On October 23rd at London’s Cartoon Museum http://www.cartoonmuseum.org Geek Syndicate hosted an event called ‘Illuminating the Dark Night of the Soul’. It was a comics event, but one about trauma, horror, sadness, depression, ill-health and loss. Rather than being a symposium on the long and varied history of The X-Men, the event brought together a number of comics creators who had one thing in common: they had all produced works that were about unpleasant, difficult or upsetting events.
The panel comprised of Nicola Streetan, creator of ‘Billy, You & Me’ about the death of her child http://home.btconnect.com/nicolastreeten/2012ns_pages/graphic_novelns12.htm; Mattilda Tristram, creator of ‘Probably Nothing’ about her experience of cancer http://www.mmaattiillddaa.com/probably-nothing/intro/; Katie Green creator of ‘Lighter Than My Shadow’ about her experience of eating disorder http://katiegreen.co.uk/books/lighter-than-my-shadow/ ; Brick, creator of ‘Depresso’ a book about depression http://www.brickbats.co.uk/books/ and Maria Stoian, creator of ‘Take It As A Compliment’ http://cargocollective.com/mariastoian/TAKE-IT-AS-A-COMPLIMENT , a book where she drew the stories of sexual harassment submitted to her via tumblr.
The common thread between all the panel was not simply that they were involved in creating comics; but that they had all used comics, a medium famed for narrative drive, to make sense of and to explore fiercely destabilising and upsetting personal events. There is a sense in which the experience of trauma or of mental health difficulty is an experience of losing track of your own story; the reins slipping from your hands as your life bolts off in directions you never anticipated. Suddenly you find yourself in a tragedy that you anticipated would be a romcom. Suddenly you are no longer playing the character that you thought you were meant to be playing. Your story has betrayed you and all of your certainties; all of your whats and whys and whens don’t fit anymore. As the panels attested: one of the worst things about having horrible things happen to you is you suddenly feel the responsibility to others to discuss your experiences responsibly. Why then, in a medium which for many is a form of escapism, did the panel choose comics as a way of telling such painful stories?
There is something in the comic that lends itself to discussing such interior states well. It is possible to draw how a character is feeling and to capture their internal life in comics in a way that would be mostly impossible with long exposition in other written media.
People can see what you’re trying to say at a glance; unlike writing prose where people can’t see what you’re trying to do until they actually read through a lot of you trying to do it. Comics can also be an intensely private medium in that you don’t require a cast and crew to make them. Most of us now ‘get’ comics as a natural visual language that we’re familiar with in one way or another.
We are sensory before we are linguistic; we first learn to understand the world by how it smells and sounds and looks. Then we add language. If we are people who can see, we already are used to gleaning huge amounts of information from what our eyes tell us. If we were brought up with comics we read them first by looking at the pictures. At that level, comics are a supremely accessible medium both for creators and for readers.
It’s that familiarity combined with accessibility that makes it possible for comics to hit us with a sucker punch right in the gut when it comes to discussing difficult or challenging issues.
Comics can make visible in a single panel both the interior state of a character through the handy convention of thought bubbles; can show action and dialogue conveying what is happening; can include narration of description and can also use how something is actually drawn and arranged on the page to do anything from convey emotion to allude to other sources via visual quotation to build narrative drive or drama by how and where the panel is placed. Comics aren’t just words and pictures; they’re the total of the interaction between words and pictures. Comics are fat with meaning.
Comics possess that most hallowed of art crit qualities: semiotic thickness. That is to say that comics, as an interaction of text and images are capable of saying lots of different things at the same time.
Brick alluded to this when he referred to comics as being like opera; a combination of different elements all working in harmony to convey meaning. When approaching comics seriously for the first time, especially if they are not a medium that you grew up with beyond early childhood it is easy to make the mistake of considering the elements that make up a comic separately; assuming based on your preference in other media that either the pictures are there to explain the text or the text is there to explain the pictures.
There was interesting tension in the panel discussion between the creators who were more steeped in the history of comics and cartooning and those who had come to it from other disciplines primarily as a confessional or personal medium. This debate could be characterised as ‘we could push this medium so much further’ versus ‘we’ve already done something amazing.’ In an echo of the debates within game design, the accessible ‘indie’ titles have tended to be dominated by creators who are not straight, white men.
