Comic Book Confessionals: Marbles by Ellen Forney
One of my favorite genres is the comic book memoir—or graphic memoir as they are often called; Alison Bechdel’s work, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, being the most recognizable of the group. As goes with my text-based memoir preference, the edgier the better. I want personal struggle, rock bottoms, and, although not always necessary, redemption.
A few months ago one book kept jumping out at me. Whenever I’d walk into a store I’d see its bright, sky blue cover: a woman’s face from the eyes up peaking out from the bottom edge; overhead there was a design scheme of color and grayscale-ringed circles cropped by the margins. Its odd shape—a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the average book—called for my hands every time. I’d flip through and wonder what kind of story this quirky book held.
As I turned the pages, I noticed the art varied from simple charactertures—thick outlines without much detail—to more sophisticated sketches, notably a series of self-portraits. Some pages featured imitations of notebook scraps while others were intricate diagrams, like the nine panels of prescription drugs: Klonopin, Lithium, Celexa, and so on. Each pill was recorded, along with the many side effects they had on this particular artist. That’s because Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s story of being bipolar: learning of it, learning about it, and learning how to live with it.
The book starts off with Ellen on a high. We see her in manic mode as she walks home in the snow having just gotten a full back tattoo; euphoria coursing through her veins: “My back felt warm, like I had a mild sunburn, and the warmth created a yin yang balance in the air. It was perfect. Exponentially perfect. Everything was magical and intense, and bursting with universal truth.”
Just a few pages later, a social worker Ellen has been seeing grows concerned about the sudden spike in cheer and refers her to a psychiatrist. Almost 30-years-old, Ellen receives the diagnosis: Bipolar I Disorder, her own “brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
What follows is Ellen’s adventure into a world of prescription pills and psychiatric help, the doses and frequencies of each fluctuating over the years. While attempting to move forward, Ellen looks to the past with new insight and examines the present for clues to her progress.
One of the first thoughts that pops into Ellen’s mind as she sits in the doctor’s office is that she is “officially a crazy artist” and therefore outfitted with some credibility. She researches historical figures who suffered from the same affliction. First we meet some of the more obvious cases: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, but then we learn of Edvard Munch and Mark Rothko.
Shortly after, another thought follows: “Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant.” In the accompanying panel, the “crazy artist” is represented by a balloon, full of air, exploding out of a cloud-like mass, while the “medicated artist” is shown as a deflated balloon, seemingly a few days old and barely afloat.
Of Van Gogh Forney asks, “What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been ‘cracked’? Was it his demons that gave his art life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’d been stabilized on meds? Who knows?” Where inspiration and talent come from is of perennial interest to—as well as a great source of anxiety for—creative types. Both wonder and fear permeate the pages as Ellen explores these questions.
Before reading Marbles, I had viewed bipolar with skepticism. Sure, I believed it existed but I thought it was overdiagnosed and often overblown. For those outside of the disorder, for those whom it is an abstraction, the importance—and power—of Marbles lies in Ellen’s ability to make bipolar real, to strip away the doubt of even the hardest naysayer.
“Bipolar Disorder is difficult to treat. Finding the right medications can take a long time, so bipolars may list our med histories proudly, like merit badges,” she says. The lifelong commitment to mental health and its maintenance—ongoing therapy, expensive drugs, lifestyle change—eloquently documented in Ellen’s book shows that the process is not something someone would go through if they didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, for those in the thick of bipolar, themselves having been diagnosed, Marbles offers valuable lessons: How much should one tell their therapist? What are some useful exercises for self-exploration? How does one chart progress and setbacks?
This advice is so subtle, so woven into the story, that I often wondered if it was intentional or simply a byproduct of Ellen’s focused approach.
There are many questions packed into Marbles: What is bipolar? Where is the intersection between mental illness and creativity? Does managing the former lead to a loss of the latter? Taking Forney’s book as evidence, one can answer that last question with a resounding “no.” Marbles is an important book, easily digestible, highly entertaining, and instinctively informative.