Feb/Mar 2011

The End of the Line

David Rees

Some topics are particularly suited for comics. Among them, apparently, are teenage mutant ninja turtles, overweight cats who love lasagna, and swamp things. Should we add mental illness to the list? It's certainly true that a glance at a comic, more than a look at a snippet of film or a page of prose, can immediately convey a mental state, especially a diseased one.

Think, for example, of the psychological deterioration of Robert Crumb's brother Charles in the documentary Crumb. Charles's comics mutate from saccharine animal follies into suffocating tableaux whose word balloons lumber like zeppelins. Finally, the page is completely filled by endless chains of asemic marks. In other words, Charles's disease overruns every element of the comics' architecture: the quality of line, the text in the word balloons, the pacing, and the composition of the page. Granted, his comics weren't about mental illness—they were the product of mental illness. But they suggest the representational possibilities available to cartoonists who want to explore this riddling topic—cartoonists such as Darryl Cunningham, who worked as a health-care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward in England. His debut book, Psychiatric Tales, combines a chronicle of his experiences on the ward with diagnostic summaries of various illnesses, all in the service of pushing people beyond their prejudices against the mentally ill.

Cunningham has mentioned Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis—a gripping memoir of exile from Iran—as an inspiration for Psychiatric Tales, and the comparison seems apt: Both books use modest cartooning to demystify worlds most Westerners find alien, if not totally frightening. However, Cunningham is no Satrapi, and Psychiatric Tales is a far more clipped treatment of a difficult subject than Persepolis is. The book's early stories deal with incidents from Cunningham's time on the ward. He moves from the specifics of a case ("on her arms were so many scars that her skin had the quality of corrugated cardboard") to broader, more clinically inflected explanations ("[self-harm] is usually carried out in order to reduce feelings of unbearable tension"). Cunningham proceeds in these expositions with the calm, inexorable pace of a public-service announcement, recalling dramatic stories in the service of some larger idea. Indeed, the only story that doesn't fold into a diagnostic point is one involving the far more fraught and unmanageable drama of suicide—specifically, a patient on the ward who killed herself an hour after talking to Cunningham.

The second half of the book feels rushed. Digital type replaces hand lettering; the drawings devolve into the angular, geometrically abstract homunculi I associate with PowerPoint clip art. On many pages, the cartoonist-narrator simply addresses the reader directly, his arm raised in a half wave as insurance against absolute visual stasis. When it comes to rendering something ambitious, Cunningham uses incongruous bitmapped photographs.

There are too many broken chains, vertiginous spirals, and rain clouds—even a road sign reading DESPAIR. I'm not talking about demons stabbing their way through waterfalls made of tears, necessarily, but if Cunningham's goal is to help readers move beyond the clichés of mental illness, he needs a visual vocabulary that doesn't rely so heavily on them. Similarly, in its least inspired moments, the text reads as if it were written by committee, e.g., "The general population needs to be more understanding of those who suffer mental illness" and "People with mental illness enrich our lives."

The shifts in tone and imagery bespeak a larger problem with Psychiatric Tales: The book appears to be addressing multiple audiences. Sometimes its intended readers could be people who have no experience or understanding of mental illness ("scientific evidence shows, quite clearly, that mental illness is based on biology"), while at other times, the book addresses sufferers ("look deep into yourself for the qualities you need to survive").

The mental-health professionals I know share a wickedly ironic sensibility, a gallows humor that sees them through their emotionally draining, underremunerated work. But Psychiatric Tales is almost uniformly somber. Perhaps Cunningham doesn't trust his readers to understand that it's possible to make light of life in a psychiatric ward without belittling its residents, or perhaps he doesn't see much humor in the absurdities of mental illness, or perhaps he just has no sense of humor. In any event, the dearth of wit is suffocating, and by the later chapters, even simple expressions of goodwill and common sense ("people with mental illness enrich our lives") feel didactic and condescending.

In a culture that routinely portrays the mentally ill as either homicidal maniacs or fonts of preternatural wisdom, maybe Cunningham's book can serve as a modest reminder that most people with mental illness are just . . . ill, and that their illness limits the full expression of their human capacity. Cunningham makes this point himself in his final chapter—his own depression and anxiety prevented him from completing his nurse's training. He had to put Psychiatric Tales aside until he clawed his way back to mental health. Ultimately, though, he writes that it was cartooning that saw him through. Insofar as this book represents one person's step back from the abyss, it's a cause for celebration. Whether it's a successful work in itself is less clear.

David Rees is a former cartoonist whose work appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper's, The Nation, and GQ. Now he's an artisanal pencil sharpener.