by Lucy Caradog
Content warning: depictions of mental illness
Just before her thirtieth birthday, Ellen Forney is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo And Me is an autobiographical journey which follows her years-long exploration of medication, therapy, and how they affect her creative drive. Despite it being referenced off-hand in popular media, a taboo around bipolar disorder still remains prominent – this is something that Forney does an excellent job of addressing in her graphic memoir: during the second meeting with her therapist, she recalls saying “My mother and I both have bipolar tendencies, but I’m not like, bipolar bipolar”. Despite having an understanding of the mental illness, she initially rejects the possibility of having it.
In Marbles, Forney examines the connections between mental illness (specifically bipolar) and artistic creativity by discussing the effects that various medications have had on her body and her mind, and by studying mentally ill artists through history. She questions whether artists such as Van Gogh and Michelangelo created masterpieces because they were bipolar, and whether they would have created them if they had been medicated. Forney addresses her own fears of medication, and in doing this, she also explores her own relationship with art and creativity, causing her to question how she prioritises her art and her health. In the same way that Forney initially refuses to give up pot due to her perceiving it as part of her identity despite its (at times) negative effect on her mental health, she struggles with the concept of taking medication at the risk of her creativity, another fundamental part of who she is.
Through pairing the visual representation of her disorder with written explanations of context and story, Forney creates a comprehensive exploration of mental illness
Forney does an excellent job of visually portraying her mental illness: mixing her cartoon-style panels with excerpts from her sketchbooks and journals kept during manic or depressive episodes, the result is a visual insight into the mind of someone affected by bipolar disorder, displaying the anxieties that are near impossible to express verbally. The author accurately represents the chaotic mindset attributed to mental illness in a style that I found both comforting and groundbreaking. Through pairing the visual representation of her disorder with written explanations of context and story, Forney creates a comprehensive exploration of mental illness, which is often taboo in contemporary literature. As someone who has struggled with mental illness, I found her sketches of depression very familiar: Forney is able to represent something here that I have never been able to visually imagine, and it is the reality of her anxieties and the candidness of her story that makes her relatable.
I really appreciated Forney’s exploration of the “tortured artist” archetype. Throughout the book, she discusses the depiction of artists through their art, and the effect their mental illness has on it. Although she glorifies these artists, she remains deeply aware of their clearly unhealthy lifestyles, which often lead to institutionalization or suicide. She also makes it clear that her inability to readily accept medication (due to it not fitting into the tortured artist lifestyle) is a hindrance, acknowledging her own flaws.
Forney’s acceptance of her own diagnosis encourages others to acknowledge their own battles with mental illness, creating a sense of feminist solidarity
Forney’s story is full of strong female characters: she herself serves as an inspirational protagonist, both for artists and people who struggle with mental health. Strong and independent, she learns throughout the book how to take care of herself and reach out to others when she needs to, all the while developing her career (the book follows her writing her column “I Was Seven In ‘75” and writing her first few long-form graphic novels). She also details her relationship with her therapist and with her mother, creating an all-female support system that is inherently feminist in its understanding of mental illness. The story is peppered with female friends and ex-girlfriends who sympathise with and comfort Forney. Her depiction of her own episodes shows how far she’s come and how hindsight serves in her ability to self-criticise, a valuable quality for artists and for those seeking to develop mentally. As the story progresses, we see how Forney’s acceptance of her own diagnosis encourages others to acknowledge their own battles with mental illness, creating a sense of feminist solidarity, despite her neglecting to take an overtly political stance.
Ellen Forney’s graphic novel pushes all sorts of boundaries, from the taboo topic of mental illness (specifically bipolar disorder, which could definitely do with more coverage in the arts), to that of medication and the fear that surrounds it. In writing about her experiences in comic form, the author makes her story accessible to readers, enabling a much needed conversation about the way mental illness is treated in society.
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