Following Zainab Cheema’s recent comment that multi-dimensional currents of affect are released by the junctures of image-text and Adrielle Mitchell’s posts, which are always attuned to questions of political feeling, I have been inspired lately to think about the affective dimension of comics. I know that my own affective responses to comics differ from those I might have in response to other art forms: the visceral and the analytic dimensions of feeling are articulated somehow differently, alternating more rapidly and perhaps less distinctly between one another.

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I have also been thinking about depression lately since the long-awaited second installment of Hyperbole and a Half‘s depression saga was posted just last week and I recently finished Ann Cvetkovich’s hybrid study/memoir, Depression: A Public Feeling. There is a lot to love about this book but I especially loved its reflections on academic life, which “breeds particular forms of panic and anxiety leading to what gets called depression.” Working against the reductive psychiatric approach depression (which favors swift treatment at the expense of reflection on the broad spectrum of causes) Cvetkovich advocates an understanding of depression as a cultural and political phenomenon. She also calls for new forms of writing about depression that counter the mainstream depression memoir and challenge the status quo medical model. It made me wonder what forms of writing about depression have existed in comics.

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Some examples that come to mind are comics oeuvres like those of Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, and Adrian Tomine whose works are generally suffused with a depressive/melancholic atmosphere. But I can’t recall depression ever being addressed directly anywhere in their works. (Please correct me if I’m mistaken). Some more personal treatments of depression in comics include Elaine Will’s Look Straight Ahead and Allie Brosh’s (of Hyperbole and a Half) Adventures in Depression, both incidentally web comics. In French there is Gil & Gaston’s Ma Toute petite déprime et moi [My tiny depression and me] and Eléonore Zuber’s Lorsque je suis déprimée [When I’m depressed] both of which approach the subject from a humorous angle. One might reserve a special category for comics that feature depressed but heroic protagonists: Moebius’s Chasseur Déprime [Depressed Hunter, but also a play on the term chasseur de prix, bounty hunter] and Steven Struble’s Li’l Depressed Boy.

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Many artists struggle with depression and find ways to reflect their struggle in their art. For some it almost seems to be part of the creative process, a period of being stuck, cocooned, indifferent, asleep, before movement and creation can begin. One apparent difficulty inherent in writing about depression is that a pathologically depressed artist is unable to create, so the artistic representation of depression must always occur after the fact and from a different position, often a position that requires one to forget the depression ever occurred in order to remain functional in the world. However, the creative process involved in representing depression is also often imagined as necessary to the therapeutic process. Allie Brosh’s Adventures in Depression brings this dynamic into relief through its webcomic format; her readers only became aware of the seriousness of her depression in the wake of a six-month period of silence and non-productivity that took place between the first and second installments.

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In what ways is the comics medium equipped to represent the experience of depression and what are the comics you’ve read that approach the subject of depression in an interesting way?

About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

3 responses »

  1. The Hyperbole and a Half posting was really powerful, people have been sharing it all over the web, which is encouraging. This is a great question, Michael, and something for me to think about as I prep to teach Chris Ware this afternoon…

  2. Lucy Boyes says:

    There’s some great stuff about depression in Ellen Forney’s recent comic Marbles, which is more broadly about her experience of bipolar. And Noah van Sciver’s The Hypo gives a neat depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s depression (and the grisly 19th century treatments for it) – I wrote up a review of it recently: http://www.consequential.net/2013/sad-comics-reviewed-the-hypo-the-melancholic-young-lincoln/

  3. This is gratuitous self-promotion, but you might want to check out this anthology of short comics about depression that I put together with some of my friends: “Kinds of Blue” http://hivemindedness.com/kindsofblue/

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