Leigh Nicholson interviews Ellen Forney about her latest graphic novel.


Coming out as ‘bipolar’ to your close friends is difficult, so Ellen Forney just decided to get it all over and done with publicly. Her latest graphic novel, Marbles, is not only a coming out story, it is also her quest to analyse the links between creativity and mental illness. This entails her personally coming to terms with the fact that her natural ecstatic and manic highs and debilitating lows actually had a clinical diagnosis.

She admits, ‘one of my biggest fears was that people that I knew would revisit things I had said or done in the past and dismiss them, thinking I was crazy’. Since hardly any of the people around her knew of this diagnosis prior to the launch
of the book.

When she was diagnosed, Forney was thirty years old. The beginning of the graphic novel introduces you to the nature of her manic states – they are stressful, and loud, and unpredictable. It leaves you with the impression of how completely exhausting those euphoric highs are. But in bipolar disorder, those sleepless states of hyperactivity and over-stimulation are often countered by incapacitating lows – depressive episodes.

In Forney’s case, during her depressive moods were so all-encompassing that her mum would congratulate her for moving from her bed to the couch in a day.

Graphic novels, Forney says, ‘are read in an emotional-abstract way, similar to the way music is’, and thus it is perfect for depictions of mental illness. Ellen Forney recently interviewed Allie Brosh, a fellow cartoonist and prolific blogger at Hyperbole and a Half. She came out as having depression in 2011 and uses cartooning to make sense of her experience of mental illness.

Allie Brosh’s cartoons, like Ellen Forney’s graphic novel, use absurdist humour as a way to begin to talk about difficult and personal stories. Brosh recalls how during her darkest moments, she found happiness when she was lying on her kitchen floor and spotted a kernel of corn under the fridge. Just the mere existence of this shrivelled corn kernel, and how lonely it appeared, amused her.

Ellen Forney explains that her work complement Brosh’s, she says ‘she and I had similar goals in combining our sense of humour and a difficult, painful story. Humour in cartoons, as Forney points out, ‘is disarming, and so it allows the readers to be a little more relaxed, a little deeper in’.

She was tentative to start medication, because that the stereotypical image of an ‘artist with a mental illness’ was seductive to her. In Marbles, she writes ‘along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrifying preconceptions of what being a medicated artist meant’.

Through the course of the book, those romantic allusions are evidently extinguished. In the end, she praises the treatment she was given. Treatment took years to perfect, as it is a subjective process, which Forney documents in the book. One can conclude that the endurance needed to find the right combination of drugs is harrowing. Despite this, when asked if she wished she could never have experienced any of her mental illness, she was hesitant. ‘To be able to make sense of my own experience and my own pain, and turn it around to something that feels really positive and that’s helping other people, has given me an enormous sense of validation as a person’.