AMBER LOVE 21-JAN-2013 If you’re lucky, a special book comes into your life. If you’re exceptionally lucky this happens once a year or more. Near the end of 2012 all the big book sites and small bloggers crafted their lists of “Best of 2012” and several books repeated regardless of the genre. Among them was Ellen Forney’s graphic novel memoir about her bipolar disorder and her history of decision-making regarding treatment, her worry that medication would change who she was and fear that all her marvelous artistic talents would be lost to drug-induced catatonia. This book may very end up being my favorite read of 2013. It was on most lists for 2012 but I bought it in January of 2013 and couldn’t wait to get to it. The first page had me hooked. Forney’s description of what she felt getting a full back tattoo that held significance was the first peek inside her mind. She’s by far one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. My connection to her story is quite personal which happens so often with book readers and movie watchers.
Do you have one of those stories that as soon as you read it, you felt like the author most certainly wormed inside your brain to glean the history and the hopes?
From the Twitter feeds I follow, the phenomenon of suspecting a creator of spying on my life seems to happen often. One of the creative teams I mention frequently for having that effect is Cat Staggs and Amanda Deibert for their comic strip HOT MESS. Forney’s original graphic novel (OGN), MARBLES: MANIA, DEPRESSION, MICHELANGELO AND ME: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR hit almost all my inner chords before I even got to the third chapter. Those first two chapters were about her mania, something I’ve had only once when I was turning 37 and weirdly wildly upbeat, feeling sexier than ever, sabotoging my marriage and on a high that felt like flying for a month. I thought it was hormonal and it may have been. I never looked into it with medical professionals. That was the only time I ever felt like that in my life and I wish I could get it back despite the damage it ultimately did to my marriage, I never felt better.
At Chapter 3, Forney’s Depression takes over the lead role. Any review I give from here on in won’t have anything to do with her being an adequate storyteller, interesting and diverse artist of varying styles, panel layouts, white space or inking quality; anything I could possibly say about this now, is personal.
When I was in Comics Experience Creators’ Workshop, I once penned a short script about my Depression and one moment of the struggle. I had the feeling no one wanted to critique it or give peer feedback because they were afraid of upsetting me now that THEY KNEW. My scripts tended to always be difficult to swallow subject matter with a few exceptions. I felt like I isolated myself because I want to write comics about Depression. At that time there was only one that I ever found, it wasn’t very good and I got rid of it so I don’t even remember what it was called. Then Daryl Cunningham, a British cartoonist came out with PSYCHIATRIC TALES. I felt like there was no need for me to ever try and bring my story to market.
I went on Comic Geek Speak and remember confessing on the air about this plan and saying, there are plenty of superhero books and zombie books so the comic market should be able to handle more than one comic about mental illness. I never finished it and never sought out an artist for that project. Then the “Best of 2012” lists came out informing me about this Forney book which I found impossible to put down. I took photos of some panels and texted them saying how much I loved this book and I was only on page 83.
MARBLES covers Forney’s life over a period of four years where her doctor had finally convinced her that medication was going to be a necessary part of her comprehensive treatment for bipolar type I disorder. Every time a patient complains about side effects, doctors adjust the meds. They do this adjusting over and over. They say it’ll stop once both of you are satisfied with the pros and cons. I was on Zoloft and Xanax for YEARS. Then I finally decided to talk to my doctor and ask if there was anything better. I shouldn’t have. I was a zombie, getting fat, very uncreative and unfulfilled in every way possible. The moment “we” started trying other combinations of drugs, I went batshit insane (my technical term). I made the decision to detox off them and try to find a natural path instead. That took two years to get all that out of my system to a homeostasis that I could live with. Then I was nearing 37 and life was ruined for me but I’ve never considered returning to medication because they simply do more damage than they are worth for me. Forney tries her best to make sure that her message is not misunderstood in that regard as well. She emphasizes that what failed for her might work for someone else and what worked for her might not work for anyone else. She has four extraordinarily expensive medications plus a regimen of yoga, swimming and other physical activities.
Extra kudos to her for being open about her relationships and support from her parents. I’m 40 and my parents fully support me financially because I haven’t been able to be a “success” at anything for over 10 years. Forney is only three years younger than I am. Her mother has helped with her rent and medications for all these years; hopefully now that she can add “NY Times Best Seller” to her resume, she doesn’t require that financial assistance any longer. We’re loved and we’re fortunate. The constant “jokes” about nerds living with their mothers hits me like a high-powered rifle shot to the chest. I no longer let those “jokes” slide. If someone says something in front me, I say I live with my parents and I would’ve died years ago if I didn’t.
Forney takes the initiative to add thorough citations to the back of MARBLES where she adds a few notes to clarify pages, news resources, websites and other references. For example, if you don’t believe that her breakdown of the four medications comes to well over a thousand dollars, she explains further about traveling to a CostCo (there’s a page about that) for medication and she used the best prices known to her for the panel about the receipt.
I don’t necessarily want to pin MARBLES against Alison Bechdel’s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? because Forney includes Bechdel in her acknowledgements of people she thanked. I didn’t enjoy Bechdel’s book much at all. It didn’t feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end; MARBLES definitely did. They are contemporaries in today’s comic market which is so often and easily criticized for being out of touch with readers’ desires and unattainable to women. These two cartoonists prove that those critics are looking in the wrong places. You will not get the same reading experience from their books as you would if you walked into a comic shop or went on Comixology and were instantly greeted by BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN and THE WALKING DEAD. Books like those of Bechdel and Forney have bigger accolades but don’t have blockbuster movies. It takes a certain kind of comic shop retailer (print or digital) to put books like these on their front shelves/interfaces. I opened up my Comixology app and searched for “Bechdel” which had one return and it’s not even any of her books. It’s THE ART OF JAIME HERNANDEZ and the short description doesn’t even explain how this is related to Bechdel. I did the same for “Forney” and “Ellen Forney” which were not found at all in the app. These are best selling comic book creators! BEST. SELLING. LOADS OF AWARDS and their bodies of work are not accessible to readers.
You don’t need to feel what Forney feels in order to appreciate this book. You don’t need to know someone who does (but you probably do and aren’t aware of it). If what you enjoy and what you seek from the comic book market is original stories, variations in pages, and clearly defined chapters with beginnings and ends, you’ll want MARBLES in your collection. You’ll probably think of a few people in your life that you’d want to give this to as gifts. It’s that good.
* Ellen Forney’s official site