Art of Psychiatry Society

Graphic novels and psychiatry by Dr Issy Millard
March 17, 2011, 6:24 pm
Filed under: Comics

(more from Thom Ferrier)

At long last, Comics seem to be being taken seriously and the struggle for ‘funny books’ to escape their geeky ghetto is over. A new school of academic criticism – “Comics Studies’ – has emerged and literary critics give the best graphic novels as much attention and recognition as they do the latest releases from celebrated novelists.

The last twenty years have seen a renaissance, driven by advances in technique, new understanding of the medium, and the realization that comics can be used to tell any kind of story. Indeed, it can be argued that comics might be the best medium for telling certain kinds of story.

The American cartoonist Scott McCloud, in his influential work of  criticism Understanding Comics offers an explanation for why this may be the case. He compares the experience of watching a movie, reading a book, and reading a comic.

When you see a film, McCloud says, you are entering a world where the creator has complete control. Every image and sound that is projected has been selected for you, producing an overwhelming and totally immersive sensory experience. When you read a book, by contrast, you are given words to interpret in your mind’s eye. How you choose to see those words is entirely up to you; the crucial part is the imagining.

McCloud sees comics lying half-way between the other two forms. A cartoonist, through the choice of frame, character, design, and line has the same control as a movie-maker. He can present a world and the narrative exactly as he wants you to see it. At the same time, explains McCloud, there is a crucial piece of magic going on as your eye passes over the page. In the gaps between frames, the  story is no longer dictated. Instead, you are imagining the connections that move the story forward. You are building the narrative in your head.

It is this combination of authorial control and the reader’s imaginative engagement that makes comics special. It is why we will believe that Superman flies, or that a dog like Snoopy can talk. It also reveals why we don’t believe it when we see the same thing happening on screen. The literalizing of a previously imagined wonder can only be disappointing.

It is not just stories about men in tights that benefit from this effect. Recent graphic novels like Epileptic (David B), From Hell (Allan Moore), and The Photographer (Guibert) have convincingly explored psychiatric themes. These stories are wildly different in intent and style but have a common desire to explore subjective experience. They also share techniques: the books frequently show jarring contrasts between reality as it is, and how it is perceived by their subjects; they slip suddenly into vivid depictions of dreams and fantasies; or they use tricks of rhythm and form to subtly unsettle, and surprise the reader, mimicking their subjects own experience

This kind of playfulness with time, reality and perception, is something that is only really possible in graphic narrative. When  combined with comics’ proven strength at portraying the fantastic, it explains why the medium offers such an exciting, and underexplored platform for exploring mental health issues.

What is so exhilarating is that the form is still very new. The rules are still being written. To offer an analogy: comics now stand where cinema stood at the dawn of the talkie.

Dr Issy Millard CT2 South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

This article was orginally published in the London Division March Newsletter.

1 Comment so far
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those comics look good and expressive and shows you’re not alone

Comment by Linda Campbell

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