Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #33: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me – a graphic memoir by Ellen Forney

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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.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #22: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t, but that said, I enjoyed the book for its creative, sometimes even funny, approach to the rather unfunny subject of mental illness. The protagonist Pat has just been sprung by his mother after 2 years—he thinks it’s been a few months–in a mental institution, a.k.a “the bad place,” and is back home living with his parents at the age of 30 and trying to recover his memory. Specifically, he can’t remember why his marriage with wife Nikki ended, but he is determined to win her back by living more respectfully and kindly toward others, getting in shape through obsessive 10-hour daily workouts, reading classic books that Nikki taught in her high school classes, and looking for the silver lining in all things. He sees his life as a kind of a movie, guaranteed to have the happy ending of reconciliation with Nikki. The problem is that everyone knows the truth about Pat and Nikki … except Pat (and the reader, of course).

Pat’s father chooses to ignore Pat’s existence, eating apart from his wife and son, refusing to speak to him, and verbally abusing his wife at every opportunity. Pat’s mother is supportive and loving, but hides all of Nikki and Pat’s wedding pictures and puts up with her husband’s abuse far too long. Pat’s weekly visits with his psychiatrist are a hoot, and the unconventional therapist makes more inroads through his out-of-office encounters with Pat than during his couch sessions. Pat’s friend and neighbor Ronnie tries to set him up with his mentally unbalanced sister-in-law Tiffany, but Pat is focused solely on winning Nikki back, and he views his strangely evolving friendship with Tiffany as a means to that end.

Interestingly enough, the mental illness that disturbed me more than Pat’s was his bipolar father’s, whose drastic mood swings are hysterically, but perhaps not uncommonly, triggered by the victories and losses of his favorite football team. Indeed, the whole football “culture” with which the author saturates his book and all of the characters in it was, I hope, a deliberate effort on Quick’s part to poke serious fun at our population’s puerile obsession with organized sports. But then I read somewhere that Quick himself is a fanatic football fan, so perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking.

There were a number of weaknesses in the novel, however, which dropped it from a “4” to a “3” for me. First, the inexplicably childish quality of our hero who, we learn, had been a high school teacher before. Also, the ridiculously convoluted means by which Tiffany manipulates Pat into finally letting Nikki go and discovering Tiffany as a potential love interest. I was happy that, in the end, Pat was able to get some kind of closure with his past, so that he could begin to heal himself, but Tiffany’s playbook for winning Pat could just as easily have backfired and sent Pat back to the funny farm.