I know there are some hard-core types who believe that a comic should stand on its own and that writing anything to accompany one is cheating or weak or excessive. This is not something I believe, and there are plenty of precedents to support me – records have liner notes and novels have introductions and animals in zoos have signs next to their cages. I think it’s legitimate to explore an object via a different medium to that of the object. Also I can say some things best through one medium (like comics are best for jokes) and some things best through another (like writing is best for rants).
In this post I am going to explore and explain the motivations and processes behind my ‘Episode’ bipolar comics (you can read these here and here). It is tricky because first I am going to talk generally about mental illness-related comics. In doing this my intention is to explore the ways in which I respond to these comics and how these responses influence my own work. It is not to denigrate anyone else's experiences or decisions or the way they might choose to represent them in comics. Nor am I questioning the value of comic-making – or any creative activity – as a tool for processing serious stuff. My own bipolar disorder does not give me a free pass to be mean or to say any-old-thing, but it does give me the confidence to say that I think comics about mental illness are (thoughtfully) respond-able and critique-able just like any other cultural product. I do not believe that comics about mental illness – including my own - should be protected from this by their content.
It is important to say that when I refer to mental illness-related comics I am not talking about the general anxiety and/or low level self-loathing that seems to permeate pretty much all modern autobiographical works (the representation of which spans the spectrum of sensitive, relevant and amusing through to craven, responsibility-shirking and repulsive). Neither am I talking about the widespread postmodern superhero identity crisis (so often offensively and superficially and predictably portrayed in comics and other media). When I say mental illness-related comics I mean comics that have the real experience of mental illness (bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia, anorexia, whatever) as their core subject. It’s not in the form of a personality quirk or justification for the main action or an altered consciousness experience represented without context.
My feelings about mental illness-related comics are similar to my feelings about most comics - frustrated bewilderment that such a kick-arse medium is used so consistently and intentionally to produce such insipidness. Fuelled by the duel motivation of bipolarity and comics interest, I am however much more driven to seek and read comics about mental illness than I am about other kinds. Unfortunately I am mostly disappointed. By this I mean that while the events and feelings the comics portray seem fair enough, the actual portrayal is for me, lacking. I do not deny the honesty of these works, or their right to be made or to be valued by their makers and others, or to be in the world. It’s just that while I might recognise their content, I don't really get the works comic-wise.
Comics about mental illness seem to fall into four (often overlapping) categories. These are (in no particular order):
Public service announcements that are consciously designed to provide factual information about mental illness and are often found in pamphlets in clinic waiting rooms.
Didactic comics that also tell us about mental illness but from an consciously ideological perspective. Rather than ‘informing’ the reader, they want the reader to ‘learn’ or ‘understand’ a particular point of view. They often critique social attitudes to mental health and/or the mental health system.
Diary comics that chronicle the positive and negative day-to-day experiences and related feelings of an individual with a mental illness. These often seem to concentrate on participation in therapeutic interventions such as seeing a counsellor, being in a hospital, taking medications etc.
Analytic tomes that attempt not only to describe personal experiences of mental illness but to deconstruct and analyse those experiences in relation to family, society, history and/or theory; and often in great detail.
While I am bothered that mental illness-related comics are so easily categorised, I have no issue with any of the actual approaches (and I especially don’t mind public service announcement comics which have an honest and difficult job to do). Mental illness is an ideal thing to make a comic about. It is full of unusual experiences and liminal spaces and genuine pain and utter ridiculousness, and any comic in any of the categories could exploit this and theoretically be good. I would love to find one I felt nailed mental illness and was interesting to read as an actual comic; that used the medium powerfully and made me feel big stuff. But so far, unfortunately nah. Instead I find these works wedded to this idea of comics as a 'sensitive narrative medium for grown ups' and therefore a bit dull and cringy in their earnestness and lack of jokes (and saying this is no joke because jokes are one of my top ten bipolar episode survival tools. Also I believe anything can be funny if handled skillfully).
I do believe though it’s not cool to criticize others for attempting to do something you haven’t, especially something difficult. But hey! As luck would have it, I have bipolar disorder! And a recent serious episode! And therefore a most excellent opportunity to throw my hat into the mental illness comic-ring.
