Whilst cartoons have been used to provoke and challenge popular opinions for centuries, comic books are largely associated with super heroes and light entertainment. They do address non fiction as well as fiction though, tackling serious subjects and personal experiences. The comic book or graphic novel format has been used to explore the Holocaust (Art Spiegelman’s Maus), the war in Eastern Bosnia (journalist Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde) and suffering from cancer (Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner). Marjane Satrapi described her youth during and after the Islamic revolution in Iran in the beautifully funny and moving book Persepolis, and her work is a particular influence on graphic novelist Darryl Cunningham.
Taking a place amongst these acclaimed graphic novels is Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, published by Blank Slate in 2010. The book leads the reader, in Cunningham’s distinctive style, through his experiences working as a mental health nurse, his reflections on mental illness, high-profile sufferers and his own mental health problems.
The descriptions of hospital conditions, illnesses and specific patients are simple and straight talking, making sometimes challenging accounts brilliantly accessible.
© Darryl Cunningham
Some of this accessibility must be attributed to the graphic format; sometimes an image can summarise a thought or convey an impression or feeling so much more effectively than words. But Cunningham must be credited for his thoughtful, honest and carefully constructed narrative.
A section mid way through the book entitled ‘People with mental illness enrich our lives’ discusses the problems of a number of well-known individuals including Winston Churchill and Nick Drake. By focussing on people familiar to readers in another context, Cunningham explores some of the ways mental illness can affect and shape people’s lives.
Cunningham’s description of his own mental illness at the end of the book explains his motivation to begin creating and promoting graphic novels, which contributed towards his recovery. It is an immensely personal and honest account of how his life was affected by mental health problems.
© Darryl Cunningham
Psychiatric Tales is a graphic novel that deals with sensitive subjects head on, and certainly leaves the reader with a personal and educational perspective on mental illness.
Darryl Cunningham has spoken at the annual Graphic Medicine conference, which focuses on medicine in graphic novels, and had a strip about the MMR vaccination published by the British Medical Journal’s student publication in March. Science Tales, (Myriad Editions, 2012) Cunningham’s recent graphic publication, contains a chapter on Electro Convulsive Therapy.