By Darryl Cunningham
Published Blank Slate Books
The brain. It’s the single, most complicated creation we know of in the entire universe. And that’s before we even consider the mind (because they’re not always the same thing). Somewhere in that gray mass that looks like it was sculpted from leftover, used chewing gum, in a mixed bath of electric jolts and chemicals, a mind forms inside that brain. Complexity within complexity; a level of complexity, in fact, far beyond anything we’ve built, no matter how clever, how intricate our design and engineering ingenuity. It isn’t surprising that something so complex can also be disrupted or damaged in so many different ways. What is surprising, perhaps, given that we all share the same biology, the same basic neural architecture, similar sensory input, emotional needs and desires, is that very often we, as a society, are reluctant to talk about what happens when those mental processes in that remarkable construct we call the brain go wrong. Darryl’s compelling graphic novel does something simple but remarkable – it talks about mental health problems. Moreover it talks about them in a quiet and yet consistent voice, not insisting, not judging, always in a clear and accessible way.
Regular readers will know about Darryl already – he was our first cartoonist in virtual residence here on the blog with his Super Sam and John of the Night strip and we’ve been following his work since then, including the development of Psychiatric Tales, as he posted up previews of the work as he progressed through the book. To say I’ve been anticipating reading the finished, printed work is an understatement. Not just because the subject matter was interesting – and it is – but also because it is another fine example of the topics that can be addressed (and addressed very successfully) using the comics medium.
The book itself may almost come as a surprise to those who watched the increasingly confident growth of Darryl’s style during his Super Sam run here on the blog, a developmental style which was marked not only by finer drawing but by some notable and impressive use of colouring techniques later in the run. Psychiatric Tales, though, is simple, stripped back, black and white (the art, the subjects, however, have many shades); the cover is fairly plain and clean – it doesn’t need to shout out to the browser – and the small, hardback design is pleasingly reminiscent of the sort of quality independent press work I’d expect from the likes of D&Q or Top Shelf. Despite the more stripped back, monochromatic approach (which feels quite appropriate, giving something of a documentary feel) there are still some lovely visual tricks Darryl works into the pages, sometimes the sort of device that works almost subconsciously, such as rain throughout pages on depression, giving way to sunlight coming out from behind the clouds in the background as Darryl talks of genuine hope for sufferers.
The book itself is arranged into several rough chapters dealing with various mental illnesses, from dementia and depression to schizophrenia and suicide, although of course, as Darryl suggest himself in the book, there’s often no clean line of distinction between illnesses and symptoms. Some, such as dementia, elicit both sympathy and fear; sympathy for someone struck by an affliction which isn’t their fault, fear at the thought that perhaps for some of us that’s what waits hidden in our own future, being slowly robbed of the aspects of the personality it took a lifetime to make until we’re not ourselves anymore, or, equally terrifying, of seeing it happened to someone we love.
Other mental illnesses, such as self harming or depression, are, perhaps, harder to understand; it is all to easy to dismiss sufferers of such afflictions as being ‘weak minded’ and simply needing to ‘pull themselves together’ and Darryl discusses patients he saw in his time working in the care home, some of whom had to deal with just those kinds of reactions from people around them, even from the people closest to them, the people they should have looked to for support. In fact, the reactions of those around a person are, in many ways, what is at the core of Psychiatric Tales. The reactions and actions of a sufferer’s family and friends are, demonstrably, of huge importance in helping them through their illness, exactly as such support would with a more physical ailment.
While Darryl discusses the obvious importance of clinical support and treatments and the advances in the understanding of the brain and how to use drugs and other therapies to treat problems, it is the quest for understanding and acceptance and support that seem foremost throughout the book. Empathy is woven throughout the pages and in the chapter on anti-social behaviour disorder that empathy is contrasted sharply against those with more psychotic traits who are unable to empathise with other people – and as Darryl points out only some of those with such behavioural problems are classified as mentally ill, some seem to labour in the misapprehension that actually being so cold and uncaring is actually a form of strength, rather than a weakness and think it is a positive benefit in pursuing ruthless, mercenary careers and this seems to be acceptable behaviour for them.
Given the subject matter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Psychiatric Tales is a bit of – ironically – a downer, with depressing material, but actually it’s nothing of the kind. And while obviously some of the cases (drawn from his experiences working in the mental health care system) are very upsetting (having to deal with a suicide… there aren’t really any words to adequately articulate the horror of such a situation) for the most part Darryl gently leads us to some positive aspects of his tales, from a woman, given breathing space and support, coming out from an abusive relationship and finding value in her own life again to a whole chapter on famous people who showed symptoms of mental illness but who enriched the lives of others, from Winston Churchill to one of my own personal heroes, the late, great Spike Milligan (fighting depression, stress and the after effects of shell shock from the war but still reworking the entire comedy map brilliantly).
Among the many awful things about any serious, long-term illness, be it mental or physiological, is that it can cut away at a person’s being, their identity, and so their individuality and humanity. What Darryl does, in a very gentle, caring way, is to remind us that behind these illnesses, drugs with odd names and medical terms and cases are people, with thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears. They’re the people around us, people we know (and most of us will know someone who matters to us who has had to deal with mental health problems, I know I have); in fact some of them may well be us. We may have come a long way since the days of Bedlam (or even the vast Victorian asylums) but there’s still too much stigma attached to mental illness in our society.
Darryl concludes the book by showing not only could it be any of us who find ourselves needing this help and empathy, he shows exactly how he himself needed it as he found himself moving from carer to sufferer. It’s immensely touching, very emotional, very human, very honest work, shining a light on a subject which too often we shy away from (and yet as with most problems, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes to understand and so deal with – just look at the good Terry Pratchett has done recently). It’s also one of those rare books which not only tells a strong, emotional tale, but which may also do some good in our society by raising the profile and increasing understanding of mental illness. I can see this easily taking its place alongside respected works like David B’s Epileptic. It’s a book you really should be reading. It’s a book you should be telling others to read. And you should talk about it.