Ellen Forney’s “Marbles” and Mental Illness in Comics

Comics Theory

I’ve been trying to see if there’s some way to approach Ellen Forney’s “graphic memoir” Marbles without addressing my own history with mental illness. It’s impossible, or else I didn’t spend enough days ripping out my own hair to try and reach some self-appointed level of objectivity. But I give up, kids. I’ve already promised myself in the past that I will not cover up my mental health status, that I will not perpetuate the public opinion that our imperfect brains should be a secret source of shame. Those with mental illnesses are not defined by our disabilities any more than someone with AIDS or someone in a wheelchair is. Still, like all disabled persons, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t living within the confines that have been constructed around us by our own bodies. We learn to get along with what we’re given, but that doesn’t have to mean staying quiet. And Ellen Forney, luckily for those of us who want to normalize our place in society and destroy public stigma, speaks volumes.

Marbles is far from the first comic that I’ve read about mental illness. It helps (“helps”) that I found out about the book on a particularly down day. I was ready to crawl into bed and order Marblesonline when I landed on Writer’s Bloq contributor Amy Gall’s interview with Forney over at Lambda Literary.

I know the exact section that made me lose it:

“There’s a point in the middle of Marbles where I say, ‘How do I keep track of my mind with my own mind?’ [It’s like] a spoon trying to watch itself stir. I was inside [the episode] and trying to be […] outside of it at the same time.”

“Oh,” I thought. I was breathless and then I was crying, but not those empty cries that burst from baseless sadness. I felt a deep sense of relief knowing that I was not the only one struggling with these sorts of issues (I knew this, of course, but would not, could not accept it). Suddenly it felt like I didn’t have to do it all alone, that maybe I could use someone else’s experiences as a mirror in which I could watch my own spoon stir.

At the very beginning of the book is a page that reads:

My own brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper [a bipolar disorder checklist]. My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people.

Forney describes the way this sank in as feeling “like the sun had gone behind the clouds,” but it felt to me like a revelation during a good trip: that the sun was coming out from behind rainclouds—that it was shining just for me. It felt like the warmth of the sun was wrapping itself around me in a way that was so trite it would usually disgust me. But I realized (it was not the first time I “realized” this, it will not be the last) that all I had been looking for was to find others like myself in a world that was secretly full of us.

I’d only ever felt this comforted about my mental health one time before, and it wasn’t during a therapy session or yoga class or any of that. It was the first time I read Allie Brosh’s “Adventures in Depression,” an installment of her minimalist web comic Hyperbole and a Half. There’s something about the mix of writing and imagery that is especially important when depicting mental illness. A physical illness can generally be described via text or image alone, but mental illness causes an entirely disordered way of thinking (that’s a big part of the clinical definition). For me, at least, words alone are not sufficient to describe what happens when you’re in the thick of these painful illnesses. Nothing looks the way it should or sounds the way it should. A number of friends of mine who have depression, or ADD, or bipolar disorder, etc. have told me that once they worked their way out of their situation (either alone or with the aid of therapy/medication/alternative blahdy blahs) it was like a fog lifted—one person in particular said that it was like going from standard resolution to HD. Text memoirs only tell part of the story (although, personally, I find purely visual accounts of mental illness to almost always be stronger than written ones), and often it’s not the part that gives readers a means of seeing the world the way we see it. How else can empathy and understanding be established without giving readers access to the entirety of our experiences?

Brosh, whose workhas earned a cult following, posted “Adventures in Depression” in October of last year. I find myself returning to it and rereading it at least once a month (hm, cyclical—coincidence). The series is largely humor-focused (this post about her exceptionally stupid dog is just the best thing), and viewing those tendencies alongside something like “Adventures in Depression” makes her experiences all the more bittersweet. This is not an image of a woman who has constantly been in unyielding crisis—again, she is not her disability. To see something like the silly dog post linked above immediately followed by “Adventures in Depression” is heartbreaking, an unpleasant confrontation between lightheartedness and deep pain. “Some people have a legitimate reason to feel depressed,” Brosh writes, “but not me. I just woke up one day feeling sad and helpless for absolutely no reason.”

The cleavage within Brosh’s mind is visible in the comic’s very first panel; the usually chipper, anchovy-like protagonist[1] is stuck in bed, the inherent ridiculousness of the comic’s MS Paint-style drawings clashing with the seriousness of the story.

“Adventures in Depression” separates the protagonist into two characters—the cruel, angry part of Brosh and the depressed, “real-world” self that is trying to use “shame as a sort of motivational tool.” Marbles often lacks this sort of self-assessment, using Forney’s sessions with her therapist as the main vehicle for reflecting on the ways she felt previously and juxtaposing them with her feelings at the time of the session. Though Forney bounces back and forth between mania and depression, the image presented is almost always of a whole person—a person with very intense shifts in emotion, but a single person nonetheless (which is strange considering how isolating bipolar disorder can be and how difficult it is to believe, in that moment, that the depressed and the manic selves are the same person).

Brosh’s foil looks like her—is her, clearly—but has a completely different voice. The panel background behind her inner voice is blank: “angry protagonist” is removed from the realities of the physical world surrounding the actual protagonist. Eventually, even the background behind the protagonist becomes blank. She sinks into the belief that this oppressor is a separate entity who has the power over her, which results in a much more realistic depiction.

Regardless of their stylistic and narrative differences, the two comics feature some very similar panels:

From Hyperbole and a Half:

From Marbles:

The stories seem to end somewhat anticlimactically compared to the stakes they set up, but it’s hard to understand the bittersweet reality of finally feeling “fixed” without knowing that there is no being “fixed,” that such episodes will recur eventually, despite Brosh and Forney’s best efforts.

For both of them, a crucial part of healing, even if it might be temporary (sorry if it seems like I’m being a pessimist, I’m just trying to present the realistic situation facing people with chronic mental health issues), involves accepting their statuses. Forney calls herself “crazy” early on in the book and decides, at the end, that she is “okay” and convinces a representation of her younger self that it’ll all be “over” (insert small, suppressed groan here). Brosh portrays a much more sudden revelation after hitting what she portrays as rock bottom (“I felt invincible. ‘Judge me all you want, stupid face—I don’t have feelings any more.’ And thus began a tiny rebellion.”).

Listen, I’m not here to give proscriptive advice—some people need that explosion of terribleness to feel better, others need stability (these differences also reflect the fact that Brosh and Forney do not have the same illness, even though Brosh’s is present in Forney’s). But some people need other things; for other people even the smallest of comforts will do.

On the last page Forney has printed a stereogram (one of those “magic eye” images where you have to put your face up to the page, blur your vision, and slowly pull the book back to see a “three-dimensional” image) that is supposed to read “YOU ARE CRAZY.” Now, I am a stereogram EXPERT. I spent hours as a kid looking through books of them and blurring my eyes to see a dolphin, to see a wizard, to see a car, a mountain, an eye. I tried to read this stereograph for minutes, but even when the three-dimensionality finally came into view I could not get my eyes to focus on the words that were supposed to be there. I couldn’t read anything. I could not let my eyes tell myself that “I am crazy”–not because I’m in denial, but rather because I will not allow myself to use those words to define myself any longer. I’m not crazy; I’m just Charline.

[1] I was all excited to show you guys the amazing comparison that I had figured out between the protagonist and the anchovies in Spongebob Squarepants, but I guess it’s been too long because they look nothing alike. It’s sort of more of a hammerhead shark situation. …You know what? That’s not true either.


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