Gutter Space #16: Cartooning through Delicate Subject Matters (Marbles, by Ellen Forney)

Gutter Space #16 by Leslie Salas

Cartooning through Delicate Subject Matters: Marbles, by Ellen Forney

Part of what makes cartooning such a powerful medium of expression is the ability to tweak one’s words and pictures to express tonality and nuance in a way that words and pictures alone cannot. This is most clearly illustrated when writers+artists(=cartoonists) cover delicate subject matters—such as Ellen Forney’s discussion of her bipolar disorder diagnosis in her memoir, Marbles.

Forney does not beat around the bush about her diagnosis. After giving her audience a taste of her constant mania, we get the slap-in-the-face news and it’s weighty implications. Once we focus on the image in the magic eye stereogram of “let’s take a look at the symptoms”—she emboldens the image:

How does she deal with this news? What does it mean? What are it’s implications?

At first she handles it rather well—and attributes it to joining “Club Van Gogh.”

And soon she runs away with the idea.

Forney draws herself in a typical manic fashion—surrounded by stars and bright emanata, she is excited and vibrant and full of life, jostling around, knocking things over, starry-eyes and happy.

But note the sword precariously perched above her. It’s not literally there. Damocles’ sword is just a metaphor, as are the stars and the swipes and the dotted lines and the squiggles. But all of those extra marks add meaning—they enrich the reading experience and clue the audience in on the internal happenings in Forney’s brain.

This continues on when Forney “revvs”  from neutral to high gear and gets swept away into becoming manic.

She draws herself as literally being swept away, when in reality the distraction and excitement is all figurative. The illustration is compelling and insightful  for those who have never experienced the highs of losing control while being manic.

The lack of control is dizzying. Even Forney’s eyes and face are starry and unfocused. She is a blurry whiz of energy, and we see that by how she’s presented herself on the page.

Conversely, we get the stark stillness of her plummet to depression.

She is an amorphous shape, wrapped in a blanket, laying on a couch.

The simple act of getting out of bed is a tremendous victory.

And still, panel by panel, with the tiny changes between them, it’s clear that there is a heavy weight of depression. It’s oppression, and her immobility. The panels lack detail and shading. There is no richness or depth during depression, and we get that through her illustrations.

Forney also covers some of the unforeseen side-effects of bipolar disorder, such as the awkwardness of telling family members.

And the frustrations of finding a treatment plan that works for her.

She uses humor as a buffer for the sensitivity and intense personal nature of her diagnosis. But what is more telling are the additions to her illustrations. She includes sound cues and a director’s “cut” for her disappointment. She turns herself into a pill bottle, surrounded by mountains of pills and an excessively long list of failed treatment plans.

And there is her sheer frustration.

The small illustrations in the background are more telling than anything else I’ve discussed. She uses each of these images as themes throughout her memoir—moods like rainstorms, a merry-go-round as a tool for discussing the various types of bipolar disorder, the constant emotional rollercoaster—we’ve seen these symbols before, so when we get to this panel on this page, we sympathize with her even if we haven’t experienced any of these ourselves (let alone all of it at once).

Marbles is a powerful account of a woman learning to live with a diagnosis and telling her story through the best tools she has available: her voice and her art. By putting both of those tools together, she expresses more than either could alone, resulting in effective storytelling about a sensitive and personal subject matter.


Leslie Salas (Photo by Ashley Inguanta)

Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.

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