The trope of the tortured artist has long been held in popular culture; from Vincent Van Gogh to Virginia Woolf. A quick internet search finds a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to creativity and mental illness, a 2003 cover story in the journal of the American Psychological Association on “The ‘Sylvia Plath’ Effect,” and Christopher Zara’s controversial book Tortured Artists. Recent political events, particularly shootings by and of those with a history of mental illness, have brought this issue into the wider political and cultural consciousness, making an otherwise rarely discussed private struggle something debated by politicians, police, and social activists.
Against this fraught backdrop, two artists have produced accounts of their ongoing battles with depression and their careers as comic artists. In Sunburning, Keiler Roberts describes her life as a wife, mother, and artist in a series of witty vignettes illustrated with simple line drawings. In Nothing Lasts Forever, Sina Grace outlines the years after his first book, Self-Obsessed, was released, when he struggled to find and maintain romantic relationships and to forge the next step in his career. Roberts and Grace labor through the highs and lows of their respective mental illnesses and the roles they play in their creative work.
Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Roberts enrolls in a daytime wellness hospital. One panel shows a close-up of the clipboard on which she completes her entry survey. Under “State your goals,” she has written, “I want to get rid of the extremes and live in the middle. I want to be in control.” Roberts suffers from bipolar disorder, causing her to have intense highs and lows. For Grace, it’s extreme depression. “It’s almost immediate how quickly the numbness sets in,” he explains while depicting an empty silhouette of himself. “I learned to stop chasing intense experiences because even those began to feel hollow.” The majority of Nothing Lasts Forever details Grace’s online dating, failed relationships, and struggles with a stomach illness. One spread shows him looking up at a row of men’s headshots, like those on a dating app, all calling out “WHY WON’T YOU DATE ME???” Floating below and surrounding Grace are papers with lists of a partner’s ideal qualities, and he replies, “B/C NONE OF YOU FIT RIGHT!” In the background of these trials looms Grace’s depression, causing him to pull away from serious romantic commitment, though he craves it. Even his artistic success seems to fuel his deep well of sadness. “Why am I surrounded by love & support and still think about dying?” he wonders in an old drawing. He revisits that drawing years later and worries that the sadness has returned. “ACCLAIM DOESN’T FIX DEPRESSION” states a banner across a spread showing him writing, drawing, and smiling.
For both artists, mental struggles complicate their semiautobiographical work. Roberts considers its impact on her daughter Xia’s life, both medically and socially. “I used to look at Xia and wonder what she might have inherited from me,” Roberts writes over a panel showing her baby happily snuggled in a carrier. Later, Xia tells her mother that her cousin read her parts of her comic. Roberts thinks, “It would feel terrible if some kid told you something about your own family that you hadn’t known.” The fear floats above a bubble in which she imagines how this would go: “Your mom’s bipolar,” a young girl says to Xia. “What’s that?” she asks. “I don’t know, but it’s really bad.” The final panel on the page shows Roberts telling Xia herself, to avoid this imagined scenario. Talking about her depression with her daughter is hard, and is only made more difficult by her status as a creative professional.
Roberts suggests that the stories she presents on the page are drawn directly from her life. Grace, on the other hand, addresses the line between his character-self and his actual self, especially with regard to his mental state. “I never considered my own depression, mainly ’cuz I draw a comic book about real stories of a man dealing with real depression, and it looks nothing like mine…” is written above two figures facing each other, one the image of Grace we’ve been following for a hundred pages, the other a slightly more dejected version with a cartoon masked head, similar to the character he draws for the series Li’l Depressed Boy. Grace highlights the range of ways depression manifests, his own depression and his character’s being just two examples.
It’s not surprising that both artists grapple with exposing their illnesses, given how strong the stigma against it remains. Roberts includes a group of t-shirts with various mental illnesses printed on them. According to the narrator, “The website Bring Change 2 Mind sells these t-shirts with the intention of eliminating stigma.” In contrast, the next panel shows the view from Roberts’s bedroom window where a woman strapped to a gurney is being loaded into an ambulance. “Through our bedroom blinds Scott and I watched eight police officers apprehend and restrain a woman who had been shouting for 20 minutes. Grace also demonstrates a battle with disclosure. In the spread in which he first explains his “sads,” he writes, “I hate talking about it.” Images of people coddling him, strapping him to a hospital bed, and glamorizing self-medication demonstrate imagined reactions to his disclosure. Even the language I’m using now — words like “expose” and “disclose” — carry negative connotations.
Perhaps it’s easier to empathize with Roberts and Grace because the visuals they employ evoke diaries and personal notes. Roberts uses no color or shading in any of her spreads, only outlines. And Grace favors a scratchy, sketchbook aesthetic with minimal colors. His book also begins with a note showing an open book and the definition of “journal,” making a direct connection between Nothing Lasts Forever and a diary. Whether fictionalized versions or diaristic accounts, both books tell stories of accomplishment burdened not just by depression, but by the fear of sharing and discussing it. In creating these narratives, Roberts and Grace shed light on what it’s like to function with mental illness. It’s not a glamorous balance of creative fervor and sadness, as the story of the tortured artist would suggest, but a daily fight to function, create, and manage one’s life.
Sunburning is now available from Koyama Press. Nothing Lasts Forever is now available from Image Comics.