September 2011

Martyn Pedler


The Cockroach in Your Head

In the recent retelling of Pinocchio by Winshluss -- the French comic artist otherwise known as Vincent Paronnaud -- Jiminy isn’t the artificial boy’s pint-sized conscience. He’s an unemployed cockroach squatting in Pinocchio’s empty head, drinking himself sick.

The rest of the amazing (and almost wordless) graphic novel is full of stunning color, surreal beauty, and Disney-gone-wrong horrors, but Jiminy’s pages in Pinocchio are drawn in cramped panels of black and white. He tries to write a novel but ends up staring at the blank page that juts out of the typewriter like a mocking tongue. Later, imagining himself interviewed by a literary critic about his novel, he’s asked: “What could be more difficult and absurd than to define the void and its mechanics?”

Anyone who’s suffered from depression has found themselves flailing for metaphors to explain how it felt, to define the void. "My brain was full of static." "My chest was full of spider’s eggs." For Winston Churchill, it was the grim shape of the "black dog." There’s even the cliché so common we think it like we breathe air: "my heart was broken." For me, at my worst, it was the feeling that my organs had rotted away to the consistency of old, bruised fruit.

Wittgenstein once posed a thought experience about exactly this with his "beetle in a box": we can only see inside our own boxes, never anyone else’s, and so we can say we each have a beetle but who knows if we’re describing the same thing? I mean, who knows if they’re beetles at all? Maybe they’re some other shape altogether.

The Next Day is a new graphic novel about suicide, born from an animated documentary of the same name that’ll soon be launched online. Paul Peterson and Jason Gilmore adapted the interviews they conducted with four survivors of suicide attempts into monologues, and John Porcellino (of the long-running, award-winning King Cat comic) turned their words into sequential art. It begins with Ryan drinking antifreeze. Jenn falling unconscious after overdosing in a park. Tina coming home from a bar and hanging herself. And Chantel, finishing a bottle of pills, saying goodbye to herself in her bathroom mirror.

The stories we’re shown leading up to the suicide attempts are matter-of-fact, honest and bleak. Chantel says: “I spent a lot of time in my room. That’s just... what I did.” And Tina follows: “I don’t have a lot of childhood memories... but the ones I have are all good... pretty much…” She fades from the page as she says it. The four stories have common ground, but also smear into each other in unintended ways thanks to the transmedia blurring of The Next Day. Different fonts aren’t nearly as distinct as different voices, and the speaker’s name is hidden at the bottom of the each page. It makes this less four intertwining voices, and more a single mosaic of worst days, worst months, worst years.

Porcellino’s style is simple to the point of childlike innocence, but there’s a quiet sophistication at work, too. You can see it in his smooth visual segues, or the way he forces the reader to share the experience of staring blankly at wallpaper. He locks us out of important events, such as only showing the outside of a bar, panel after panel, until Tina finally leaves with the man we’re told will rape her. And there’s a heartbreaking page of a house at Christmas -- Christmas after Christmas after Christmas -- showing no sign of the abuse we know is happening inside.

That’s outside; what about in? As Porcellino translates their emotional states into ink, the four individuals warp as if seen through in funhouse mirrors. The “negative tape” of Tina’s thoughts reshapes her whole head as it unspools out of her. Jenn has a jagged spiral in her head, growing as it spins, its spikes becoming the edge of a broken drinking glass. As Ryan says of the voice in his head: “It’s a real voice... but it’s your own reality. We’re all living in our own reality.” Here we get to see that reality.

Hidden, the first graphic novel by Australian Mirranda Burton, is a collection of stories about her time as an art instructor to adults with "intellectual disabilities." (Her scare quotes, not mine.) On the very first page, she says that this position “rescued” her: “I stepped into a reality outside of the box and hit the ‘reset’ button. It was like opening a new tin of ink and rolling out a color I had never seen before.”

I don’t want to compare down syndrome and autism to depression, but these books do have something in common: the same techniques of internal, abstract excavation. Burton’s black-and-white artwork provides some truly superb acting for her unusual cast -- slumped postures, head tilts, averted eyes -- but it’s also littered with fantastical moments as she tries to understand her student’s hidden worlds. “Oh for those ten thousand wishes,” she says, “to see how you all see for just a minute...”

Her best guesses, though, are powerful. For example: the artwork of her student Eddie is comprised hundreds of small graphite marks, crisscrossing until the page wears through. Burton shows his language in the same way, filling Eddie’s speech balloons with these indecipherable scratches. As Eddie becomes more and more distant from others, these marks also cling to him like metal shavings on a magnet. Even time passing is expressed within the same vocabulary as Eddie’s pencil is sharpened smaller and smaller, down to a nub.

Less successful are when fantastical moments swim around her, instead of her students. The third story in the book, "That’ll Be The Day," concerns an autistic young woman and talented artist named Julie. Julie’s struggle with budget cuts and bureaucracy is heartbreaking, but when her obsession with ‘50s and ‘60s rock music causes Mirranda to hallucinate her own Elvis it feels like something from a quirk-heavy sitcom. And yet Burton can yank those moments back to emotional truth with the turn of a page -- as when Mirranda, overwhelmed with concern for Julie, sees herself drowning in the spinning vinyl quicksand of those same songs.

When Mirranda looks deep into Eddie’s eyes, there are no answers. She can’t see through the twin peepholes to whatever’s living inside, peering back from inside his head. All she sees is “a deep, dark mystery.” Burton should trust her art to do more of the heavy lifting, as these words diminish what we can already see. The same when she thinks about “how much I didn’t understand... and wondered if I’d ever stop asking questions.” The book itself, the one we’re holding, makes this sort of narration unnecessary. It is the question; unselfconscious proof of Burton’s curiosity and compassion.

The Next Day’s one false note is its ending. The "day after" sequences -- after the four failed suicide attempts -- are portrayed in convincing shades of grey. Ryan, Jenn, Tina, and Chantel are still haunted, still struggling, but in time they’re happy to be alive. But that’s not enough, so the book introduces a new narrator for a neat, comforting conclusion:

“Surviving a suicide attempt has to change you. It changes everything about you. Because at some point you have to come to terms with a very simple fact... you are not meant to be dead.”

I don’t mean to be glib, but… says who? God? Fate? Evolution? Does that mean successful suicides were “meant” to be dead? (I’m sure that’s a great comfort to their loved ones.) “Meant” is an enormous word, a word chiseled in stone, and it carries a weight that the stories in The Next Day refuse to support. It didn’t need this desperate grab for a happy conclusion. It was already inspirational -- not just because these four men and women are still alive, but that you’ve read their words. That their stories have been told.

My two suicide attempts were pretty half-hearted in retrospect, though I do still have the scars from the cutting that built up to them. Afterwards, I took a strange comfort in therapeutic clichés. I wanted more, though. I wanted tented fingers, and word associations, and tell-me-about-your-mothers, and most of all rorschach tests. I lied in therapy, constantly, hoping psychiatric x-ray vision could see through my words and into the swollen inkblot I carried inside me. That was many years ago, thankfully. The black dog or organ-rot or whatever other shape depression might take now doesn’t visit me as often, or for nearly as long when it does.

Why am I putting this in print? I don’t know. Maybe because the only way we’ll ever know what each others’ cockroaches look like is to try to explain our own, and pay close attention when others do the same.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.