Wednesday, October 08, 2014

#worthassigning: Katy Waldman on how comics portray mental illness

In "Patterns and Panels: How comics portray psychological illness,"  Katy Waldman ( looks at how an array of comics and comic book art depict mental illness, arguing that the medium brings unique strengths to that endeavor.

The piece surveys a range of artists and styles, showing different techniques and approaches, and includes insights from some of the artists as well as academics who study the comic book form and/or mental disability. 

It's a good piece for students both as a possible model -- the writing and writerly moves are good  -- and as piece for discussion and leads to further research. 

Here's an excerpt, without the images that appear between the 2nd and 3rd graphs in the original:
Ellen Forney helped clarify my mess of questions and impressions when I spoke to her on the phone. “Comics can give presence to tone and feeling and emotion in a way that’s difficult to do in other media,” she explained. “What happens with mental illness is that while there’s a lot of the story that is very specific—like text, which says a precise thing—there’s also a lot that’s really difficult to put into words. That’s where the language of comics comes in, the reliance on visual aspects that are strong in presenting mood.” 
I asked for an example. “A comic that’s drawn dense and scribbly will come across as much darker in tone than something that is clean lines,” Forney said. “Those kinds of expressiveness are more visceral, like music.” 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.) 
As I talked to Forney, I realized that working through a comic book reminds me of working through a poem. There’s an initial sense of disorganization and unfamiliarity, but then intuition seems to kick in. The structure may not be linear, but it still makes itself felt. In his essay on Shakespeare and depression, Jonathan Farmer writes that a good poem doesn’t “run like an aqueduct”—it meanders like a river. “Doubt,” he concludes, “is essential to poetry,” just as questioning your perceptions is fundamental to writing about your madness. Yet both madness and poetry offer their own bizarre scaffolds for experience. Powell gets at that, in Swallow Me Whole, when he uses the emotional logic of images to unfold one of Ruthie’s schizophrenic transports: She is scared, bugs are scary, and suddenly there they are, massing out of an air vent. Or think of David B. puppeteering the reader’s movement through Epileptic by alternating small consecutive squares with full-page boxes. You may feel as though you’ve passed outside of authorial control, but the comic is still pacing you, opening and contracting its world, shaping your responses.

As a writing teacher, I like the passage because it uses lots of citation -- weaving in of quotes, references to works, experts -- in a way that doesn't obscure Waldman's voice. She's responding as a reader, as herself, and does so in a way that acknowledges sources naturally and effectively. Notice, for example, the first three sentences of the 3rd graph in the excerpt. "As I talked to Forney" is a form of citation, but it's also conversational, and sets up an insight -- that reading a comic reminded her of reading a poem, an insight that is then explained. Notice then how that insight leads to the citation, an apt citation, of Jonathan Framer.

Those kinds of moves may seem obvious, but for novice writers, they're not, and they're sometimes hard to do. Seeing writing that does this, asking writers to track and trace how sources are weaved into Waldman's argument, offers a good model for how those writers might do something similar in their own essays, especially if in a college writing course their essays will also include a works cited list and use more formal academic conventions in the text for sources cited. 

I also like the piece because it stands as readable and interesting work. It's visual, and is about a medium many students enjoy. But for me, what I like as reader, is that in her exploration of how comics explore mental disability, Waldman too sheds light on mental disability. Her exploration requires her to explain what the works reveal about mental disability and how the art tries to bring the reader more into the point of view of a person who may have the disability illustrated. 

To that extent the work does two important things: first, it provides a vocabulary and examples for understanding the techniques of comic art; and second, through that increased understanding, empathy.

So for me, this piece works on many levels, and it can fit into all kinds of courses: writing courses, pop culture courses, communication courses, visual arts courses, psychology courses, to name a few. It's also the kind of piece, given its insights, that might be useful for faculty professional development. Faculty work with colleagues and students who live with a range of mental disabilities, many, as Margaret Price notes in Mad at School, often invisible or misunderstood, but still present. 

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