As Amanda began her post last week discussing her aversion for stand-up comedy, I thought I might presage my post with the fact that, historically speaking, I am not a reader of comics or graphic novels. So I tried to think about the reasons of this avoidance while reading Ellen Forney’s Marbles and Scott McCloud’s Show and Tell. The first reason might be a simple aesthetic preference. While I am compelled by McCloud’s description of the “the mixing of words and pictures is more alchemy than science,”(McCloud 161) and his examples of how either words or pictures can be liberated to “move toward greater levels of abstraction or expression,”(McCloud 160) I’m not sure I want an either/or so much as both at the same time; my artistic tastes happen to lean very strongly in the direction of abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock, etc.) So maybe the more representational, narrative mode that graphic novels tend to offer just isn’t what I want out of a static visual medium.
The second reason might be a more political reaction based on my own cultural associations with the content of comic books. McCloud describes his initial impression of comics, “those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.” From early childhood I also associated comics with the superhero genre. My objection to the superhero genre is not homophobic (“guys in tights”); rather, I see it as a reification of neoliberal values. I wouldn’t have framed it that way in early childhood – but I think I cringed at some mass-market/macho aspect of the genre (possibly explaining why Wonder Woman was the only superhero I remember liking).
But obviously, it would be reductive and disingenuous to paint an entire genre (let alone an entire art form) with that broad brush. So maybe the real reason I don’t read graphic narrative is simply that I’m a literary snob who prefers my literature to come in an accepted and recognizable literary package. However, I have been trying to deprogram these tendencies in myself – first by reading more speculative fiction (and, more recently, by translating speculative Swahili fiction). And I’ve also made a point of reading some stunning graphic novels with my daughter (i.e. Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts) and partner (Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream).
So there’s all the baggage I bring to Ellen Forney’s Marbles – which I very much enjoyed. In fact, I often found myself wishing I hadn’t spent so many years snubbing graphic novels, because then I might have read it when it first came out, when I happened to be cohabiting with someone hurtling towards the first of several psychiatric hospitalizations. And I appreciate that Forney’s book is not just personal, but also prescriptive – whether it’s reproducing DSM-IV criteria(Forney 15-18, 86), recording her foray into cognitive behavioral therapy(Forney 87-88), or that cathartic scene imagining what she would tell her past self after the diagnosis(Forney 234-235); in these sections, the book feels very geared towards an audience who could directly benefit from such practices – bipolar individuals or those closest to them.
Aesthetically speaking, however, it was other moments that I found most compelling. Forney hooked me from the beginning with that graphic depiction of her mind in a manic state as a chaotic, free-associating maze of arrows and thought-bubbles(Forney 6-7). That page read like a concrete poem – since the words themselves became the graphic. I felt thrust inside her brain, and thrust back into past moments when I was trying to calm down (or keep up with) friends experiencing manic episodes. I noticed that the book’s pacing and presentation would sometimes mimic her mental state – becoming more frenetic in manic stages, slower and more reflective in depressive stages – but more often we experience her analyzing these states retrospectively. I wondered what this book might be like if it took the strategy of those thought bubbles to an extreme – unfolding more mimetically of her mental state and fully in the moment. This might make for a less prescriptive statement about mental illness – but maybe a more jarring artistic experiment.
Visually, my favorite moments in the book were her sketches, namely the slipping-down image(Forney 70), the nest(Forney 94), hand(Forney 102), or “Phoenix-like Ellen 1999 rises from the ashes of Ellen 1998.”(Forney 109) I wondered what it would be like if this book only consisted of more abstract art, rather than the more traditional, representative comic figures. It would be a very different book; the time and attention that abstract sketches demand of the reader do not lend themselves to narrative. And pairing them with Forney’s chatty, personal voice would likely be incongruous; it would call for a more lyrical accompaniment – perhaps in the “parallel combination” McAdams describes, where “words and pictures seem to follow very different courses – without intersecting.”(154)
Probably the single most moving page in the book for me was the panel “Wednesday Morning Yoga”(Forney 125) that featured graphic depictions of the distracting and menacing thoughts haunting her as she tries to do yoga. This panel features no words other than the title – evidence for McCloud’s idea that “if the words lock in the meaning of the sequence, then the pictures can really take off”(McCloud 159). It’s also notable that (as far as I can tell) this was reproduced from a single panel that likely appeared as a weekly comic strip; it was not created in the narrative context of this graphic novel. But would I have found it as moving if I encountered it in a newspaper, isolated from everything I learned about Ellen Forney’s personal experience? I’m not so sure.
The moments I found most striking in the book are evidence, I think, that my aesthetic preferences still go against the grain of graphic narratives. But I am also willing to acknowledge that in this case, the graphic form provided a context where these moments could stand out and be amplified.