The Poetics of Mental Disorders in Modern Graphic Novels

In the last twenty years, comics and graphic novels have become more complex and have developed a language that expresses more about problematic issues such as mental illness. Even though we have many previous references to insanity and the sociopathic in characters like The Joker, in Batman: The Killing Joke, or Rorschach, in Watchmen, these characters are largely stereotypes and have become emblematic in reference to madness.

On one hand, the Joker is an enemy, and on the other hand, Rorschach is a troubled hero. Even when these characters are multifaceted, they still have a kind of aura that makes them different from other characters. They are intelligent, capable, and calculating; in some ways, they are magnificent and capable of carrying out impressive — although horrible or dreadful — feats. But what about those who cannot get out of their houses because they have a panic attack? Or what about those who are found naked under the rain, completely lost, and distanced from reality? What happens to those who look like typical patients with a mental illness rather than a Machiavellian enemy?


“Arrugas” by Paco Roca

There is another kind of character, one who doesn’t make a building explode but can spend all their money on a car (even though they don’t know how to drive). There is another kind of character , one who can be so distanced from reality that they spend hours lost in their minds, entirely immersed in their thoughts. This conscious portrayal of a real and tangible mental illness is frightening, and there are only a few artists who have the sensibility to represent (in the language of comics) a mental disease with all the special details that it requires.

Artists like Paco Roca in his work Arrugas (Astiberri, 2007, Spanish version) speaks about the problem of losing memory, and more specifically about Alzheimer’s disease. Arrugas tells the story of a character who is admitted into a mental institution and how gradually the Alzheimer’s disease consumes him. This graphic novel also shows how other elderly patients live in the hospital and how they become distanced from reality. This graphic novel has won a number of prizes and in 2007 was selected as one of the 20 Best Books by ACBD (Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée).

"Unastoria" by Gipi

“Unastoria” by Gipi

Another example is Unastoria (Coconino Press, 2013) by Gipi that tells the story of a character who recreates his identity through past events and how the boundary between fiction and reality is not always completely clear. The structure of this graphic novel is not linear and it possesses temporal and space jumps between the present and the past. Divided into five chapters, the book tells the story of writer Silvano Landi, who tries to understand the meaning of the past through the letters of his great-grandfather Mauro Landi, an Italian soldier during the Great War.

The main character inquires about the story of his great-grandfather and starts to recreate — through his imagination — the scenarios and the actions through which great-grandfather lived. Gipi uses watercolours paintings, ink drawings, and typography that look like handwriting and bring a beautiful but disturbing atmosphere to the book. Through the absence of delimited panels and smudge writing, the page shows a representation of the complex process of understanding the past and an attempt to create language — and more specifically, a narrative form to understand it.

After been admitted to a mental institution, Silvano starts an interior monologue where we discover his fascination with his great-grandfather’s past and the process to create a narrative form of it. The problem that Silvano deals with is how to find the ‘true story’ within the ‘real story’ within, as the facts come to him in the chaotic form of letters, drawings, and short conversations. This task makes him fall into a mental state where he can’t differentiate between the present and the past, or fiction from reality.

Another example is La parenthèse by Élodie Durand (Delcourt, 2010) that won the Revelation Award at the Angoulême Festival in 2011, and tells the story of a young woman who has epilepsy and a brain tumour that gradually makes her lose her memory and identity. This is an autobiographic and intimate graphic novel that shows the medical process she has to face in order to survive and how gradually she has to create a new version of herself after dealing with a destructive disease. Like Arrugas, La parenthèse is based in a real experience with characters and situations based in real life.

"Psychiatric Tales" by Darryl Cunningham

“Psychiatric Tales” by Darryl Cunningham

In the same style, we can mention Psychiatric Tales, Expanded Edition by Darryl Cunningham (Blank State Books, 2013). This graphic novel is also based on an autobiographical experience and brings the reader a simple, but not easy, exhibition of different mental diseases. The main character (and also narrator) happens to be the author of the story, a “[…] health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward” (9). During his working times, he kept a diary in which he “[…] gradually amassed a huge amount of material about the day-to-day workings of a psychiatric hospital” (9). It is very interesting to note that the narrator is not a doctor or psychiatrist, or has a distant and cold voice. It is a personal voice that is truly empathetic with the patients and one who knows the complexity of a mental disease.

One of the most important characteristics of this graphic novel is the way that the artist creates an image of a person with a mental illness. Since the time of Romanticism, madness has been related with grandiosity and an extraordinary ability for the artistic creation, science, or even politics. Later, the figure of the genius appeared as an eccentric but very talented person who was tolerated by society because of his richness, his social status, or his achievements — in contrast with those who didn’t have the ability or the wellbeing, and were rejected by society. This particular kind of person is who Cunningham focuses his attention upon, those anonymous persons who are excluded and banned from the social order.

