This interview has been edited for clarity.
Discussion around mental health has been growing over the past few years. Though the graphic fiction medium isn’t one to shy away from such discussions, it’s always a treat to find a comic, like Look Straight Ahead, so focused on understanding this issue.
Penned by up-and-coming Canadian author, Elaine Will, this fantastically real journey follows high school student Jeremy Knowles through his struggles with mental illness, depicted in one of the freshest and most accurate takes on the subject in years. I was recently fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Elaine about her book and the importance of representing mental health in graphic literature.
How long did it take to write Look Straight Ahead?
Well, it took four years to draw the graphic novel, but it probably took more like ten years altogether to figure out how to write it.
Any specific reason?
I couldn’t decide exactly whether I wanted to tell a story about myself or a fictional analog, or whether I wanted it to be grounded in reality or more sci-fi. There was a version I started in about 2003 that was a lot more sci-fi and I was in it as a character and there were some completely fictional characters in it, and it was a prose novel, and I decided, “well I’m not that great at writing prose, so…”
Well you can draw pretty darn well, so that turned out well.
[Laughs] Thank you.
So where did the inspiration come from?
In 2002, I suffered a nervous breakdown in my senior year of high school—I guess I always call it a nervous breakdown, but I guess it was really a psychotic episode.
So it’s both a bit based on you and a bit based on a fictional analog as well?
Yeah, and I decided to do that in the end because a problem with writing autobiographical stories is there’s always the danger of alienating your friends or family if they don’t like the way they’re portrayed. I thought it would be best to fictionalize everything. So the characters—some of them are based on real people and some of them are composites.
You have some really great fantastical visual elements, you said it was almost a science-fiction story. Why did you choose to depict Jeremy’s mental illness in that way?
It was just the best way I could think of to describe it, like I had to have some sort of visual metaphor because it’s such a difficult concept to try and put into words—or even images—especially for someone who hasn’t experienced it. And I wanted to give an impression of what it was like for someone who hasn’t experienced it.
So you use the characters of ‘God’ and ‘Prinzhorn.’ Why did you use these characters as physical personifications?
‘Prinzhorn’ is actually German. He’s named after a psychiatrist from the early 1900s who collected artwork by mental patients. And I guess ‘God’ represents the euphoria I felt during my manic episodes, and this strange power that I felt I had been imbued with. The demons represent depression and the way that it constantly drags you down into a hellish pit.
Why do you think it’s important for mental illness to be portrayed in graphic fiction?
I think it’s very important because it’s a medium that’s very accessible, especially to young adult readers who may be struggling with mental illness. They probably need it most, and it’s important for them to read stories that represent what they might be going through. I’ve heard from a number of readers who’ve said they’ve had similar experiences, and that my book helped them. I’ve also heard from a couple of people who said they came to a greater understanding of mental illness through my book.
That’s awesome! That’s a real testament to the power of this art form we’ve got here. So based on that, what do you think is the most important thing that readers should take away from your book?
I would say, “There is hope and you aren’t alone, and if you have a story of your own, you might want to share it.” I understand that maybe some people don’t want to, but it’s important to open up discussions surrounding mental health, lessen the stigma, and perhaps even encourage better mental healthcare.
And now a question that I pulled from reading the back of your book. It says here that the book will ask “What does it mean to be crazy, anyway?” I was wondering if you could answer that.
Well, there’s a section in the book that I often read when I’m asked to do a reading, because I think that it sums it up quite well. It’s when Jeremy’s first admitted to the hospital and he’s having a conversation with Ian, the cool older guy that he meets there. Ian says, “Well, sometimes I think that you and I are the enlightened ones and everybody else is actually crazy,” because if you think of all the crazy things that happen in the world and this horrible capitalist system that we live in that favours the rich, and that sort of thing, I think the normal reaction is to perhaps fall into depression. It’s no wonder there are so many people struggling with depression, you know? In the difficult world and the difficult times that we live in?
That’s an interesting thing, because that’s such a dark statement, but at the end of the book, we know what you’re trying to have them come away with: that there is hope and you can make it better. When a story can tackle both sides of the story well, that’s sort of the hallmark of a good piece of literature.
I have been criticized for the ending of the book: that perhaps it was too abrupt. But, I didn’t want to tell anybody how they should recover, and my own recovery was actually every bit as swift. One thing I maybe should have included is that maybe you won’t ever be “cured” if you have a mental illness, but you can manage it, and you can live a “so-called” normal life.
So-called, yeah. That is, if you have access to the right sort of resources, which unfortunately many people don’t. I was really fortunate to have a really good psychiatrist who never argued with me about my delusions, because he knew that they were real to me. And I don’t think it is humouring to work with people with their delusions, you know?
To validate them.
Yeah. I think that’s important because you’re just going to make someone more upset if you try to argue with them.
To wrap it up a little bit, what are you working on now? Do you have anything in the works?
I’m finishing up a graphic novel called Dustship Glory, which is an adaptation of a novel about a Finnish immigrant farmer who lived in Saskatchewan during the 1930s and tried to build a huge steamship in the middle of his wheat field—this is a true story. I’m also going be working soon on a graphic novelette that my partner Mark wrote called “Arcade”, which is a metafictional story about an old, forgotten retro-videogame character called Axe-man. He’s a Viking warrior with an axe for a hand, and faces the destruction of his world because the cartridge chip is deteriorating, and he has to get the attention of a retro game character in the real world.
And as someone who’s breaking into the industry, what advice would you give to any people who are trying to get into the graphic fiction industry, or even just start making comics themselves?
Start making comics and exhibit at as many shows as you can. And one thing to remember about shows is that you might not always make money. I think Noah van Sciver said it best when he said “be prepared to be at a signing at a store where hopefully one person will show up and cough on you,” which is very true. Not every event will be like that obviously.
But you’re going to have your fair share.
You can follow Elaine’s work at http://lookstraightahead.tumblr.com/ or http://blog.e2w-illustration.com/ where you can find a webcomic version of Look Straight Ahead. You can also purchase the book on Amazon.
-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski