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MARBLES: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me
by Ellen Forney (Gotham Books, 237 pages)

12/20/12



12/20/2012 - If, as it’s said, 17 million people in the U.S. have a depressive disorder, Ellen Forney should sell a lot of books. Forney is an artist who is both bipolar and bisexual, and her new graphic novel, Marbles, details her journey for the four years after her diagnosis. In a nation that is increasingly bipolar, ranking the highest in incidence among first-world countries, this could be popular book.
 
If only it weren’t a graphic novel.
 
To thumb through Marbles is to get a sense of what bipolar means: light and dark, highs and lows, clear and sharp bursts of genius tempered with fuzzy and drab melancholy. A frenzy of black-and-white art, this is a maniacal book to the eye, but there’s a cogent, overriding theme: Are artists and writers, famously tortured beings, unproproportionally crazy when compared to the general public? And it is characteristic of creative types, is it detrimental — indeed, fundamentally wrong — to treat their disorders? “Was that even a necessary part of their brilliance?” she asks.
 
Forney examines the lives of artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edvard Munch and Sylvia Plath while sharing her own chaotic mental life, marked by lengthy bouts of highs, followed by crippling depression. The daughter of a lesbian who is “possibly cyclothymic,” she comes by her disorder honestly: There’s a long line of mood disorders on her mother’s side of the family.  
 
Forney’s own condition emerged when she was 30. She hied herself off to a therapist’s couch and embarked reluctantly on a course of treatment, afraid that the medicines her doctor prescribed would extinguish her creative spark. 
 
She quotes from the diary of Edvard Munch, the Expressionist who painted “The Scream”: “My sufferings are a part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. I want to keep these sufferings. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder,” Munch wrote in his diary. 
 
But to that, Forney replies, “But I don’t want to keep my sufferings. I don’t want to do art about my sufferings. My sufferings suck.
 
“Sometimes it seems like ‘pain’ is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration. Pain isn’t always deep, anyway. Sometimes it’s awful, and that’s it. Or boring. Surely other things can be as profound as pain.”
 
During the course of her treatment, Forney drew numerous self-portraits which are included here, as well as images that reflected what she was feeling. These are great and interesting, as is the prose of the book.
 
But the weighty subject seems belittled by the cartoon strips that comprise the modern graphic novel. And there’s even some bewildering and offputting gratuitious sex, meaning this book, with its Olive Oyl-ish cover, has to be hidden in a household with kids.
 
The main problem, though, is that the jumble of illustrations competes with the message, composing a shrill cacophony that makes the book hard to read. Graphic novels are great for, say, stories about flesh-eating zombies, and even for a comical book like How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, but there’s something fundamentally offputting about the style in a subject as complex  and serious as this.
 
Forney is a fascinating creator with a compelling story to tell, and we want to hear it, but with more words, fewer pictures. That’s not a compliment, of course, to an artist, and I say it reluctantly, hoping this one won’t lop off her ear. C  — Jennifer Graham





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