremendous success. We bought in faces both known and new to SHOP, and hopefully gave them the chance to do something that they might not otherwise do. It was as much an excuse to have fun and do something different, as it was anything else. I hope everyone involved is justifiably proud of their contributions!

The results of our labours, along with contributions to the ‘Draw It Yourself’ drive can be seen in SHOP’s February exhibition, with an ongoing encouragement to KEEP DRAWING!

All drawing and no sleep makes Simon…

Yes, it’s true! We survived the ravages of sleeplessness to remain (largely) awake for a 24hr drawing marathon. It was great (delirious) fun and was very productive in some ways, while vastly less so in others. Suffice it to say a 24 Hour comic I did not make, but many news ideas I did have. I’ll post a more full entry later in the week with some images from the event and some scans of some pieces I did. In the meantime, check out SHOP’s blog for their valiant and successful chronicling of the event.

In other news

I’ve finished pencilling my contribution to Rob Jackson’s Gin Palace Anthology. I’ll ink it this week, post it off and maybe put some sneak previews here in the next week!