Depression. Addiction. Terminal illness. Grief. These are difficult subjects, and graphic narratives can communicate their nuances by using illustrations to support, or even replace, text. “There’s an immediacy to comics that can make those subjects more palatable, appealing, or understandable,” says Eric Reynolds, v-p and associate publisher at Fantagraphics, whose catalog includes several titles in the graphic medicine genre. PW spoke with editors and authors about the ways in which the comics medium aids the message.
The things we carry
Being a caregiver is a financial, logistical, and emotional challenge, especially in the absence of robust social support: the U.S., for instance, has no nationwide paid parental leave policy and elder care is expensive and complex. New titles approach the issue from a variety of angles.
Syndicated cartoonist Nate Fakes chronicles his stepfather’s struggle with dementia in A Fade of Light (West Margin, out now). “Rendered in homey illustrations seemingly pulled from the funny pages,” per PW’s review, “it’s a heartbreaking but loving portrait, swelling with pathos.” In A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings (Tin House, Nov.), Will Betke-Brunswick documents the impending death of their mother from colon cancer. Two-color illustrations depict the character Will, their mom, and other family members as penguins navigating chemotherapy and hospital visits; chickens, peacocks, and other avian species represent Will’s friends. “The anthropomorphism avoids being cutesy or absurd,” according to PW’s review. “Rather, it serves as a humble reminder that people are all odd ducks with fragile bones.”
Cartoonist Briana Loewinsohn tries to relate to a parent who is lost to mental illness in Ephemera, due from Fantagraphics in March 2023. The book is rendered in warm, earthy tones and has a magical, ethereal quality, says Reynolds. “It’s firmly grounded in the sense that it’s a memoir about Brianna’s childhood, specifically her mother and her relationship with her mother,” he says. “But she filters the story through the literary motif of the garden, viewing the past through a filter that’s not strictly first-person.”
Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars by Rick Louis and Lara Antal, a November release from Abrams ComicArts, focuses on the care and loss of a child: Louis’s son was born with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurable neurological disorder, and the book is a celebration of his short life.“In this frank telling of a devastating ordeal,” per PW’s review, “it’s the beauty of the too-brief loving moments that lingers.”
Several years ago, while acquiring Ronan, Abrams senior editor Charlotte Greenbaum saw “a real wave of mental health, physical health, body stuff,” and says the graphic format is a great vehicle for such topics. “Sequential storytelling is something between prose and live-action,” she says. “It lets you have a moment to breathe with the characters—the space between panels, the gutter. It’s not so immersive that it feels overwhelming.”
In Bear (Seven Stories, Jan. 2023), Swedish printmaker Staffan Gnosspelius attempts to make sense of a friend’s mental illness. “The friend didn’t want any help,” he explains. “This bear appeared in my sketchbooks; I drew him a lot before I connected the dots; it was a release valve.” Gnosspelius’s bear, afflicted with a cone that covers his head, meets a hare that stays close and offers support. “As the bear and rabbit make their way toward a silent understanding, they pass through the darkness,” according to PW’s review, “and slowly pages of soft, bright watercolors occasionally appear and suggest dawning relief.” The book’s wordlessness serves the story, Gnosspelius says. “I’m expressing what these two characters were dealing with; you take whatever you want from that. Maybe it’s not about mental health at all for you. It’s open for interpretation.”
Other books illuminate their authors’ health struggles and their relationships with their bodies.
French filmmaker Lea Bordier launched her YouTube channel Cher Corps (dear body) in 2016 and has since interviewed more than 70 women and nonbinary people about how they relate to their physical selves. In Dear Body (FairSquare, Feb. 2023), originally published in France in 2019, 12 artists illustrate a dozen of the stories featured on Bordier’s channel. “I would have liked to have read this when I was younger,” Bordier says. “In France, where I live, it was kind of taboo to talk openly about body issues six years ago and even more odd to interview women about this.”
Bordier notes that the graphic novel format was the only one that would have worked for this project. “Sequential art breathed life into my interviews and the stories we gathered,” she says. “The video interviews were mostly about emotion and testimonies. The graphic novel adds representation of bodies and situations.”
Down to the Bone by Catherine Pioli (Graphic Mundi, Dec.) details the author-illustrator’s experiences as a leukemia patient: tests and treatments, accepting her new body, the support of her loved ones. Pioli died in 2017, which is revealed in the book’s epilogue; the book was originally published in France in 2018. In another import, Tiitu Takalo reflects on her life before and after a ruptured cerebral aneurysm in Memento Mori (Oni, May 2023). The book was first published in 2020 in the author’s native Finland, where she’s received numerous honors for her work.
Tenements, Towers & Trash author-illustrator Julia Wertz author mines her own life for comic books, graphic novels, and cartoons in the Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and the New Yorker. In Impossible People (Black Dog & Leventhal, May 2023), whose subtitle bills it as “a completely average recovery story,” she documents, through black-and-white line art, her varyingly successful efforts at sobriety: purchasing booze from three corner stores to avoid detection of her habit, forays into therapy, AA meeting attendance, and rehab.
The third installment of U.K. artist Rachael Smith’s autobiographical comics series Glass Half Empty (Icon, Apr. 2023), addresses her problematic relationships with her father and with alcohol. “Comics are an amazing way to communicate vital information,” she says. “There’s a reason there’s a comic behind every single seat on an airplane or in every box of flat-pack furniture.” She hopes reading about her experiences will be comforting to others dealing with addiction issues.
“I’m not an alcoholic and, actually, no one is; the term is outdated and puts a lot of shame on the person rather than the substance,” Smith says. “These are my opinions and my journey with this problem. In writing, I realized how many people were going through similar things. If you’re struggling with grief or addiction, you’re not alone and there’s help out there.”
The American healthcare system itself gets the graphic treatment in several new titles. The Joy of Quitting (Drawn & Quarterly, out now) compiles work, some previously out-of-print, by Keiler Roberts that humorously observes her frustrations in living with multiple sclerosis and mental illness and dealing with healthcare. In Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance by Kathleen Founds (Graphic Mundi, Nov.), the ursine Theodore navigates a labyrinth of health claims and battles the literal fat cats who run the insurance company. “The style makes the point that the state of America’s healthcare is so absurd it should be a story to frighten children,” per PW’s review. “It’s zany with a zinger of a political message.”
Nervosa by Hayley Gold (Street Noise, Apr. 2023) skewers the system’s callousness and ignorance. As an adolescent, Gold struggled with disordered eating, and was put into what she calls “work camp situations” in an attempt to heal her body. In writing the book, she says, her goal is to educate readers and engender compassion. “In the story, a friend of mine shuts me out because she says my negativity is ‘too triggering,’ ” she explains. “This isn’t a story of recovery from anorexia; this is a story about regaining one’s voice. Eventually, I believe we’ll treat people with anorexia with dignity, and not force them into extremely inhuman situations.”
Graphic works like Gold’s challenge readers to engage with difficult-to-discuss subjects. “We’re afraid to talk about the things that are just below the surface because we’re afraid to deal with what upsets us,” she says. “And these are the things that need to be discussed and be out in the open. People can’t be afraid to feel pain.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
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