First published One in Four Spring 2011
Comics: Something for kids, you might think, and certainly nothing that might be good for your mental health apart from providing an escape into a world full of speech bubbles and ‘Pow!’ and ‘Zap!’ Not so, says Mark Brown
When you hear the word ‘comics’ the chances are you’ll think back to Saturday mornings spent hungrily consuming the latests adventures of super heroes or the latest antics of children with odd shaped heads causing mayhem in three colour streets.
Or at least that might be true if you haven’t looked at any comics since you were still young enough get to get pocket money. In fact, the last year has seen the publication of three graphic novels or books of comic strips that will be of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in mental health. It seems that comics might actually be the perfect medium to explore mental health.
2010 saw the UK publication of Couch Fiction: A Graphic tale of Psychotherapy by Philippa Perry and Junko Grant. It’s the story of one psychotherapeutic relationship. Pat is a psychotherapist. James is an ambitious barrister who wants to overcome his guilty habit of stealing. James comes to see Pat and together they work on finding a way to overcome his difficulties. Told in large uncluttered panels, we get too see what is being said, but also what both Pat and James are thinking too. We get to watch, session by session, the interaction between the two of them and the way that James makes sense of Pat’s suggestions as a therapist and the way that Pat’s training as a therapist makes her think in response to what Pat says.
This on its own is a wonderful insight into the way that psychotherapy works, but running along the bottom of each page is a commentary explaining exactly what techniques Pat was using and why and raising questions and points about what is occurring. What would have been incredibly complicated to represent in normal prose, and incredibly irritating and drawn out to represent on film, becomes clear and accessible through the use of comics. Not only can we see what is being said and thought we can also see the intricate interweaving of fantasy, memories and dreams that the therapy creates.
Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales is very different. The style of drawing is simple, with sharp line work and large black and white panels. With very little text per page you’d think it would be difficult to do the job that the book sets itself; clearing away the misunderstandings that surround mental health. In fact, Psychiatric Tales packs an incredible amount of wisdom and insight into its deceptively simple pages. It’s possible to read it from cover to cover in half an hour, in which time you’ll pick up more about the experience of mental health difficulty than from hours and hours of training. Cunningham uses his own experiences as a psychiatric nurse and his own experience of mental health difficulty to focus on people’s experience of conditions and situations. In many of the chapters, Cunningham appears as a bespectacled narrator guiding us through other people’s experiences, trying to understand what it’s like to be them. Psychiatric Tales is a challenge to people who don’t think comics can convey important information and for anyone who thinks they can’t understand what mental health difficulties actually feel like.
Another 2010 publication was Depresso or: How I learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace Being Bonkers! by Brick, formerly best known as cartoonist producing cartoons for various political and humanitarian causes. It’s a ‘semi-fictional’ memoir of Brick’s own experience of depression and is easily one the most complete feeling memoirs of what it actually feels like to live with the condition. Depresso is a very different type of book to Couch Fiction. Where Couch Fiction is calm and measured, Depresso fizzes with ideas and information. Where Darryl Cunningham’s style is almost austere with Psychiatric Tales, Brick fills most of his pages with sly nods to other comics, to films and bits of pop culture, littering pages with caricatures or visual references. Somehow, taken all together with the story of how he found himself depressed and his journey to finding ways to get around it, this hyper-active cartoon world captures with great clarity the physical and mental symptoms of depression, especially that feeling of the world just being too full with things and meaning. Also brilliantly capturing the internal monologue of being depressed, the ‘voice’ of Brick’s depression is a great big sarcastic dragon that pops up at inopportune moments to get in the way. It’s easily one of the most detailed and most accessible depictions of depression published in a long time.
A cartoonist is only limited by his or her imagination
One in Four managed to grab Psychiatric Tales creator Darryl Cunningham for a quick chat.
Why do you think comics is such a good medium to talk about mental health?
Comics are a really good way of presenting complex information quickly. Often by the time you’ve decided to not read a comic, you’ve read half of it. It’s a medium that creeps in under the radar and delivers its information almost effortlessly, straight into the subconscious. The power of words and pictures together make comics the cinema of the printed page. It is a medium that can do anything film or literature can do, and not only that, but the sets are much cheaper. A cartoonist is only limited by his or her imagination.
What sort of responses have you had to Psychiatric Tales?
Very positive from both people suffering various illnesses and from those working in mental health. I have a comic strip in the March issues of the Student British Medical Journal, and you can’t get much more establishment than the BMJ.
Have you got any other mental health comics coming up?
Originally Psychiatric Tales was meant to be a bigger book, but as often the way with these things, I ran out of time. I am planning a second volume, which will go on to cover subjects like substance abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy
Philippa Perry with artwork by Junko Graat
Blank Slate Books
Depresso or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Being Bonkers