“Because These Are The Things That Will Save You” – Psychiatric Tales
by Darryl Cunningham
Blank Slate Books
Joe reviewed Psychiatric Tales a couple of weeks ago (Joe’s review), but I wanted to add my own views on the book.
Because I’m one of the many who’ve had their lives affected. My family seems to have a history of mental illness in one form or other. I saw my Grandma; a vibrant, slightly fearsome woman with a knowing smile and a ready laugh for her only grandchild transformed into a shambling, confused and frightened shell as Alzheimers’ took hold. And as I write this my own mother is dealing badly with a diagnosis of Psychotic Depression, a disease so similar in it’s symptoms to Alzheimers’ that it really makes no difference. It’s sad and distressing to see someone’s character and personality stripped away so easily and effortlessly.
And I know I’m not alone, and equally I know that so many people would find Psychiatric Tales a great source of information and, perhaps most importantly of all, a great source of comfort, hope and optimism to know that they’re not alone. But whether or not you’ve experienced any of the illnesses Cunningham discusses, Psychiatric Tales is as compelling and informed a book on the subject as you’re likely to read.
(A brutal, shocking moment, but all part of the essential process Cunningham takes us on in an attempt to understand.)
Cunningham worked for many years in the psychiatric care system, until his own personal struggle with depression took hold. The work here utilises all his insights gained from experience and observation and condenses them into a series of almost documentary style chapters dealing with many difficult and often hidden mental illnesses; Dementia, Depression and Bipolar Disorder, Self-Harming, Anti-Social Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia and Suicide. Each is presented almost as a case study, with Cunningham reporting events in near documentary manner.
This reportage would be arresting enough – a dry, yet fascinating read, but where Psychiatric Tales excels, where it becomes so much more engaging and emotive is when Cunningham breaks away from his documentary style and uses his experiences to bring us closer to the people behind his tales. Then the tone changes and the dispassionate observer/reporter becomes a caring, emotional fellow sufferer. It’s this humanising of the subject – transforming these patients into real people that elevate the book into something truly special.
(Darryl’s own breakdown – written with insight and bravery, painful to read, but so important for our understanding of the relevance of his work.)
And most emotive and illuminating of all is the last chapter – “How I Lived Again”. Those of us who have followed Darryl’s work for a few years will know this aspect of his personality, of his own personal depression, but to those readers unaware, this last chapter will be upsetting, disturbing and most of all, incredibly optimistic and uplifting. Darryl shows us, with personal experience as well as recounted experience that every one of these debilitating and terrible illnesses are beatable, with luck, with family, with years of struggle perhaps. But beatable nonetheless. I’m sure if one sufferer read his work and made this intuitive leap of understanding Darryl would consider his work done and done well.
(Cunningham’s stark imagery in Psychiatric Tales with those small visual motifs, such as the rain being driven back and the sun breaking through in this chapter on depression.)
Psychiatric Tales is told in stark black and white (a shock for those of us used to his vivid and colourful work on Super-Sam and San Diablo), the artwork is simplified, often to the point of near abstraction, but the simplicity of the line never fails to allow the strong message come through.
And then there are the stylistic touches, where Cunningham simply adds something to his pages that sit unheralded, yet once noticed, immediately strengthen the visual message. It may be the photographs in his chapter on famous sufferers or his use of repetition in his panels to drive home a message – but each stylistic shift is perfectly suited to the moment it’s attempting to illustrate: the rain depicted throughout the chapters on depression that clears as the sun bursts through as hope and optimism point to a future without the illness. Or the gaping hole in Cunningham himself in the final chapter as he contemplates his own depression. These little artistic touches illuminate the narrative, strengthening the message of the work.
Psychiatric Tales is a compelling, emotional and difficult read on a much misunderstood topic. Yet in just over 100 pages Darryl Cunningham demystifies the subject and connects us all to the illnesses he talks about. Psychiatric Tales manages to be both informative documentary and emotional journey, shining light on a oft-misunderstood topic and, by the end of the book, shows that there is hope for those afflicted and affected.
It’s a spectacular success for Cunningham and a great piece of comic art. But there’s no better ending for this review than Darryl’s own words:
“Look deep into yourself for the qualities you need to survive. Your talents, hopes, dreams, and desires. Because these are the things that will save you.”