SHOW TRIGGER WARNING manic depression, suicide


Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney

14th Mar 2014

Ellen Forney Marbles
Marbles is a funny, engrossing memoir about manic depression and the link between art and madness.

Ellen Forney has been published by Seattle’s The Stranger – check out her fantastic comics based on interviews with the likes of Margaret Cho and Tracy Quan – and acclaimed indie publisher Fantagraphics. Her success continues, with this memoir being picked up by Gotham (an imprint of Penguin) and nominated for an Eisner Award.

Forney was always a passionate creative type. She had highs and lows; periods of intense productivity followed by droughts. But isn’t that normal for an artist? Her therapist wasn’t so sure.

Concerned by her patient’s ‘jazzed’ mood, she referred her to a psychiatrist. Just before turning 30, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

A lifelong cartoonist, Ellen Forney was unsurprisingly afraid of the effect medication would have on her art. Besides, in her fantastic mood, the problem didn’t seem insurmountable. But after looking into the facts, she decided that remaining unmedicated could prove disastrous.

What follows is a fascinating exploration of the difficulties faced in trying different medications, and how the process of dealing with manic depression affects her work and relationships with others.

Marbles is an educational read, presenting the facts as Ellen Forney learns them. A page begins with the question: “What is a mood disorder anyway?”  and goes on to explain clearly and succinctly. An amusing drawing of riders on a carousel differentiates between the mood states.

The link between art and madness is explored, with the help of other artists and writers throughout history who suffered from mood disorders.The link between art and madness is explored, with the help of other artists and writers throughout history who suffered from mood disorders.

There is a comprehensive chart showing instances of their visits to mental asylums, suicides and suicide attempts. Forney notes that she has joined ‘Club Van Gogh’, along with Sylvia Plath, Georgia O’Keefe, Anne Sexton and many others.

She talks about her exceptionally high sex drive and impulsive nature, seducing a store owner and a woman she meets in a sauna.

She also depicts a sexy photoshoot she did with friends in preparation for a comic she made for Eros Comix. She is proud of her sex positive attitude, at one point reflecting that she could be a spokesperson for bisexuality.

Eventually, Ellen Forney reveals to friends and acquaintances that she is bipolar, and portrays their reactions in a humorous light. It’s interesting to see how differently people react.

Some reveal they have the same problem or are close to others who do. One man senses an opportunity for ‘confession time’ and admits he used to steal cars as a teenager. Happily, no one reacts badly or passes judgement.

It’s a lively book and Forney’s depressive phases are given much less space than the manic ones. She conveys them well  – one page features her in bed in every frame – without drawing them out and sacrificing the pace of the book.

Most of the drawings are stylised and done in monochrome blocks, but the style changes depending on what’s happening in the story. During a manic phase she decides to plan comics to make when she’s depressed (easier said than done, it turns out).

She takes lots of photographs and tells the story behind the shoots. These are depicted in a more realistic drawing style, though still very much her own.

Sketchbook drawings also feature: images she created when depressed. The different styles all help to add interest and variety to the story. There is even a “single-image stereogram” on one page, like the pictures in Magic Eye books.

Marbles is a remarkable take on a difficult journey, bringing Forney’s story to life in a highly entertaining and informative way.