Mental illness and Comic Books may seem like two completely different subjects. However, the popular format of the webcomic, a regularly updated strip or series online (usually for free), merges the two concepts more often than not–and frequently does so with great success.
In her article for Salon.com, Katy Waldman examines the strangely prevalent link between graphic art and mental illness. After examining several graphic novels and webcomics that deal with the topic, Waldman draws some conclusions of her own about the connection, posturing that comics “…channel subjectivity (the precise way the light seems to warp around a crush’s face, the carbonated, cross-hatchy texture of mania) and rope it into the service of storytelling. Within each frame, you feel a character’s emotions acutely and often see through his eyes; at the same time, those frames melt into an arc that deepens and contextualizes its individual parts.” (Salon.com)
Waldman spoke with webcomic author Ellen Forney (Marbles) about how Comics are uniquely qualified to tell the tale of mental illness: “Forney herself played with the abstract visual metaphor of the grid in Marbles. She used neat boxes to narrate her orderly therapy sessions, and loose, misshapen ones to convey the trapped feeling of a depressive episode. (The mania pages burst free of grids entirely)” (Salon.com). Here are some comics that deal with topics of mental illness regularly.
Hyperbole and A Half: We’ll get this monster out of the way first. Hyperbole and A Half was already popular when author Allie Brosh posted a huge comic about her struggles with depression and anxiety. Since then, the blog has exploded, resulting in a published book version and numerous memes based on her work.
Discussing her experience post-depression comic, Brosh explains that sharing with readers was an important part of her own recovery: “Depression is such an isolating experience, and there’s a tendency to feel like you’re the only one experiencing that depth or that exact brand of misery. And so it was surprising to hear how much it resonated with people…” (The Globe and Mail)
WTF Seriously Life: While Brosh sticks to her own experiences, comics artist Toby Idaho writes about the way society deals with neuro-atypical people. He makes commentary on medications, non-professionals diagnosing ADHD as as disciplinary problem, and delineates actual medical problems from unpopular opinions or differences in the LGBTQ community.
While Idaho’s material deals with serious topics, he often approaches them with an air of irreverence that can be mistaken for flippance. However, personal blog entries such as the following reveal how important it is to him that the general public change their approach to mental illness: “I’m in hospital right now for what I’m going to call ‘BPD [borderline personality disorder] Complications’. My tablet has been confiscated on account of the cord being too long, so I can’t draw anything too much. Also I’m spreading vegemite with a plastic spoon.” Even in these revealing comments, it’s clear Idaho is mixing comedy with his real-life drama in order to offer himself some relief.
MooseKleenex: MooseKleenex is not a webcomic in any traditional sense. It is, in fact, artist Kelly Bastow’s tumblr page. However, Bastow’s art is frequently made in comic form, and more often than not deals with mental illness. MooseKleenex may have no story or clear characters, but Bastow offers a safe space with alternating relatable posts, and encouragement to get through the low days.
Bastow explains, in an interview with blogger Victoria Brevik, “Nowadays I like to think my comics are for the viewers as well as myself, if someone can feel less alone, or validated because of one of my comics, that’s very special to me” (BrevikBanter.com).
Look Straight Ahead: Unlike many webcomics, “Look Straight Ahead” is a self-contained series with a distinct ending. Since its online publication, the series was made into a graphic novel which you can order online or find at a local bookstore. Author Elaine M. Will uses her tale to tackle depression and anxiety through main character Jeremy Knowles. Will explains on her site that when she started her the project, “ I noticed that there was a distressingly small number of comics centering around mental illness, and wondered if I should try my hand at drawing one. I had suffered an actual mental breakdown in 2002 and had been devouring every book related to mental illness I could lay my hands on ever since…” (Look Straight Ahead) The result has dazzled critics and fans alike.
Questionable Content: While Questionable Content may not directly address mental health, it was actually the first comic that came to mind while writing this article. QC’s author Jeph Jacques has been very candid about his own mental health struggles, and his ever-growing cast of characters clearly deal with mental health and neurotic tendencies. This is the kind of comic you’ll want to pick up if you’re looking for something a little more subtle, where you’ll connect (and possibly fall in love) with at least one character. The comic updates every day from Monday to Friday, which means there’s plenty of content to catch up on. As a “slice of life” comic, we highly recommend going back into the archives and reading from the beginning, so that you get insight into all the characters’ growth. Read up on Jacques’ blog entries as well to gain more insight into his artistic and writing choices as he develops his skills.
Tread carefully, though–the comic lives up to its name, and isn’t appropriate for all ages.
Depression Comix: Back to the world of comics that directly address mental health, Depression Comix pulls no punches and puts its subject matter right in the name. In fact, the site includes a “getting help” section for those struggling with depression all around the world. In her article for Comics Alliance, Lauren Davis explains the advantages of having complex issues like depression and anxiety literally spelled out and illustrated. “[Webcomics] put words and pictures behind something that is incredibly difficult to articulate. For folks who have suffered from depression or are currently suffering from depression, the benefit is twofold. First, there is the ever-important sense of kinship, the realization that someone else understands the very thing that you are going through and that you aren’t completely alone.” Further, “One of the special advantages of webcomics is that if you do wan3t your whole support network to see them, they’re so easy to share” (Comics Alliance).
In addition to these comics, there are plenty of one-shots or singular strips from artists all over the web that deal with mental illness, gender identity struggles, eating disorders, and a variety of other health problems.
Reading widely about individuals fighting mental disability can help you identify your own setbacks, and can help loved ones understand that mental illness doesn’t always manifest the same way. Readers and authors alike have used some of these and many other comics to make statements about mental illness as well as share their own experience with a wider audience.