Books

'Psychiatric Tales': A Guided Tour of Disorders

This is a stark primer on psychological disorder -- just don't expect to read a story.


Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 141 pages
Author: Darryl Cunningham
Price: $15.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-02
Amazon

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.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.