Art about sadness, Dylan Horrocks

Out of the Woods: A Journey Through Depression and Anxiety
Brent Williams (Korkut Öztekin illus)
Educational Resources, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473390068

American cartoonist Keiler Roberts, whose comics have eloquently documented her own struggles with mental illness, recently wondered on Facebook about the usefulness of her art: “I think some of the best books about depression aren’t necessarily helpful during the process,” she wrote. “Is there any art… about depression or grief that has been helpful to you?”

Brent Williams’s and Korkut Öztekin’s graphic novel Out of the Woods is a valiant attempt to answer Roberts’s question in the affirmative. A deliberate mixture of personal memoir and self-help guide, its primary purpose is therapeutic.

Before depression derailed his busy, high-achieving life several years ago, Williams had spent decades working as a community lawyer, supported victims of domestic violence, and produced legal resources (posters, videos and comics) for people in vulnerable situations. So when he began keeping a journal on his struggle with mental illness, it’s no surprise that the urge to help others took hold: “I began writing as if I was helping someone else. In reality I was still doing it for my own healing and understanding, but this did give me a sense of purpose, which in itself was encouraging.” As he explains on his website (www.outofthewoods.co.nz), when Williams decided to turn these writings into a book, he chose to use comics because “when my depression was at its worst I couldn’t read. I was too exhausted to focus or concentrate on words, yet this was when I most needed good information.”

To provide the pictures, Williams searched online, eventually finding Turkish artist Öztekin, who had previously worked on RoboCop and Hellraiser comics (along with writing a scholarly study of manga as a tool for cultural resistance). Öztekin’s art is powerful: lush, textured watercolours that shift from dark, dirty, visual noise to bright, open panels full of colour and light. Öztekin has never been to New Zealand and one of the book’s more idiosyncratic pleasures is seeing Wellington depicted through that distant filter: the town belt, the waterfront, Cuba St buskers.

Occasionally, that filter turns familiar scenes into a kind of non-specific comic-book city, and even characters can sometimes seem generic. But I’m not sure this is accidental. Williams had initially planned a far less intimate book, centred on an “‘every-man’ character who shared information about depression but not much of his personal life.” And indeed, for the first half of the book, the protagonist and his past remain barely defined (a brief two-page sequence takes him from “husband and father … community lawyer and filmmaker” to isolation and “thoughts of suicide”). Eventually, however, Williams begins to reveal his personal story, and the book at last feels more like a memoir. But, even then, Williams isn’t here for revelation or catharsis. His focus throughout is on recovery: for himself and his readers.

A key message of the book is that this recovery is difficult to achieve alone. At first, Williams is determined to find his own way out of the woods. He resists medical advice, refuses to take anti-depressants, struggles to build a self-treatment plan all by himself. But, time and again, he is forced to acknowledge that he needs help. And so Williams provides his protagonist with an imaginary guide: an unnamed, white-haired man who offers information and support. This mysterious figure turns up whenever Brent needs him, gently chiding, congratulating, advising. He serves as the author’s older, more experienced voice to his younger self, but also as a personification of the book-as-guide: a watercolour and pencil companion for readers lost in their own dark woods.

Visual metaphor is central to many comics about depression and mental illness, from John Porcellino’s The Next Day to Ellen Forney’s Marbles. Out of the Woods is no exception. A bright Wellington street scene is abruptly bleached of colour and life, as Brent’s negative thoughts turn summer into winter. Friendly dogs become savage beasts. Minds are pictured as libraries and lungs as huge green trees. A frightening, hooded figure haunts the shadows: depression incarnate.

Williams’s central metaphor is, of course, the titular forest, introduced in an opening quotation from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood where the way was lost.” At first, the woods we see are indeed dark and disturbing. But, as the book goes on, they gradually take on another aspect: light filters in, and the woods become a refuge, a place of quiet communion with nature and inward contemplation.

This reflects one of the book’s most important themes: transformation. Just as depression can appear to alter the world around us, recovery requires us to change ourselves. In a moving sequence near the end, “something weird but wonderful” happens. Williams realises he has finally come out the other side of his illness, as if “through an invisible force field.” He is well again, and this realisation moves him to tears. But along with that joy comes a “strange ambivalence”. Depression has been his companion “for so long … made me suffer, turned my life upside down … but it also opened me up and showed me things about myself and my world I may otherwise never have seen.” Alongside the threatening hooded figure that haunted his darkest moments, depression has also given Brent a wise, patient, white-haired companion who has guided him through that necessary transformation. This book is Williams’s and Öztekin’s attempt to offer that supportive companion to any reader who needs it.

Have they succeeded? Will Out of the Woods be “helpful” to readers suffering from depression? Without clinical trials, the questions Roberts asked on Facebook may ultimately be unanswerable. But fellow cartoonist Carol Tyler, whose graphic memoir Soldier’s Heart deals with trauma, grief and loss, offered Roberts her own double-edged answer: “Making art about sadness, for me,” she wrote, “is both quicksand and necessary.”

Dylan Horrocks is Writer in Residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters.

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