After the explanation of different kind of mental diseases such as depression and anxiety, Cunningham shows how mental illness is part of the history of the humanity. But more importantly, he shows how, as humanity, we prefer to hide the reality, instead of being conscious on how a mental illness is an important characteristic of modern society.

3905594240_f6335f1940_oThis idea is expressed in the chapter People with mental illness enrich our lives, in which Cunningham presents famous and real characters that suffered a kind of mental illness such as Winston Churchill, Spike Milligand and Judy Garland and how they contributed to transform our reality in spite of being ill — or maybe because they were ill. Churchill “had many of the traits we now associate with bipolar disorder: belligerence, abnormal energy, lack of inhibition, and grandiosity. The perfect traits necessary for a leader in war time. Without which it is doubtful he could have inspired a nation at its darkest hour” (102,103).

In Psychiatric Tales, we can find an exhibition of how to create the construction of the other, which is to say, a person with a mental disorder. People with mental illness have been banned from society and considered as an other and this graphic novel shows how we create this otherness. By the description of the types of diseases through the story of the patients, Cunningham presents characters with mental illnesses that are completely different from those we usually see in comics. They are not psychotic villains creating an elaborated plan to destroy an entire city or defeat a masked hero. These patients are shown to be fragile, in pain, but more importantly, vulnerable. Though, they also might be considered a threat and a menace to those who are, apparently, healthy.

There is a particular moment when the narrator explains the recovery process of a patient who becomes a bus driver when “a reader’s voice” asks: “But isn’t this guy dangerous? The idea that such a man is loose on the streets frightens me.” At this point, the narrator explains how the patient recovered and becomes part of society. He shows that “gone are the days when we yanked people into hospital for having strange beliefs. And that can only be a good thing.” (89).

Psychiatric-Tales-suicide-Darryl-CunninghamIn the chapter Schizophrenia, the narrator emphasizes that “sufferers of this illness [schizophrenia] are more likely to be victims of crime that the perpetrators.” (134) Once more, we have different points of view of a given situation. On one hand, there is a patient who recovered and becomes part of the society because he is functional and useful. He can work and he becomes an efficient member of society. On the other hand, there is a man with schizophrenia whose house was invaded by local youths that transform his place into a space “to hang out in and take drugs” (136). These are different situations that display the complexity of the process in which we signify an individual with a mental disease.

Apparently, if a patient with a mental disease is able to be a functional member of society, he might be accepted, contrary to those who can’t take care of themselves. They become targets of abuse.

It is important to emphasize that Cunningham doesn’t show the patients as victims. Moreover, he presents them as sufferers of condition that they don’t create by themselves, but does in fact determine their existence. By details and descriptions, the narrator constructs an image for every disease and gives a voice to all those people who don’t have a voice of their own, emphasizing how fear and ignorance can be more dangerous than a person with a medical condition.

Cunningham shows in this graphic novel a different number of possibilities of how to represent a patient with a mental illness. A silent and unknown patient in a mental institution. A bus driver. A famous political figure or an anonymous and frightened individual in a lonely house. Between these possibilities there is another figure that brings to the reader a closer point of view. When we discover that the narrator has himself suffered from mental health problems — severe anxiety and depression — we get involved in a narrative that shows in an unpretentious way, a very intricate state of the human being. Cunningham finds a way to get some distance from the romantic version of madness and, through clean black lines in a white background, creates a visual language for what cannot be described only by words.

BSCunningham1_0811Additionally, Cunningham creates a visual syntax that brings to the reader the representation of a healing process. At the very end of the graphic novel, the artist presents himself as character which is inside of the story but at the same time outside of it creating the drawings, showing the reader how to “look deep into yourself for the qualities you need to survive. Your talents, hopes, dreams, and desires. Because these are the things that will save you” (173-174). At this point, we might say that Cunningham is capable of creating a visual image that represents a mental state and creates a voice close to the reader. It is a specific tone that allows to the spectator to go inside the narrative and get closer into a mental state that it is difficult to fully understand.

Darryl Cunningham, just like Paco Roca, Gipi, and Élodie Durand, creates a narrative form for something that originally doesn’t have a coherent structure. This doesn’t mean he translates the feelings or sensations from reality to the comic completely, but he creates a symbolic space from which he build up a fictional — but plausible — scenario. The big triumph is not to stop an explosion or a massive attack, but to stay alive and face everyday life as the greatest achievement.

Psychiatric Tales doesn’t try to educate or manipulate the reader or create a specific point of view. It is an artistic piece that presents a question to the reader and a refuge for those who sympathises with the story. But in a humble and realistic way, Cunningham presents how mental health problems were and are part of our reality. It represents a distinguishing characteristic of the human being and how even with this, we are still afraid of something that we barely know. This graphic novel shows not only the distress that the term “mental illness” may produce in society but also the mechanism through which we face it. Mental institutions, research, and medical terms are some of the professional ways to do it, but this graphic novel has the potential to reach a reader — who may or may not be familiar with the topic — and present a reality that he can’t deny.

It is there, not as threat, but a truth that is impossible to reject.