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.