The graphic novel would seem a format ideally suited to the depiction of mental illness. With its ability to visually render startlingly subjective, non-realistic points of view, whether in a stark palette of black and white or a psychadelic swirl of exaggerated color, the image + words format appears to have the edge over traditional prose. Add to this the fact that images are inherently non-verbal, thus perhaps better able to reflect the wordless anxieties and paranoia of an unsettled mind, and the combination of medium and subject matter would seem to be a slam dunk.
Darryl Cunningham apparently thought so, too. A former mental health staff worker and psychiatric nurse-in-training, Cunningham combined his years of experience as a caregiver with his vocation for drawing comics to create Psychiatric Tales, a brisk collection of vignettes focusing on various aspects of mental illness—schizophrenia, self-harm, antisocial personality disorder and so on. In a series of short, quickly-absorbed chapters, the author takes us inside the normally off-limits confines of a psychiatric ward to give us an idea of what these disorders can look like.
Having worked for ten years in various group homes and mental health facilities in Massachusetts and Arizona—though never in a locked ward, where Cunningham earned his stripes—I can attest that his renditions of the hopelessness, anxiety and occasional belligerence of various patients is right on the money. Mental illness is not a thing to be romanticized, and Cunningham wisely doesn’t try to make sufferers into noble martyrs or shamans. (I can’t count the number of times I was told by people that “there’s a fine line between madness and genius.” Really? I saw plenty of madness during my ten years on the job, but precious little genius.) Patients are just people with an illness, a particularly unfortunate and harrowing type of illness to be sure, but an illness nonetheless.
Cunningham’s artwork suits the material well. His is a cartoony, childish style that conveys the bleakness of the disorders in flat blacks and garish whites, with no gray tones or colors. For all the apparent lack of “sophistication”, the artwork manages to convey the joyless world of patients—which also, it must be said, is felt by those who spend much time with them, as well. The section on “cutting” uses the grisly flatness of the artwork to convey the pain and cruelty of self-harm; with no half-tones to suggest the severity of tissue damage, a simple line drawn across the flesh distills the violence into its simplest possible state: you are either cut or not cut.
Elsewhere, the visuals cleverly reinforce the point being made. A section on bipolar disorder graphically reflects the ups and downs of a patient’s mood through illustrations of a rollercoaster, a series of mountains and even the puffy outlines of clouds. Another section on famous people uses heavily retouched photographs to alter the visual format of the book. More of this kind of visual inventiveness would have been welcome.
Readers looking for a compelling story about a character with mental illness—you know, a graphic novel—will not find one here. This is not a novel in the sense of being a story; rather, it is a primer on mental illness in comics form, a sort of “Mental Illness for Dummies” that tries to dispel stigma. Cunningham is clear about this from the start: in the introduction he writes that Psychiatric Tales “is intended to be a stigma-busting book. This is needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remain widespread in society.”
Well, okay. This is a noble enough aim, but it does rather pull the rug out from anyone hoping to read a story. There are no characters here, really; it’s more of a guided tour of disorder, with Cunningham acting as the guide and numerous unknown patients on display to discuss their symptoms and feelings. In short, the book’s purpose is to educate you. That’s fine, but this approach removes it from the realm of fiction and positions it as a polemic. You’ve been warned.
Ironically, the one point at which the book is more than a polemic is the one which, not coincidentally, is the most interesting portion by far. This comes at the very end, when Cunningham writes himself into the book and talks for some 17-pages about his own life and work, the difficulties he has faced and the chain of events that brought him to write Psychiatric Tales. It’s easily the most emotionally engaging chapter, and it’s a shame that it takes up barely 12 percent of the pages.
It’s easy to imagine Cunningham’s spare, minimalist style used to good effect in any number of contexts, to tell any number of stories. Let’s hope that next time, he does just that—tells a story—rather than try so hard to change our minds about how we think about mental illness.