An illustrated primer on mental illness that builds to personal revelation.
Despite the title, most of these chapters are not traditional tales with narrative and characters. They are, instead, explorations of various psychiatric illnesses common in the wards where Cunningham worked as a health-care assistant. In his book-length debut, the author, who created the Web comics Super Sam and John-of-the-Night and The Streets of San Diablo draws on his experience with patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and other illnesses. Despite the darkness of much of the material—as reflected in the black-and-white drawings, polarities that the illustrator exploits to creative effect—the prevailing tone is one of compassion. As Cunningham explains in the introduction, this is “intended to be a stigma busting book…needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remains widespread in society.” Most of the text is similarly straightforward, but the art is more revelatory, as it illuminates brain patterns, brain disease and psychological conditions. Yet there are flashes of deadpan humor as well, particularly in the chapter titled “Anti-Social Personality Disorder,” in which the author relates how a condition that sometimes results in criminal behavior shares traits that society generally considers normal: “Selfishness, lack of empathy, superficiality, and manipulativeness…are highly valued in the worlds of business, politics, the law, and academia.” In the chapter titled “People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives,” the author focuses on a variety of luminaries—from Winston Churchill and Judy Garland to Nick Drake and Brian Wilson—who have struggled with mental conditions. “How I Lived Again” provides testimony on how the artist’s own mental illness led to his interest in the subject (as well as his employment in the field) and how his art proved crucial in his recovery.
The illustrations are compelling throughout, but the narrative is more powerful when it is more personal and specific.