Written by O'Brian Gunn
Sketches in Trauma: Restructuring the Mind Through Comics Creation
Mental health issues and trauma have started to become part of public discussion, something we can talk about openly both in real life and online without fear (mostly) of being seen as irreparably broken, shattered, hollowed out, or cast aside. Taking this one step further, comics and graphic novels have started to include characters and narratives that touch on trauma and mental health, which has done wonders for starting a discussion and helping readers and creators alike come to grips with facets of their own lives that have been impacted by trauma and mental health issues. Reading such narratives is one thing, but to create them from deeply personal experience, and do so in a way that’s wholly authentic, and share them with others is an act of courage. And it can be quite therapeutic, too.
The Graphic Memoir
David Small’s Stitches, Tom Hart’s Rosalie Lightning, Miriam Katin’s We Are on Our Own, and Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. These are a few examples of graphic memoirs, personal stories brave creators were willing to share with both friends and strangers alike. In Stitches, Small recounts the loss of a vocal cord and how his radiologist father gave him cancer. Hart shares his experience of losing his young daughter, and Katin revisits her escape from the Nazi invasion of Budapest after she and her mother faked their deaths. Rather than keep these mental turmoils to themselves in private, the creators instead chose to not only root them up, but do so through a public forum.
Comics artist, physician and writer, Dr. Ian Williams is the creator of Graphic Medicine, a movement that explores utilizing sequential art to revisit trauma with the intent of allowing creators to reframe troubling experiences. While one can visit a therapist to verbally discuss and attempt to make sense of sources of mental anguish, using words may not have the same effect or catharsis as using images and a narrative structure. So, in a way, comic book artists and writers able to see their words woven into images can provide themselves with a source of therapy.
Digging a bit deeper into this concept, narrative therapy is focused on the stories surrounding a mental health issue. Such stories are constructed from cultural, familial and social influences. Narrative therapy acts as a catalyst to externalize something that’s been internalized. Over time, a person can have difficulty differentiating him or herself from trauma/mental illness or a mental health issue. While an individual may identify as being anxious or depressed, narrative therapy is a way to separate the Self from the Experience. Creating comics is a way to unpack the mental suitcase, which can help people realize they’ve been “carrying around another’s luggage” by mistake, claiming it as their own.
Which Came First?
It’s common for creative individuals to be perceived as emotionally and psychologically sensitive, the old “tortured artist” trope, which can make creative types particularly vulnerable to mental illness and trauma. That said, you also have to consider that those with mental illness are often attracted to art and literature. Art therapy is a common treatment for those with mental illness. So, which came first: Art, or mental illness?
Either way, there’s no denying the emotional and psychological power of art. Even if you aren’t going through or trying to suss out a recent or deep-rooted tragedy, you can use art to plunge deeper into your current state of mind. Humans are multifaceted beings. As such, individual emotions can become twisted and chained together in a miasma that can only be properly (or improperly) sorted out by sitting with whatever we’re feeling and drawing, writing, inking or painting it out. That way, we have a more intimate overstanding of the roots that lead to the present fruit, as well as the psychological nutrients that allowed that fruit to thrive in the first place. Sometimes, a shallow comprehension just won’t do with us creative types; we’re skin-divers.
There’s no longer a heavy stigma on going to therapy or vocalizing your need or desire for therapy. Whether they realize it or not, comic artists and writers, professional and otherwise, can have a therapy session every time they sit down to create. Rather than write/create what you know, it seems as though it’s more productive to write/create what you feel.