Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
When I first read Ellen Forney's work, I lived in Seattle. I was a punky angry kid with punky angry hair, and I read The Stranger every week, masthead to smut. Oh my god, I loved her comics so much. I forget which I saw first, maybe her self-portrait, the one with bright pink lips and a pen up her nose? Maybe something about being seven in 1975, or dying in a car accident while Led Zeppelin was on the radio? A spot-illo of lips or hands, boop-a-doop eyes? It wasn't one of her Lustlab illustrations ("Let's fuck underwater in space!"); those came later. Point is, Forney was one of my rock stars. Point is, I kept her clear, sure, bull's-eyed lines Scotch-taped to my notebooks, her graceful curvy bodies and mischievously-eyebrowed faces. Her gravity and humor.
Forney writes about (for example) sex, exercise, family, and the city in a light older-sister tone, demystifying with how-tos and anecdotes and sometimes just a shyly giddy smile. She makes it look fun, but more importantly she makes it look not-scary. I mean, sure I wanted to drink milkshakes with Enid Coleslaw. Sure I wanted to watch the sky with Pupshaw and Pushpaw. But Forney felt truer. She made me feel rad when I left my house in the morning, when I tried talking about sex with people. I remember my first day in my first apartment all to myself, unpacking my one pot and opening up not Deborah Madison but Forney's I Love Led Zeppelin, then flipping to the page where she says how to make soup.
I made soup, and it made the apartment smell good, and I even went to the mercado for chocolate to eat with it, like she said to. That -- sitting on the floor with my boyfriend, in-between boxes of books and books with mugs of soup and half a Hershey's each -- that's one of my first favorite "phew, hey we're adults!" memories. Ellen Forney's books warmed my first night home alone, for real.
So I was anxious to read Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me, which the publisher calls "a graphic memoir." Marbles is Forney's fifth book but her first novel-length story, the first you could really whack someone with, as my mom would say. Marbles is also two histories. The first is Forney's, about how and why she makes comics, and the second belongs to a group of artists -- Munch, O'Keeffe, Van Gogh -- who've struggled with manic depression in different times and ways.
The book starts on a winter night in a tattoo parlor. Forney gets a gorgeous back piece with water and comics, kisses the artist inking her, then walks home through beautiful unique snowflakes. Everything is exponential and magical and perfect, and then a psychiatrist diagnoses her bipolar. That reveal feels just as abrupt in the book; on the one hand, the reader feels cheated, and on the other, well, so did Forney.
The biggest cheat was the snowflake, schmoflake. "My personality," says Forney-in-the-book, "reflected a DISORDER, SHARED by a group of people." But then, scarier, is the "so what do I do about it?" To her left floats a little ghosty shape -- a parrot covered by a heavy blanket, which is how the news made Forney feel. There's also a sun going behind clouds and a stereogram coming into focus ("YOU ARE CRAZY"). In different media or different hands, these four images (snowflakes, parrot, clouds, stereogram) would be too much at once, but in Forney's case, they trill perfectly. We get it. In fact, we want to bring her the soup she taught us to make.
As Forney's own story, Marbles is champ, continuing rock-starriness. It asks the big questions thoughtfully ("Who gets to be crazy brilliant, and who's just crazy-crazy?") and the small ones tenderly ("how do I get out of bed today?"). It's clearly a novel, meaning all the octopus's limbs are the right length: nothing seems clunky or extra, or a sequence not a knot. We hear stories about Forney's psychiatrist and Forney's mom, the women in her swim group and the people at her birthday, all live wire and even keel and always like we're next to Forney, chums on barstools. She's always on pace, and she never confuses her reader with her therapist. The book is lit through with an honest elegant urgency, especially the bleak stunner at the beginning of chapter four (which made me bright-eyed). Marbles is also very funny, full of punch lines; onomatopoeias; eager energy; and neat tricks, like the miniature people Ellen draws in corners, to navigate flashbacks and dodge straw men. There are doodles, and there is realism, kerpow!-style explosion, and blocked-out quotations. Everything jells.
Most thrilling of all is how Marbles synthesizes Forney's catalogue. The cover, for example, works twice. First for this book, the fruit stripe gum colors get it off the table and into the hand, the pictures of marbles jive with the title, and eventually the reader realizes the curly-haired woman on the front is Forney herself. It's that one summer her hair squiggled how her mind felt. Second, it works for Forney's art to date. Those who know her work will link those marbles to the clouds in "Wednesday Morning Yoga," a comic about crying quietly in yoga class. (They'll also recognize a drawing of her mother from Monkey Food, and Lustlab ads, and a poster collaged-in in from a party. Again, everything jells.)
Then comes chapter five, which shows the original cloud-marble sketch -- it's from a notebook Forney kept to keep herself functioning when the depression was at its worst. In that sketch and in "Wednesday Morning Yoga," the clouds gobble up more space than anything else in the frame. The person below is just a thumbnail. But on the cover of Marbles, the person is holding her own in the frame. She's looking up at the clouds. It's a great image, and it resonates with this book and earlier ones, and most importantly it shows Forney got out of that place. If I had to say, I'd say Marbles is part opera, part genius performance art. Who gets to be crazy brilliant? Ellen Forney does. Her book triumphs as a taut, kind, smart first graphic novel by someone recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is kind of insanely impressive, also as a launching pad for future work.
Forney's crazy brilliant, and she's brilliant even when she fails. The art policeman says a personal memoir about poles, written in linear time, is going to do that, and Marbles was an even bigger challenge because Forney finished it so soon after stabilizing for the first time. Critically speaking, this means some story arcs close too neatly, with mathematical logic instead of experiential nuance, and others are left dangling.
This is especially obvious in the research sections about the cost of all these prescriptions, in the ones about navigating conference and publisher relationships, which feel more like booklists than proofs, sometimes. And in the manic ones, where Forney whirligigs so happily through parties and photo projects and the reader, seeing that happiness, isn't so sure those highs should be lost completely. I loved reading about her tattoo, and if I felt cheated by the diagnosis I felt even more cheated when that arc -- energy going up, still and flowing water, gentle and fierce -- never really closed. I never once doubted Forney's eye, and I certainly never got bored. Just sometimes, I wondered if she felt crazy bipolar-crazy, or crazy because you can't be a self-sufficient artist and not feel that way, sometimes. This frustrated me as a critic, but as a reader and artist? It made perfect sense. Sometimes it felt like a mirror, like Forney was teaching me to make soup again.
Artistically speaking, any reader with guts and heart -- any critic too -- wants these "failures" because they mean Forney is triumphing. If the story did not fail like this, then it would be back under cloud cover, it would freeze-frame, which of course means it's not a story at all. To be clear, I don't mean Forney gets a pass because she was sick. I'm saying she doesn't need one, because this is a completely different kind of book. It's more urgent and nervy, breathless-ier. It's the story straight no moss, like Funes the Memorius if he saw forward too, or Michaelangelo if he wrote his while it was happening. Like Forney's future self says to herself at the end of the book, "Your life is shifting. You can handle it. I'm still you."
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
Mairead Case is a Chicago writer, editor, and teacher. Currently she is an MFAW candidate and writing fellow at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation. Mairead edits at The Chicagoan, Yeti, and featherproof books.