October 2005

Bill Baker


My Depression: A Picture Book by Elizabeth Swados

If I was a very different kind of reviewer, I'd begin by noting that Swados' depression is now my depression, too. But that's an easy, unfair, and cursory dismissal of what is essentially one artist's autobiography of her previously hidden depressive life. As one might expect of an artist of Swados' considerable abilities and grasp [she's a justly noted composer, playwright and director], her words and characterizations are often funny or deeply moving, or an admixture of both, all crafted with an eye towards making real and telling meaning from the given materials. It also proves to be surprisingly scathing in its portrayal of Swados and her difficulties coping with what amounts to a serious and persistent disability, which makes it more than a little bit of a brave, and perhaps even an important document in its presentation of the interior life of someone suffering from this condition. Still, as a piece of literature it is not without its faults, and some of those quite glaring, and of more import to the gutterslut's purposes, have direct bearing upon the question "What are the minimum requirements, art- and story-wise, to create a good graphic novel?"

In essence, I have to say that My Depression represents but half of what is needed to create a truly good, if not even great, sequential tale. What we've been presented with here is a very solid,. revealing and powerful examination of a life lived under a figurative black cloud of depression. I found the direct approach and personal voice Swados has chosen to use readily accessible and inviting to the ear, so to speak, and an essential to how this book operates as a narrative.

There's no playing around with her presentation of her once-hidden state, no coyness or masking it in any cute aphorisms or other mechanisms, however appropriate. Rather, the magic arises from Swados' own slow and sometimes unsteady transformation from someone who was publicly successful, yet privately struggling with a terrible secret which was literally darkening and decimating her life and career, into someone who has learned to embrace all aspects of herself, bright and dark, whole and otherwise, and who has finally learned to live her life with something akin to renewed faith and that fearlessness born of surviving serious trials with heart and soul intact. Fiction or not, thatís the kind of truth and life that can make for pretty powerful art. In the hands of a master storyteller like Swados, it can be the stuff careers and legends are built upon.

Ultimately, My Depression might well reach those heights in critical and reader opinion. Still, I feel for all of it's strengths, it is essentially a work hamstrung by one overriding fault, and for very specific reasons. Even worse, all of this could have been easily avoided with but a few simple adjustments. It all comes down to the simple fact that, as talented and skilled as Elizabeth Swados is, no matter how solid the language, basic structure and initial design and layout for a project like this, it really would have ultimately served the work itself better if Swados had either stepped aside and allowed a fellow artist [or even group of artists] with more deep seated understanding of sequential storytelling to do the final artwork. Alternately, her editor could have been a much harsher critic of the author's own pages, and asked her to rework them until the images and language all worked together, seamlessly and synergistically.

Now, I want it to be understood that it's not the specific style that Swados used to illustrate My Depression which I'm objecting to. I'm not whining on about "unrealistic art" or such here. I'm specifically concerned with the fact that her grasp of the visual aspect of the is so exceeded by her other storytelling abilities, and the nature of the material itself, that the final graphic novel suffers for it. Or, to put it a bit more simply, the storytelling's the thing. For instance, one of my all time personal favorite small press artists is the inimitable Matt Feazell, creator of The Incredible Cynical Man. [If you've never had the pleasure of making C-Man or Mat's acquaintance, I urge you to head on over to http://members.aol.com/cynicalman/ and check out a few of his mini comics--what the hell, they're like a quarter a piece! And his new trade is very fine, indeed.]

For nearly 25 years Matt has fearlessly [or, if memory serves, as he once suggested "stupidly"] gone where few others have with any real serious sense of exploration and fun: He's ceaselessly worked in a severely minimalist line drawing style, sometimes crudely, at other times elegantly rendering the titular character and his compatriots as simple stick figures while telling tales that are astoundingly simple, and silly, and strangely addictive. And I could point to literally several dozens of other artists whose simple styles are directly or even somewhat similar to Swados' lively, expressive and surprisingly detailed scrawl. Actually, aside from the sole fact that it's being used to tell this particular story, and in a particularly stiff manner, I could easily see myself enjoying her drawing.

