Thus, it was while browsing the graphic novels in Waterstones recently that I chanced upon a book called Marbles by Ellen Forney. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that when I picked up a graphic novel memoir by a bipolar bisexual cartoonist, I knew I had to buy it!
Unlike trade non-fiction, where every other book seems to be a memoir nowadays, graphic novel memoirs are still seen as an indie preserve in a market dominated by superhero titles. Yet comics have a long history of making difficult subjects more palatable. My favourite standalone graphic novel Maus is primarily about the Holocaust, and I’ve already written about it in much greater detail. Marbles addresses mental health, and intriguingly whether mental health problems enhance or hinder a person’s creative abilities. Forney takes her cue from both her own struggles with bipolar disorder and trends in modern neuroscientific research that are trying to demystify the creative process (whether creative people want it demystified or not!)
At the beginning of the book, Forney is in her late twenties and very much the creative free spirit. She’s going out, being loud, smoking too much pot, getting elaborate tattoos and juggling twenty projects at once. The narrative of the story is about her trying (and often failing) to take control of her life without losing her creative drive and edge. How can she grow up without selling out? I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the fact she’s written and published a graphic novel on the subject may give you a bit of a clue!
As a unipolar depressive, I’ve sometimes felt short-changed compared to bipolar sufferers. Where is my amazing burst of manic creativity to compensate for the awful soul-crushing drudgery of those down periods? But Marbles puts my glib assumptions firmly to rest, showing the frightening loss of self-control that accompanies the mania. Forney is really skilled at visually depicting her manic self, filling the page with exploding spider diagrams and off-kilter drawings.
I’ve been lucky (or stubborn) enough to avoid medication for my own mental conditions, but Forney makes it very clear that finding the right pharmaceutical regimen is key for bipolar sufferers. But it’s a uniquely tricky process, because the meds that reduce your manic state can push you closer to depression, and vice versa. You certainly feel for her psychiatrist, who seems to have endless reserves of patience to deal with Forney’s ever-changing moods.
All this emotional heavy lifting aside, Marbles is a very funny, very human book that deals with a fascinating subject. Forney sees both solace and a warning in a list of great artists of the past with suspected mood disorders, asking at one point “Who gets to be crazy-brilliant, and who’s just crazy-crazy?” Who indeed?