Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me
Ellen Forney first came to my attention with Monkey Food, her collection of comics about growing up in the wacky 70s. Marbles takes a different autobiographical turn, capturing her struggles with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the resulting concerns over what it means for her as an artist. Like the previous book, it’s alternately touching, informative, entertaining, and at times, unbelievable.
Marbles opens with a particularly revelatory, life-changing moment for Forney, as she gets the first stage of a full-back tattoo. Already, we’re being set up to realize key characteristics of her personality: love of art, visual thinking, excitability, seeking change, and living life large in ways that might scare other people. The excitement she feels at transforming herself is the first indicator of a manic period, and soon she (and we) are reviewing the psychiatric criteria behind her bipolar diagnosis.
Given her profession, much of Forney’s concerns revolve around the popular conception that artists are crazy. Now, she’s part of the club — but is that a requirement? More significantly, will treating the condition reduce her creativity? (In contrast, her therapist takes the position that not medicating may, at the extreme, risk her life, since the suicide rate is high among sufferers.) How can she find a new way to live that considers her disorder without disrupting what she likes about herself? These were the questions I found fascinating to explore. Even without sharing a mental condition, we can all relate to the challenge of seeking positive change without losing what’s dear to us in our current existence.
Although focused firmly on her experience, Forney includes a number of references and facts that will help others understand bipolar disorder. It took her a while to come to terms with her condition; she was originally diagnosed in 1998 (which can be determined inside the story through the timing of her 30th birthday bash). Additional chapters include her interactions with her family and finding inspiration through the work of other artists. She wonders about whether and how to tell friends, and her experience at the San Diego Comic-Con sends her over the edge. (A struggle even for the most mentally stable.) She catalogs the variety of medications she tries and their side effects.
Forney’s thick-line style makes everything more substantial, sometimes simply drawn but still affecting. It has the approachability and readability of a newspaper strip, but with a lot more space. She uses white space freely, particularly during important emotional moments, to give her images room to exist, while the black grounds them. She also includes many of the drawings she created in her sketchbook during her depressive period, which say more about her mood and how it felt than her words could.
Graphic memoir is the most popular comic category for book publishers and adult readers. I suspect that’s because the stories have more impact and heft. Superheroes and other fantasies have the stigma of being for kids; horror, while popular, isn’t any more mature. But someone’s life story, that can be both escapist and significant, as Marbles demonstrates. Plus, it’s fun to see the outrageous and/or disturbing events someone else struggles through without having to feel them ourselves. The lessons Forney learns about herself, the stereotypes she confronts, and how she figures out who she wants to be are inspiring.
You can find out more at the book’s website, or in this article or this one, both about the creation of the book. Tom Spurgeon conducted a lengthy interview with Forney with several sample pages. (The publisher provided a review copy.)