But in this instance, directly because of the manner in which it's been deployed and employed in these pages, it doesn't work for me. And that's because, quite simply, Swados doesn't seem to fully comprehend the basic mechanisms and effects of this particular medium fully enough, or perhaps with enough instinctive understanding, to yet make full use of its arsenal in an effective and affective manner. This leads to her not only unintentionally wasting truly sterling opportunities to make, support, undercut her points in a truly effective manner simultaneously in the visual, language and combined narrative information tracks available to the comic book creator. [If that last statement seems confusing, please consider that when reading a comic book or cartoon strip, you're essentially "reading" two different stream of visual info, language and image, which each carry their own certain meaning and bits of info, before mentally combining them to create a third and new meaning. Sometimes it's simply to create the sense of "seeing" movement or that some span of time has somehow passed in an instant, but it can basically become anything, including a joke or an ironic statement, if crafted carefully enough by all those involved.]

Take, for instance, the following pages in My Depression wherein Swados, in the grip of the first real descent into the whirlpool-like downward spiral that the reader is exposed to in the book, is about to engage in some classic truly awful, senselessly cruel self-excoriating criticism of herself. She's built up a pretty good head of narrative steam by this point, especially in the language sense, when she submits herself to mental trial at the hands of all those she's forgotten, failed or somehow otherwise harmed:

Now, on the surface, I'll grant that this sequence works fairly well. However, in the hands of an artist more attuned to both medium and this particular script, this could have been a really climatic and wrenching moment, one that was so overfull of emotion and self-hatred and fear and anguish that only that blank page saves reader and Swados' character from being literally overrun and overwhelmed by dread. That sudden lack of simultaneous input, especially after carefully building layers and rhythms of meaning on several mental tracks, even for a relatively short time, would be fully redoubled and, in a real sense, that track's sudden "silence" would have been deafening and somewhat stunning. As it stands, yes, the scene does have real impact, but it is more of a "literary" one than it could be, and while effective, it does lack the real visceral impact and meaning if a more knowing hand had either drawn, or at least firmly guided, its visualization. As far as specific methods of increasing that impact, there's any number of methods an artist familiar with comics could do just that, including repetition, distortion, exaggeration and/or the juxtaposition of images, dialogue and such could easily achieve that heightened effect, and do so without sacrificing page count or even greatly altering the original script or the artist's intent.

This kind of unknowing under-utilization of the basic tools of the medium are sadly evident everywhere in My Depression. Ideas as simple as using differing weights or thickness of lines to subtly differentiate and separate a character's figure from the surrounding background, props and other figures in the panel is, quite simply, unseen here.

What this means beyond the simple fact that this oversight robs Swados' drawings of any real weight or sense of space is that the portrayal of herself as a character at the start of this harrowing journey is, in a real sense, precisely the same as at the end. Her self image, whether she realizes it or not is, literally, rendered in essential the same manner visually at the end as it was at the start of this book--and that confuses if not outright denies her own claim to have emerged from her ordeal altered.

She might be smiling, and even drawn in a more energetic and enthusiastic manner, but in a real and essentially graphic sense [and how would this not matter in this medium?] she remains unchanged, almost aloof from what's occurred in a real, albeit figurative sense. Perhaps this is some hidden, ironic message that Swados knowingly wove into the fabric of this book, a sly commentary upon our own natures and tendency towards self-delusion, but I do have my reservations concerning that possibility.

In the end, My Depression does certainly serve its purpose as an autobiography, and as a powerful document of the terrible effect depression can have upon the best of us. It also does work as a graphic novel, albeit in a less effective and affective manner than it might have; basically, what I see presented here is a great script presented in rough layout form for an unrealized, possibly classic graphic novel. Which suggests that the final and hard lesson to be learned here is that, while comics might be the most truly democratic and versatile of mediums presently available--all that's needed to make a comic is a pencil, some paper, a notion and a modicum of ability, after all--that still doesn't mean that everyone, not even an artist of real accomplishment and abilities in other media, will necessarily be able to make them well.

Which should come as no surprise, really. After all, sequential storytelling is a singular and demanding medium which, like all the arts, deserves to be approached with all the respect and forethought an artist can muster. And therein lies the real and lasting truth for anyone who'll take it, and that is the simple, undeniable fact that it's almost always the artist who, knowingly or otherwise, places limitations upon their chosen art, and not the other way around.

My Depression: A Picture Book
by Elizabeth Swados
Hyperion, $16.95
ISBN: 1-4013-0789-2