How Can Comics Help The World Understand Mental Illness?

How Can Comics Help The World Understand Mental Illness?

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I typically browse io9 when I’m looking for set pics from the next Marvel movie, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that this geek haven had compiled a list of “10 Comics That Can Help You Understand Mental Illness.” It’s a list that could have been generated for a site like ours, where mental health is a regular topic. Instead, it was pulled together for a target audience who would really probably rather talk about comics than about psychological disorders.

Exploring Mental Illness Through Illustration

The comics featured run the whole gamut of graphic storytelling, with artwork ranging from elaborate realism to simple sketches. There are longer graphic novels like Marbles, in which Ellen Forney chronicles her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, and collections of shorter stories, such as Graham Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales. Each of Clay’s depression comix presents a wry and poignant look at a different facet or experience of depression. The one-shot Invisible Injury explores veterans’ PTSD. Many of the stories are autobiographical and intensely personal. I Do Not Have An Eating Disorder by Khale McHurst is a brutally honest portrayal of denial, while the award-winning I’m Crazy explores author Adam Bourret’s struggles with OCD. While Look Straight Ahead is a fictional story, the bipolar protagonist’s struggles were inspired by the author’s own experience. Jason Gilmore’s The Next Day, which has been made into a short film, tells the stories of four people who survived their suicide attempts, while the tumblr compilation better, drawn features short contributions by various artists on both mental and physical illness.

It’s no shocker that all these comics can be incredibly dark and disturbing. A few are funny, but mostly in that way that makes you think you’re laughing until you realize you’re actually crying. Perhaps the most humorous (and best known) of the featured works is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, which has transcended the webcomic world and made its way into the realm of memes. Though the comic began as a humorous blog that touched on topics from dogs to grammar, Hyperbole made its biggest splash with its two-part series on depression. Brosh’s art, while deceptively childlike, is actually amazingly expressive and infuses charm and humor through the bleak subject matter.

Why They Matter

A glance at the comments threads on any of these works reflects how much they’ve helped readers who relate feel less alone. But also, by choosing the traditionally “light” medium of comics, the authors make the dark themes more accessible to outsiders. An inherent reality of any mental illness, including addiction, is that “normies” just don’t ever seem to get it—which of course makes the sufferer feel even worse. So it’s gratifying to see the thoughts and feelings you couldn’t begin to articulate illustrated in a way that makes you say YES YES THIS. So much this. This is what I have been trying to say to you.

While none of the works on list itself involve addiction, the article does include shoutouts to Jonathan Ames’ The Alcoholic and a recent illustrated essay by Julia Wertz on the same topic. Do you know any other comics or graphic novels that specifically address addiction, or other great illustrations of mental illness? If so, tell us in the comments!

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.