AUTUMN OF INDIE: Interview with ‘Look Straight Ahead’ Writer Elaine M. Will

Today we focus on Look Straight Ahead, a powerful comic with an important message. Look Straight Ahead is a web comic written and drawn by the immensely talented Elaine M. Will. The comic focuses on main character Jeremy’s struggle with depression and his deterioration leading to a total mental breakdown.

It’s a powerful and extremely well done comic with strong and at times frightening visuals, which give it a really visceral and jarred feel. There’s a contrast between ‘real life’ and the scenes where Jeremy’s conscious mind starts to turn against him.

This is a must read. It covers a difficult subject matter with tact and an unapologetic focus on what living with a mental illness is really like.

Elaine kindly answered some questions on the comic and why it’s focused on such an important issue, which needs more attention.

Geek Syndicate (GS): Was Look Straight Ahead always going to be a web comic?

Elaine Will (EW): I hadn’t planned it to be, but that’s the easiest way for me to get my work out there. I generally have always made artistic choices that work better in print, but it’s impossible to have your work seen by anyone if it’s not online.

The other reason I put it on the web is so that I can force myself to stick to a schedule. In the past I’ve started a lot of comics that I’ve never finished and I thought this one was of particular importance, so I wanted to make sure I saw it through to the end.

GS: It looks at some very important issues regarding Depression and mental health. Why are these issues important to you?

EW:  I was a “weird” kid, so I was always bullied a lot in school, and that had a fairly negative effect on my mental health from about age 12 onwards. Throughout my life I’ve had many friends that have dealt with the same issues, but the whole topic is still seen as very shameful, something that you’re not supposed to talk about or ever mention in public. I’ve never understood why this is, given the sheer amount of people who suffer with depression. I do realize it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t suffer with it to understand what it’s really like, so here’s hoping my work helps to educate a few people!

GS: Music plays a big influence on Jeremy, even physically transporting him to other worlds. Does it influence your work?

EW: Absolutely, I’ve always tried to illustrate songs visually – in fact, a couple of years back I had some pieces in a series of exhibitions called “Paintwork,” which was artwork inspired by The Fall. Around the same time I drew a bunch of covers for “The Pseud Mag,” a Fall fanzine!

I always need to have music playing when I draw. Usually something electronic, as instrumentals are less distracting and driving rhythm helps me work.

I’ve always thought there was a profound connection between music and the visual arts, one that more artists need to explore. Back in the heyday of Muchmusic (the Canadian MTV) I enjoyed seeing a music video take full advantage of its medium to tell a story, to combine music and images in really interesting ways. It never happened very often – maybe only 1 in 40 videos was like that, and the rest were just concert footage of a band playing in a warehouse somewhere – but I was always impressed when it did. Comes from my love of comics, I suppose – and their ability to combine words and pictures in interesting ways!

GS: What made you want to write about this story from a male perspective?

EW:  Mostly as a way of distancing myself from the subject matter. While the story is largely based on my own experiences, if I told it exactly the way it had happened it would have taken much longer and probably wouldn’t have been as interesting. I would have had to communicate a lot of information through flashbacks and it probably would have ended up reading more like a memoir, and that just wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell.

The other more embarrassing reason is that (at least when I started drawing the story) I’m just not all that good at drawing women! Rest assured, my next book will be about a woman.

GS: There’s a real sense of frustration at the way Jeremy’s illness is handled. Do you think there are still barriers with regards to treatment and diagnosis for mental illness?

EW:  Oh, yes. That goes back to what I said earlier about how it’s just never discussed, it’s not a thing people ever want to talk about. This causes a lot of people to never even seek treatment, thinking “I can handle this on my own” – because a lot of times that’s the idea others put into their heads. “Snap out of it!” and so on. And if you can’t “snap out of it” on your own, that means you’re weak. It’s very frustrating. But also as I said earlier, it’s difficult for people to understand what it’s really like, so I have to try to see it from that perspective.

I’ve always had fairly positive experiences with treatment but I do get the feeling that a lot of doctors won’t take you seriously or prescribe medication unless you out-and-out admit that you’re suicidal. So that’s kind of frustrating as well. I’ve heard (I think this may have been in Psychiatric Tales, actually) that there’s also a stigma associated with psychiatric nurses, and how they’re not considered “real” nurses. And sometimes psychiatrists aren’t considered “real” doctors.

On the other hand, if I’d written a story about someone having a breakdown in the 1950s or earlier it would have been a VERY different story. In those days they basically locked you up and threw away the key. Did you ever see that documentary “Mental” on BBC4 a couple of years back, about the defunct High Royds hospital in West Yorkshire? Horrifying stuff. They’d actually beat the patients and things like that.

So yes, we still have a long way to go. But we’ve definitely come a long way as well.

GS: How would you describe your artistic style?

EW: Not sure! I’m obviously influenced by independent comics but I take a lot of cues from the mainstream stuff as well. So it’s somewhere in the middle of that. I’ve never really gotten hung up on “style” to be honest, and I think a lot of artists get stuck because they get so concerned with developing a “style!” I never worried about that. A style develops naturally. Your drawings don’t have to look like your favourite artists, they should just look like YOURS! And, over time, they will.

GS: What other projects are you working on at the moment?

EW: I’m drawing a more conventional web comic called On The Bus, which appears in a local free newspaper every Friday. It’s basically about these little monster characters saying and witnessing awkward things. It’s just goofy and silly and I’m having a lot of fun doing it – a nice break from serious drama!

Besides that, I’m also tentatively working on something wildly experimental involving classic video games – don’t want to give away more than that, other than it’ll be quite different from the usual video game comic.

Reporter: Sara Westrop

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