July 22, 2017

Nine Graphic Novels and Comic Books About Mental Health

Sometimes, words fail us. The answer to questions like, “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” can feel insurmountably difficult to form --
especially if that answer involves mental health, which can bring with it added layers of complication and even shame. Although we’ve come a long way in destigmatizing conditions like anxiety or eating disorders, too often popular narratives of mental health still center white, middle-class people. And by and large, we’re still expected to repress whatever is going on in our head and act like everything is okay. If we do admit to feeling depressed, being bipolar, or having an eating disorder, there are often a whole host of assumptions and judgements made about your reality. Depressed? You must stay in bed all day! Or, you couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder at your body weight! Yeah, yeah, yeah, and we’re all doing just fine ... Mental health is so much more complicated than the world would have us believe. The following ten graphic novels and comics show a huge diversity of perspectives on mental health - and some of them are downright hilarious in their depictions. If you’re tired of faking it, want to get a little perspective, or just want to laugh really hard at how absurd everything is, take a glance at these graphic novels and comic books about mental health.

1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Kicking off this list is an absolute classic and an early pioneer in a number of genres, including the graphic novel, the autobiography, and visual depictions of trauma. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a long and twisting story through the author’s childhood, punctuated by her coming out as a lesbian in her late adolescence and, later in the novel, her father’s death (which the author suspects is actually a suicide). Bechdel interjects many famous modernist novels into her coming-of-age tale, flipping the literary canon on its head and reappropriating it for her own ends. She seeks to understand her father’s experience as a man who had sex with other men, as well as her own sexuality, through such classic novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and many others. What’s especially interesting is how Bechdel handles the question of intergenerational trauma as she learns more and more about her father’s harrowed past.

2. Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lighter than my Shadow is a book twelve years in the making, and it details the author’s struggle with eating disorders, OCD, abuse, and PTSD. The length of time she spent working on the project is evident when you pick up the book: it’s a hefty 528 pages and printed in a full 8 1/2” x 11” format. But don’t be intimidated by it’s size! Lighter than my Shadow features tons of gorgeous illustrates and the accompanying text is simple, almost understated. Green deploys many visual metaphors for her illnesses; for example, a dark scribbled shadow stalks her character in the book, a representation of her illness and a metaphor for anxieties around weight in general. At times the book can be very emotionally intense, given the precision with which Green describes her experience of her disorders. There’s a raw openness that she shares with the reader, and it can feel so intimate as to be nearly overwhelming. Indeed, Green tears down the notion that recovery happens in a straight line, or that there is one magical step to healing. Instead, she invites her reader to join her on a beautiful, often painful, and always radically honest trek through hell and to the other side.

3. Inside Out: Portrait of an Eating Disorder by Nadia Shivack

Reader, meet Ed. Who’s Ed, you might ask? Ed is Nadia Shivack’s eating disorder, and you’ll become well acquainted in the course of reading her book Inside Out. Ed enters Shivack’s life as early as when she was just six-years old, when she would hoard candy in her sock drawer. After meeting Ed, who she first finds powerful and then terrifying, the author was taken to an in-patient treatment facility for bulimia. It was there, as she struggled with recovery and with eating, that she began drawing on napkins and sheets of paper to help cope. Many of these are transported into the book itself, which gives it a refreshingly intimate format. Reading the napkins, you feel like you’re in the hospital ward with her, fighting alongside her. Like Lighter than my Shadow, Inside Out doesn’t promise an easy resolution. Shivack makes clear that, as an adult, she is still struggling with binging and purging. But she makes equally clear that she will never give up, and her book will inspire you to do the same.

4. Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness by Clem Martini and Olivier Martini

Ben Martini was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1976. Shortly after, he commits suicide. A decade later, his brother, Olivier, received the same diagnosis. This book, a collaborative effort between brothers, is one family’s struggle to make sense of the incomprehensible. The most devastating aspect of the book, however, is its unflinching look at Canada’s mental health system, and the ways in which it fails those who need it most. The Martini family consistently encounters indifferent, underfunded institutions, and poor treatment at the hands of overworked and underpaid staff.

5. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is the book version of the author’s blog by the same name. IT. IS. HILARIOUS. Honestly, who knew that depression and anxiety could be so damn funny?? The first thing you might notice about Brosh’s work is her artistic style: she makes every single panel in MS Paint (yes, I said MS Paint) and uses a purposefully childlike or “naive” technique. On her blog’s FAQ, in response to the hypothetical ‘Why do your drawings suck so much?’ she writes, “I know. I do that on purpose because shitty drawings are funny.” Brosh brings this self-awareness to her comics, where shy wryly reflects on depression, paranoia, and her somewhat eccentric childhood. But there’s a tenderness there, too — and that’s what makes reading her comics so satisfying.

6. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney

Forney’s memoir about bipolar disorder opens with a bang. She describes, in beautiful, vivid detail, the sensations of receiving am massive back tattoo over a session stretching five and a half hours long. As the needle punctures her skin, she recalls seeing a bright light flash across her eyelids. It’s a fitting opening, as Forney proceeds to take her reader on an intimate journey through the realities of bipolar, a mood disorder notoriously difficult to treat for long-term wellness. Marbles also considers the trope of the “crazy artist,” evoking the romantic notion of madness as being central to creativity. Going through the canon of twentieth-century art, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Georgia O’Keefe are all scrutinized. But ultimately Forney’s book recalls these romantic notions in order to expel them, as she includes drawings she made during the darkest phases of her depressive cycles. But more than being about ups and downs, the book documents Forney’s foray into the full gambit of therapeutic treatments, from yoga to lithium to self-help books. Whether or not you are dealing with a mood disorder, Marbles will be sure to stay with you.

7. It's All Absolutely Fine: Life Is Complicated So I've Drawn It Instead by Ruby Elliot

Another day, another hilarious webcomic about depression turned into a book. World, meet Ruby Elliot, of the infamous tumblr rubyetc. Of all the authors on this list, Elliot’s illustrations are probably the most simple — but don’t confuse ‘simple’ with a lack of sophistication. Elliot manages to distill precisely that painful lack of words I mentioned at the opening of this article into straightforward, highly accessible graphics that depict the bizarre, confusing, and hilarious reality of living with anxiety and depression. Because of the simplicity of her comics, these might especially resonate to those new to dealing with depression and anxiety. But whether you’re just coming to these topics, or you’ve been dealing with them for years, Elliot’s wry, clever comics will certainly make you feel less alone in the world.

8. The Worrier's Guide to Life by Gemma Correll

The Worrier’s Guide to Life opens with a hilariously absurd image depicting a womb-bound fetes anxiously contemplating itself in relation to other foetuses. “What if everyone laughs at me when I come out?” it asks. Correll, who describes herself as a chronic over-worrier, will be sure to make you laugh with these highly relatable comics, many of which use impossible circumstances (an anxious fetus??!). There’s something about this book that is incredibly comforting, as Correll’s content gently pokes fun at herself and at those of us swamped with mental anxieties. Her comics will encourage you to be a bit easier on yourself, and to not sweat the small stuff. Of course, if your brain can’t help itself, don’t worry - as Correll admits, she’ll be right alongside you, just as worried.

9. Becoming Unbecoming by Una

Becoming Unbecoming is not an easy read. Set in 1970s England, Una connects her experience with misogyny and sexual violence to the larger historical events involving the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial murderer who targeted women around the same time. Una uses her autobiography as a launching-off point to explore a larger epidemic of unchecked violence against women and the social and cultural assumptions about gender that facilitate this violence. For example, Becoming Unbecoming scrutinizes a popular media that silences victims and empowers abusers, through victim-blaming, rape culture, and widespread depictions of violence against women in television and cinema. In this sense, her tale is one that perfectly executes the feminist claim that the “personal is political.” What happened to Una didn't happen in a vacuum, but is one micro instance in a larger history. The author is uncompromising in her critique and her fight to bring justice to all women. While the material is certainly heavy, this book should be required reading for all those who claim to be interested in feminism and justice for women.

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