In a series of thematically connected stories, Luke Howard insightfully tackles the subject of mental illness. The stories range from straightforward, memoir-like narratives to science fiction to the absurd, but the threads tie together to form a comprehensive depiction of what it’s like to live with someone who suffers from depression. From absent fathers to robot mothers to drug-testing gorillas, each tale portrays a unique aspect or consequence of mental illness.
Howard’s line work is delicate and evocative, hinting at more than is actually there. He perfectly depicts the stress lines that fill faces whose owners are wrestling with unseen troubles. Several parallel lines float beneath Mother’s eyes, and her mouth is a mere upside down curve, but combined with her posture and the stray wisps of hair that rise up away from her head, these simple lines elicit feelings of stress and depression. In contrast to the mother’s eyes, which are two small dots, the child’s eyes are often wide open and expressive, with large irises, lending her an air of innocence and youth. The colour palette is a combination of taupes and pinks, a perfect balance representing both the banality of mental illness and its sharp shocks of pain and anxiety. Depression involves both mundane lethargy and acute suffering, and Howard's neutral taupe and neon pink capture both these aspects of the struggle.
One iteration of this struggle involves a journey that plays out the child’s fantasy of being able to rescue her mother from a torture chamber, of being able to rescue her mother from the endless torture of depression. The relief is short-lived, however, as during their escape they encounter their past selves—pre-torture chamber—again headed towards danger. A cycle is implied: the mother will always need to be rescued from the torture chamber because she will always be returning to it. Depression never quits.
In one of my favourite scenes, Howard imagines the origins of the mental illness. Instead of a factual explanation of chemicals in the brain and genetics, Mother’s parents are seen contacting a mysterious figure wearing a trench coat. “It’s just tradition,” they say; “it’s a family thing” to have a breakdown at a certain age, going back generations, and the mysterious figure can create the ideal kind of mental illness. This explanation perfectly captures the experienced incomprehensibility of depression, even in the face of sound scientific reasoning.
In another thread, we see the plain truth of the child’s experience. Howard expertly shifts his drawing style just enough so that it looks like a child has done the artwork. Figures are less defined and less anatomically consistent, shapes are simpler and and more amorphous, and pink lightning bolts surround the mother’s head. Sometimes her face devolves into a black mess of scribbles. This is where we hear the direct voice of the child explaining what it’s like to have a mother suffering from depression. The child compares her old mother, who was the “kind of mom that put real fruit roll-ups in your lunch every day,” to her new mother, who is “like one of [her] Ninja Turtle guys—not alive.” This is perhaps the most affecting section of the book, the section where we get the rawest depiction of life with a mother with mental illness. There are no fantasies or overarching metaphors, just the simple truth of bringing yourself up while trying to take care of a parent who is incapable of taking care of herself.
In contrast, a thread that depicts what is going on in Mother’s head is all metaphor. Mother is a robot who is supposed to be taking care of her passengers, but she is malfunctioning. The line work here is clear and angular; the text boxes are sharp rectangles. The control panel is detailed with dozens of orderly buttons and monitors. The “captain” of the robot keeps trying to find the right combination of buttons and levers to push and pull to make things right again, but she is endlessly interrupted by Kevin, an incredibly annoying character who never goes away; even when the captain kills him, he keeps coming back. Kevin is the voice inside your head telling you it’s hopeless. Kevin is the voice inside your head who keeps giving you useless advice. Kevin is the voice inside your head who distracts you just enough to keep you from solving your problems.
This comic contains a multitude of stories, each one contributing to the larger whole of what it’s like to live with depression by proxy. Near the end of the book, we even get a glimpse of the current relationship between child and mother. Rather than drawing these interactions, Howard uses photographs of mother and child to illustrate their conversation, during which they discuss everything from the family history of mental illness (we find out that Howard started experiencing the same symptoms at the same age as his mother and great-grandfather) to a meta-description of how Howard is going to end the comic (a farting hot dog). The use of photographs takes readers out of the story and places them in reality, reminding them that everything they have just read is true in one way or another. Indeed, Howard has harnessed the comic format and used it to depict the truth of mental illness better than most photographs could.
Writer/Artist: Luke Howard
Publisher: Retrofit/Big Planet