In actuality, both sides are correct. Brick’s ‘Depresso’ works precisely because it so dense. Many pages are crammed with panels, with each panel stuffed with huge amounts of visual information as well as text. Many of the panels riff on or quote other famous visual sources – fine art, film, historic comics and cartoons – all contributing to a work that conveys the self loathing, over thinking depressive void where the world feels devoid of meaning precisely because everything reminds you of everything else. It’s a big square wedge of a book that feels uncomfortably like not an account of depression but a journey into it. ‘Depresso’ works because it reads like a professional cartoonist using the tools that they have to try to make sense of a world that appears to have played a terrible joke on them by robbing them of the one thing that has always kept them company – their ability to capture in lines on a page the truth of a situation that others may not be immediately able to see.
Some of the other creators on the panel had created work that was no less visceral; but which tended toward the appearance of simplicity of craft. They work because they don’t reference anything other than themselves; creating an intimacy and an immediacy so often lacking in dealing with complex and traumatic subjects. The combination of words and text creates something larger than the sum of either; each page or panel conveys a personal truth in a way that reaches out beyond simple description. By at first appearing cute, naive or innocent these comics are in some ways in dialogue with their own medium. “We’re not like those other comics,” they seem to say, wrong footing expectation and setting themselves aside from expectations imposed upon other comics. They suggest something akin to the initial wave of punk or to the purposefully unpolished world of indie records, a directness that reduces the boundary between creator and audience that suggests a democratic medium where where anyone who wants to can have their turn at the mic. Nicola Streeten mentioned Rosalind Penfold’s Dragon Slippers http://www.dragonslippers.com/find.html as a masterclass in this approach. Despite its naive drawing style Dragon Slippers is a devastating book about domestic violence and abusive relationships.
That comics can embrace such a diversity of style illustrates the ways in which the medium is constantly changing. For much of the world; comic book WAS a genre with a series of baked in assumptions about the relationship of form and content. To be ‘into comics’ now no longer suggests either a shared heritage of agreed classics and current favourites or a particular emotional life. People are bringing what they want to comics and increasingly getting what they want from them, too as publishers accept that diversity is the key to new markets.
Truth and risk
All of the comics discussed at the event were autobiographical, apart from Stoian’s which was based upon anonymous accounts submitted to her via Tumblr. In conversation with the audience the creators discussed some of the tensions around the act of autobiography and the maintenance of relationships with people who may feature in the works in question. There seemed to be a division between the creators engaged in work that covered mental health and those that covered physical health or loss, with Brick especially keen to point out that there are some members of his family that must never, ever, see copies of ‘Depresso’. While all of the creators experienced stigma to a degree – the experience of losing a child is something that no parent can imagine until it happens to them, for example – it seemed that it was claiming your story of non-physical trauma that held the greatest risks. It’s an old joke that the celebrity autobiography is the place where old scores are settled and the last word is had; but the possibility of this seems no less alive for its well acknowledged truth. Working in a medium where accessibility is such a strong feature seemed to make it much, much harder to disguise real people without a conscious effort to do so. While the advice from the panel to the audience was to be brave and to try to capture your own truth; it was hedged with recollections of ways in which they had avoided incidents or things that might have upset particular people. Again, this presented a particular challenge for the creators writing and drawing events that were not primarily situated within themselves.
Commenting on the death of a child, one contributor spoke about the way that the world was divided into the time before the loss and the time afterwards saying “People were going about their day as if the world hadn’t ended. Nothing had changed but everything was different.”
The works being all discussed all captured this quality, drawing and writing about the ways in which what happens to us changes us on the inside and how what we feel inside changes how things look and feel. Such comics put the inside outside.
This may be the great draw of autobiographical comics as a medium for speaking unpalatable personal truths: they give a much greater pallette for metaphor and simile by making it possible to capture an emotional truth while avoiding or lessening the reliance on a literal one.
Mark Brown does mental health stuff. He is @markoneinfour on twitter.