With a subtitle like Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, you know this isn’t going to be your typical graphic novel. But then again, if you’ve read any of Ellen Forney’s other work, you’d know she’s not your typical graphic novelist/cartoonist. She’s also a teacher, cartoonist, columnist, and all around artist of life. She also is incredibly sex and body positive; early on in the book, she talks about the project she felt she was universally given: to help the women of the world to see themselves as beautiful and sexy, complete with adorable/sexy/awesome cartoon versions of the photo shoots she staged to help her with these projects.
Her work, as is the work and lives of other creative people throughout history who’ve dealt with mental illness in some way, is the focal point of this brilliant, personal, sometimes hard-to-take book. And while it was sometimes hard to take, I’m glad she created this book and I’m also grateful to have read it, since I’m also a creative person who’s had personal experience with various forms of mental illness. However, I’ve never been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, I do have friends who have been, so the insight into that was enlightening. Forney meticulously charts her life from diagnosis to trying to figure out various treatments and medications to a place where she’s fairly stable and the illness is controlled.
Sometimes, the severe highs and lows she documents can be a bit too much just from reading so I can only imagine what she felt actually living through them, but overall, it was incredibly inspiring and educational. The research she does into the lives of prominent artists, writers, directors and other creative famous people is staggering and the questions she asks related to her findings are things that I still find myself curious about. For example, there are a few pages about Van Gogh, since, as she said, he “was truly the ultimate crazy tortured genius artist.” He dealt with hallucinations, suicide attempts, voices, mental hospitals, sever anxiety, seizures, violent rages, euphoria, depression. She included quotes from him such as “I have forsaken my pencil in discouragement,” “I shall always be cracked,” “Ideas come to me in swarms….I go on a painting, like a steam engine.”
And Forney wonders:
What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been “cracked”? Was it his demons that gave his art so much life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’s been stabilized on meds? Who knows?
In the last four years of his life, in and out of mental institutions, Van Gogh painted more than forty self-portraits. Was he trying to pin down the confusing swirls inside his head, to bring them outside?
Painting his self-portraits, did he find a sense of calm? Focus? Relief? …like I did? I like to think so. I hope so.
This wasn’t just a novel about one person’s struggle with mental illness, it was also a record of how it affected her family, friends, and work, how she fought to find meaning and art in it and relate to others from the past who maybe tried to do the same thing dealing with similar issues. It was educational about limits of power medical professionals have, but how much they can help if you find a good one. And even then, how slow the help can be as you adjust to the medication, the different types of therapy, or as you unwittingly sabotage your own recovery with poor choices and fear. It’s also a feast of Forney’s various art styles, including her take on famous pieces by other great artistis like Van Gogh, Munch, Alfred Stieglitz, and O’Keeffe, which is fitting because I think this subject especially can get dry, one note, terrifying, and easily misunderstood if you’re only ready words. The visual element helped bring home the vast highs and horrific lows in a way that words can’t always do.