Tom Freeman is not a well man, not a well man at all. What starts as a dull ache in the balls soon turns into something far, far more painful. And author Brick delights in showing us just how painful with panel after panel of fire down below, debilitating cartoon lightning strikes and much more. It’s impossible, as a bloke, to read these pages and not shuffle just a little in your chair, imagining just how hideously painful, and utterly terrifying this must have been.
Obviously the first thought is that it has to be Cancer, but being a very typical bloke, that all important trip to the doctors is put off, and put off, and put off. Holidays, work, anything to avoid the diagnosis that he dreads.
In fact it takes 41 pages of avoidance before the doctor finally gives him a diagnosis he just wasn’t expecting (but we, having read the back cover blurb, knew all along was coming):
(It might not be Cancer, but the big D is every bit as devastating in it’s own way. And like the T-shirt says, something so terribly common. From Depresso by Brick, published by Knockabout)
Yes, Depression. Of course. Instantly, all the moods, the inexplicable tears, the anger, the isolationism make sense. Even the 6 foot tall white lizard who follows him around cracking jokes and making snide comments all the time – everything gets explained by depression.
Depression is such a wide ranging, incredible illness, as anyone who’s felt their lives touched by it will tell you. Just do a little googling around and you’ll be amazed at some of the symptoms it can throw your way.
Dementia stalks my family, and we’re now on the third generation of sufferers with my mother. But before the official diagnosis of Alzheimers, all the psych nurses and the docs had it down as Psychotic Depression, and all the symptoms fitted perfectly. In the end, it proved a mis-diagnosis, but it could so easily have been right – like Brick’s character Tom Freeman discovers, depression can do so many weird, strange and profoundly fucked up things to both body and mind.
And of course, at this point we may as well drop the pretence. Depresso may have a character called Tom Freeman but make no mistake, this is Brick’s story. Sure, artistic license may be at play, and bits of it are fictional – but this is very much the story of the author’s fight with depression.
(That helpful White Lizard, ever present, always there to point out the madness in Brick/Freeman’s life. From Depresso by Brick, published by Knockabout)
The diagnosis is merely the start of his problems, and Depresso chronicles the entire struggle of Freeman/Brick against the disease, from those first strange aches, to near breakdown, looking at just how crippling it can be, how devastating for the sufferer and those around them.
But it’s more than that, because Freeman is determined that he wont be seen as mere victim, he’s determined to fight. When modern medicine and treatment doesn’t do the trick he’s quite prepared to try anything. Or at least he would, if only he could get off the sofa thanks to being turned into a zombie coutesy of those lovely anti-depressants.
Along the way, as we venture through Freeman’s life coping with the disease and putting up with the White Lizard we follow him through the UK and off to China, and Depresso becomes more than a simple autobiog tale, branching out into a book that’s got sections of exquisite travelogue and what seems like a whole history of “mad medicine” as Brick finds himself swept along by the vagaries and ridiculousness of the modern British health system’s treatment policy on depression.
Anyone interested enough to get this far will most likely be aware of the other, recent book about mental illness; Daryl Cunningham’s quite brilliantly affecting Psychiatric Tales. Comparisons are inevitable yet somewhat unfortunate, because the books couldn’t be more different if they tried, the only thing they share is the illness. Where Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales was introverted and reflective, brilliantly low key, emotive reportage, Depresso is manic, vibrant, frenetic cartooning all done in first person, directly to the reader, a real fighter’s story of Brick’s struggle with, and more importantly, against the disease. The really impressive thing with both books, accomplished in radically different ways, is how well they manage to draw us into the world of the sufferer, to paint a vivid and utterly believable portrait of what it must be like.
(Brick’s manic cartooning at work – perfect for those terrifying moments of complete loss of control . From Depresso by Brick, published by Knockabout)
The art in Depresso has a feel of classic, old school British cartooning style, reminiscent of so much; Hunt Emerson, Viz, Leo Baxendale and many more, it’s all in the mix somewhere. The cartoony style, full of manic intensity like the page above really manages to get over that terrible feeling of losing control so well, but also keeps a lightness about it that’s unexpected in a book with such a terrible subject.
But Brick’s not afraid to mix it up, throwing in strange page layouts and visual effects where they’re called for. Sensibly though, these are used sparingly, as a counterpoint to the cartooning style, designed to make an immediate and very striking visual point. And it’s something that works quite brilliantly, keeping the visual attention sharp and focused, dragging the reader further and further into the work.
(The other aspect of Brick’s style in Depresso, where he switches page layout, or in this case, adds subtle visual effects to perfectly illustrate the moment of turning the corner, of a realisation that there is hope for the future. From Depresso by Brick, published by Knockabout)
When I started the book , I found myself slightly at odds with it, swept along with the fun of the cartooning, with the ridiculous nature of a man talking to his giant white lizard familiar and wondering why there just wasn’t enough misery. And then I slapped myself around a bit, accused myself of being a depression junkie and told myself that just because Brick’s ways of dealing with it, of rationalising it, of fighting against it, didn’t touch all those self pitying buttons I was expecting, it doesn’t negate the terrible times he went through in the course of his struggle.
And once I’d got to that point I started to relax into the book, appreciating the really funny stuff, the way Brick seems determined to ridicule himself, and by turns, the Depression. Sure, it’s horrible to suffer, it’s torture on those loved ones around you, but everyone has to find their own way of fighting it, their own way of saving themselves if they can. Brick’s way is to ridicule the problem, to rail against it, anger and comedy working together to rescue him from the worst of it.
(Near the end of the book, where we, the reader, is every bit as hopeful as Brick/Freeman that despite the regular slips, there’s hope and a future past the disease. From Depresso by Brick, published by Knockabout)
So by the time I reached the final chapters of Depresso, I was fully immersed in the struggles, right there with the author as he finally seemed to take those important first steps to recovery. Seeing him edge, closer and closer to what we laughably call “normal” was just as moving and triumphant as anything in Psychiatric Tales, but managed it with so much laughter, at himself, at the world, at the illness that you just can’t help laugh along.
It’s real success is all down to it being an eminently readable book, with characters you can’t fail to empathise with, whether it’s Tom/Brick or the ever-present, incredibly strong Judy, you’re with them every hard, hard step of the way. And when, at the end, there’s a glimmer of hope for the future, you share in the triumph.
Depresso is a great book, funny, angry, and overall, very uplifting and profoundly true.
For an in depth look at the making of Depresso, make sure you look at the director’s commentary we ran a few weeks back right her on the FPI blog.