In making my bipolar comics I decided I would try not to make one that belonged to any of the previously stated categories; and that - as with all my comics - I would try and make something good. That’s ‘good’ as it pertains to me, meaning short strips, flat minimal cartoony drawing, pretty frames, and most importantly punchlines. I also wanted to set myself the extra challenge of making comics that were mentally ill in form as well as content, something I felt I hadn’t seen before (not objectively 'better' than any other approach, just different and more me). Specifically I wanted to try and recreate for the reader a kind of flippant bipolar mixed-episode mini-experience via strips that were simultaneously happy and sad; jokey and earnest; light and heavy; loving and hateful.
Yes, part of my reason for making the comics was to help process the (undeniably long and hard) bipolar episode. But if that processing had resulted in a comic I considered ‘not good’ or that utterly failed to convey any hint of a dumbed-down mixed-episode as per my aspiration, I would not have released it, no matter how therapeutic the making might have been. Lucky for you (ha) when the work was finished it seemed to me to be pretty decent and so I sent it out into the world.
People have been kind and generous in giving me feedback about these ‘Episode’ comics and I feel very lucky and gratified. Most people say they’ve enjoyed them and that they’ve appropriately giggled and lamented, squirmed and reposed, and I really like hearing that. Sometimes unexpected and interesting reactions that make me go “woah” are also communicated. Three examples of these are, first “I learnt a lot”; second “I can relate”; and third “you’re so brave”.
“I learned a lot”
In making these comics I had no intention at all to educate (go entertainment!) But it would seem my previous life as a school-teacher and my general nerdiness meant some fun bipolar facts slipped through. And I am glad they did because this “I learned a lot” reaction is cool. It mostly manifests as someone getting in touch after reading the comic and wanting to know more about the condition. Sometimes they are just curious in a “Lithium was made in the Big Bang and it makes your hair curly?” kind of way. But sometimes they have/had someone in their life they are hoping to more objectively understand. These people ask questions and we talk, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for a long time and sometimes more than once. The conversations are facts-about-the-condition-based but also rich and thought-provoking; and sometimes I am told I have been helpful which is so amazing I cannot even make a joke about it.
“I can relate”
This response is the most overwhelming. I thought my comics were my experiences, my jokes, my life. And they are but apparently sometimes they overlap with the edges of others’. I know this because a few incredible people got in touch with me and told me that after reading my comics they didn’t feel so alone. One woman told me that they made her son laugh while they were sitting in Accident and Emergency and he was bleeding from some self-inflicted cuts. Thinking about these messages I still cry and my heart still wobbles and I cannot really say anything more about it than that.
“You’re so brave”
I can’t stand this response. While it is kindly meant, it feels patronizing and reflects assumptions that I need confidence boosting in an “aw, you may be crackers but it’s OK to be you” kind of way. Describing my work as brave is yuck and also inaccurate. Bravery is when at first you are scared, but then you break through the fear and do what needs doing because you know it’s the right thing. I have no fear in releasing my comics whatever they’re about. Neither am I scared to tell people I have bipolar disorder, or about any of my specific experiences. Everyone has their shit. This is just mine (the comics obsession as well as the bipolar).
There was no fear either in the actual making of the work. I made these comics fuelled not by bravery but by compulsion! The two installments were made at two different times but both in exactly the same way I make all my comics. One lucid day the first strip popped into my head fully-formed and I went “uh oh here we go…” and we did. Over the next few weeks all the other strips followed in the usual kind of BAM BAM BAM fashion and I scribbled them down. After they stopped appearing they started clamouring at the inside of my skull to get out. When the headache got bad enough, I got out some paper and my crappy Whitcoulls ink pens. I solidified my ideas about what I wanted to make (not a mental illness comic like those I’ve seen before, and a comic that was mentally ill in form as well as content) and started drawing. I drew every evening from about 6.00 to 9.00pm, listening to the same music over and over (deep house remixes of Kate Bush hits) until it was finished, at which point I did no editing or correcting but just went “phew”. Then because I felt OK about the comics, I shooed them out of the house. I cried over the memories in some of the strips, which seems legit, but the making-process itself held no angst or torture or fear.
Sometimes I wonder if the way I make comics is related to my bipolar disorder. When I make them I definitely feel alone and deep and relentless and looping and trapped in something that I have no choice but to wait out, just like when I’m depressed or manic. But then sometimes I think the speedy, obsessive, repetitious, bursty, so-certain way I make them might be its own whole different mental illness. Whatever it is, my comic-making is mine and my bipolar is mine and my bipolar comics don’t make me feel stink.